Next Jordan comeback: knee surgery

Wizards' ailing star faces procedure that could end season

Return revived franchise

Injury's extent unclear

`there's something in there irritating knee'

February 27, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Michael Jordan's return to basketball after a three-year retirement hit a snag yesterday, when the Washington Wizards announced he would undergo knee surgery that might keep him out for the rest of the season.

Jordan, who turned 39 on Feb. 17, will undergo an exploratory arthroscopic procedure, perhaps as early as today, to determine the extent of damage to his ailing right knee, which was drained of fluid before Sunday's 92-80 loss to Miami.

"Michael's down," Washington coach Doug Collins said. "He's a competitor. What he's going to hear is, `Yeah, we knew he couldn't make it through a whole season' and `Why did he come back?' The whispers are going to start. That's the way it always works. Michael wanted to play every game this year. I was the one who said, `Michael, please don't play today.'

"But he said, `I'm going to play,' because that's who he is. He's down. He's a human being. I think sometimes we see Michael and his greatness and we don't understand the emotions and the feelings that he has. He loves to play basketball, and now this is taken away from him."

Jordan has been placed on the injured list for the second time in his career, requiring him to miss tonight's game against the Portland Trail Blazers and at least four more contests.

Jordan did not make himself available to comment yesterday, and, through a team spokesman, said he would have nothing to say until the extent of his injury is known.

"I think [the surgery] would give him hope for next year," Collins said. "I think he knows that if he didn't have this done, he wouldn't be able to continue to play. More and more, the swelling is coming back. There's something in there that's irritating his knee to make him have the swelling."

The injury comes in the midst of a season of change for Jordan.

He left his position as the Wizards' president of basketball operations last summer to resume a career that, at its prime, was one of the most celebrated in American sports history.

Jordan's presence this season has helped revive the Wizards, who finished last season with a 19-63 mark, the worst record in the franchise's 41-year history, including its 10 years as the Baltimore Bullets. The Wizards have already won eight more games this season than last, with 27 left to play.

The 27-28 team, which has lost five straight and seven of its past eight, is still in contention to qualify for the postseason for the first time in five years, tied with the Philadelphia 76ers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the NBA's Eastern Conference.

Beyond his on-court presence, Jordan, who is eighth in the league in scoring at 24.3 points per game, has restored a sense of excitement and hope to the previously moribund franchise. Each of the team's 28 home games at MCI Center has been a sellout, the Wizards are the NBA's best road draw and have appeared on national television 18 times this season. Last season, none of their games was televised nationally.

But Jordan, who also leads the Wizards in minutes played, has wreaked havoc on his aging body. His ribs were broken during a summer pickup game in Chicago, when he was evaluating his ability and interest in returning.

Jordan had missed two games this season because of his knee, Dec. 4 in San Antonio and last Wednesday in Detroit. However, he returned Thursday to play against New Jersey, and in Saturday's home game against the Heat, Jordan scored a game-high 37 points.

However, the next night in Miami, he could manage only nine points - the third time in his storied career that he had failed to score in double figures and the second time this season - and asked out of the game late in the fourth period, the point when his fans have come to expect him to take control.

Collins, who also coached Jordan in Chicago, said he noticed Jordan was moving stiffly two weeks ago when he reported to the team in Los Angeles after the All-Star Game.

After Sunday's game, Jordan acknowledged he was "getting old" and said he expected to have to take some time off to care for his knee.

Jordan, who signed a two-year contract before this season for the veteran's minimum salary of $1 million per year, also hinted after Sunday's game that he might not play next season.

"With his situation, we expect him to play this year," said guard Richard Hamilton, Washington's second-leading scorer. "If he decides to come back and play next year, that's a great thing for us.

"We're a young team, and we feel as though the guys that are on this team now are the future of this team. We know MJ's not going to be playing here the next five or 10 years, so in order for us to grow, this is the time to grow right now."

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