Wizards cure Jordan's spell

Fascination of game -- `an itch' -- lures star to make return at 38

Pro Basketball

October 02, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Michael Jordan tried many ways to fill the void left by his retirement from the NBA in the three years since he played his last game with the Chicago Bulls. From bringing down his handicap on the golf course to watching his three children grow up, nothing worked.

From the time he left the court at the Delta Center after hitting the game-winning shot to beat the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, Jordan found himself running on empty.

Becoming president of the Washington Wizards 20 months ago brought Jordan closer to the game, but he was still looking in from the outside. Even when he suited up for practice and saw that he still had many of his incomparable talents left, it only served to make Jordan want to play again.

He wasn't as hungry as he was itchy.

"Obviously when I left the game, I left something on the floor," Jordan said yesterday as he began his third NBA incarnation, this time as a member of the Wizards.

"When I retired the last time, I didn't say I was ready to leave the game. I still have, and my family understands, an itch that needs to be scratched, and I didn't want that itch bothering me for the rest of my life."

The comeback that began in Jordan's mind after conversations last winter with hockey star Mario Lemieux and became serious with workouts in Chicago in late spring will be taken to a higher level today when Jordan takes the floor with the rest of the Wizards for the team's training camp in Wilmington, N.C.

It is there that Jordan, 38, will be returning to his roots in several ways.

He will be playing in the town where he spent most of his childhood. Since announcing last week that he would donate all of his $1 million salary for this season to relief efforts for victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Jordan will be playing - give or take a few endorsement deals - for the love of the game.

And though Jordan said he doesn't expect to be the same kind of player whose moves became the stuff - and stuffs - of legend, he doesn't think the three-year layoff has greatly deteriorated the skills that made him a 10-time NBA scoring champion, a five-time Most Valuable Player and a player many thought as the best ever.

"I'm not walking into this season thinking I'm failing," Jordan, who signed a two-year contract, said at a news conference at the MCI Center. "When I step on the basketball court, I'm going to consider myself as trying to be the best player I can be. I'm walking into this thinking it can work."

Jordan said he was spurred during his second comeback - he first retired in 1993 - by what he read and heard from those who believed he couldn't do it. Among the doubters was Charles Barkley, whose own plans to come out of a one-year retirement never went very far.

Hampered along the way by tendinitis in his knees, back spasms and broken ribs, Jordan yesterday declared himself physically ready to begin what could be the most grueling challenge of his career. Jordan said that, unlike Lemieux, he plans to play a full 82-game schedule while conceding he will likely practice once a day during camp while his teammates are going twice.

"I have to be patient, let things come to me," he said. "I'm not expecting to score 40 or 50 points the first night. I'm going to have to work back into the intensity of the game. I'm not afraid to take on challenges. ... If I fall, I'll pick myself up and move on. If my kids get anything from this, it's that if you have vision about something, go out and do it."

There was a different feel already surrounding the Wizards. When the ticket booths opened at the MCI Center at 10 a.m. yesterday, a line snaked around the building. Reporters flew in from around the country, with many of them heading to the team's training camp at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington.

Wizards guard Hubert Davis, who followed Jordan by a few years playing for Dean Smith at North Carolina, said he understands how a team that went 19-63 last season has suddenly undergone more than the typical off-season facelift that also includes new coach Doug Collins and Kwame Brown, the NBA's top draft pick.

"Being in New York [with the Knicks] for a few years, I know what it's like to be a high-profile team," Davis said. "What we're going to experience here, what we're going to experience in preseason games, is going to be new for a lot of guys."

It's also going to be an adjustment for Jordan, who hasn't gone into a season with a losing team since 1987.

"I came from where you were expected to dominate and where you're the target," said Jordan, alluding to his run of six NBA titles in 13 seasons with the Bulls that ended when Phil Jackson left Chicago after the 1997-98 season. "Here, nobody's expecting anything.

"We're not expected to win 50 games. From what I've heard [from the media], we're not expected to win 30. It's a challenge for me, it's a challenge for Doug. It's a challenge for the young guys. I think we can win more than people expect."

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