Month into comeback, Jordan still stretching

Wizards star adjusting to up-and-down play, life with losing franchise

Pro Basketball

November 30, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

He has endured the longest losing streak and some of the worst shooting performances of his legendary career. He has battled a persistent case of tendinitis in his knees, as well as in his right wrist. He has watched some of his teammates on the Washington Wizards play as if they were members of the Washington Generals.

He has also had moments when he looked like, well, Michael Jordan. The game he haunted the Utah Jazz and Bryon Russell by scoring 44 points. The quarter he shut down Paul Pierce of the Boston Celtics. And, most recently, the stretch when he scored 14 straight points for the Wizards in Wednesday's surprise victory over the defending Eastern Conference champion 76ers in Philadelphia.

Jordan's second comeback is officially one month old today.

When he takes the court tonight at American Airlines Arena in Miami, for a 7:30 game against the Heat, many of the questions that accompanied the 38-year-old Jordan into his 14th NBA season - the first played in a uniform other than that of the Chicago Bulls - have yet to be answered.

"I imagine it is an issue in some people's mind," Jordan said recently, when asked about whether his comeback has won over those who were against it or if it has made him any less a deity in the eyes of his former fans. "There's going to be pros and cons to every decision you make, but at the end of the day, I'm the one who has to be happy."

That itself remains an issue. Jordan had been painfully diplomatic about his team's play, at least in public, until a 19-point loss Tuesday in Cleveland pushed him over the edge. Then again, since this is the team he assembled as its president of basketball operations for 20 months, how could Jordan criticize himself?

Asked if he is handling the experience of playing on a losing team better than he thought, Jordan said, "I knew I could be patient. I kind of had a good idea of this [happening], maybe not as bad as I thought. I thought the guys would catch on a lot faster. It's going to take a little bit longer."

Looking for `challenges'

In truth, Washington's 4-10 record indicates that his presence alone has not lifted a perennial losing team to the level many had hoped. His own inconsistent performances, not to mention those nagging injuries that led to Jordan having his right knee drained earlier this week, suggest that age is catching up with him as it has other athletes past their prime.

Yet Jordan has created enough of a stir and has demonstrated enough of the abilities that once made him among the greatest players in history to silence many of the skeptics, at least for the time being. He also realizes that players are trying to make their own reputations by taking him on, something few even considered doing years ago.

"Me personally, I don't take it as a personal confrontation. They may, but I don't," Jordan said. "You look for challenges every single day. Put me as a challenge? They should. As a young player, you should look for challenges. I look for challenges every time I step on the court because I know someone is throwing darts at me."

The biggest challenge for Jordan remains being a decent facsimile of his former self rather than merely a shell. Twice this season, Jordan fell into three-game shooting slumps that became almost painful to watch. Both times, he got himself out, most recently against the 76ers in Washington's 94-87 victory in Philadelphia.

Though his shooting touch was streaky in an 11-for-27 performance, Jordan finished with 30 points, seven assists and six rebounds. There were some who believed that Allen Iverson, the league's reigning Most Valuable Player, was so distracted trying to outplay the five-time MVP that he seemed set on beating the Wizards all by himself.

Good impressions

Philadelphia coach Larry Brown, an unabashed Jordan fan with similar roots going back to the University of North Carolina, took a shot at those who have tried to quash the comeback with headlines such as "Stale Air," as appeared in one of the New York tabloids after an erratic opening-night game against the Knicks.

"You guys are idiots," Brown told the media assembled at the First Union Center on Wednesday night. "Here's a guy who hadn't played in three years. I hear people calling him a punk and saying he shouldn't come back. He controlled the game. Because the team hasn't won, they're putting the finger right on him. I don't see them putting the finger on a lot of other guys when their teams haven't won."

For the most part, Jordan has been bulletproof when it comes to taking the blame for Washington's disappointing start.

As much as some of his younger teammates - in particular Richard Hamilton and Courtney Alexander - have had trouble adjusting to playing without the ball in their hands, Jordan has also been culpable, at times forcing shots and passes and being slow to react defensively.

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