True wizard, Jordan able to find reality in crystal ball

Pro Basketball

January 10, 2003

IN CASE THERE was any doubt, our long and storied obsession with Michael Jeffrey Jordan must continue.

Hail, St. Mike, savior of wayward NBA franchises.

Five weeks after a six-game losing streak sparked The Emperor to unleash a verbal assault on his underachieving team, the Washington Wizards now sit exactly one game above .500.

At 18-17, they are also riding a five-game winning streak heading into tonight's game against the Golden State Warriors at the always sold-out MCI Center, thanks to you know who.

Better yet, the Wizards clutch to their increasingly strong hearts the last, precious spot for the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Eighth seed, baby. Bring on the Nets or Pacers.

It's only January, you say? Precisely!

There is plenty of time for the team to achieve full-blown affirmation of everything Jordan said he wanted to happen for the Wizards. Why else did Jordan rip off those golf togs, pump some iron and announce his (latest) comeback? He wanted to do something special for the faltering Wizards. He wanted to help the kids grow.

So shame on any of us who sniffed around suspiciously, wondering if Jordan had purely selfish reasons for his third and so-called final tour.

He didn't want to car-pool the kids to school. He didn't want to wait around for more subpoenas and lawsuits from angry ex-lovers. Golf? Who's Jordan going to talk smack with in Palm Springs? Ray Romano? John Elway? No contest, not when Jordan can have Jalen Rose to victimize and harass.

Shame on any of us who hinted that his return to action was because Jordan didn't know how to live without the action, that he was diminishing his legacy because of the basketball jones that gripped him.

Shame on us who failed to understand that a mere mortal Jordan is still good enough to be one of the best players in the NBA - even on the verge of 40.

Years, that is.

And points, too.

This week, in the lull between more NFL shootouts and bungled officiating, some of us are victims of involuntary smiles. All it takes is to invoke the fresh memory of Jordan sticking 41 points to the Indiana Pacers in the Wizards' double-overtime win last week.

That was good enough to earn Jordan Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors and put another interesting twist in an already interesting farewell season.

Jordan has become a wily, ol' genius, working every angle, sparing himself unnecessarily wasted energy.

He used to float and dazzle; now he waits and strikes, like a cobra. It's a cerebral and physical efficiency that drives him and allows him to be so effective.

"Michael's our barometer," coach Doug Collins said after Wednesday's win over the Bulls.

Jordan, sick with a sore throat and flu, was sluggish in the first half. His teammates followed suit, and the Wizards couldn't stave off a young Bulls squad. At the start of the third quarter, however, Jordan came out and turned on the jets - for precisely enough time to spark the Wizards to a lead. It was Jordan who put on the cape again, but at least these days, Jordan finds a bona fide team supporting him, just like he wanted.

This Jordan swan song has a distinctly edgy feel to it. It is perfectly Jordanesque, because it lacks sentimentality and is all about winning, no matter the cost - whether it's his knees or the six-time champion image we have of him.

"He used to be able to go out and devour the game. Now, he understands he can't go out and win every individual battle, but he can help us win the team battle," Collins said.

"Michael wants to get this team to the playoffs. It probably doesn't rank up there with the championships, but to him it would be a special way to go out."

In fact, in the 19 games since Jordan said it was time for him to start, the Wizards are 12-7. The Wizards have backed off on pushing forward Kwame Brown, instead relying on a veteran starting unit to spark a turnaround.

With Brown coming off the bench and with injuries to rookies Jared Jeffries and Juan Dixon, the Wizards have solidified their lineup around veterans: Point guard Larry Hughes, forward Christian Laettner and guard Jerry Stackhouse are the main cogs, along with Jordan.

Earlier in the season, the Wizards could not establish a consistency or an identity with so many new parts - and so many players at disparate places in their careers.

Now, Collins said the Wizards are taking on a good feeling toward playing with each other. The Wizards' New Year's resolution wasn't to get above .500 or get in the playoffs.

"It was to come together as a team, to develop that closeness," said Collins. "Now we've been together since October, and you can see it starting to happen. Larry Hughes is blossoming. Jerry, when he doesn't have a good shooting night, is doing things defensively. We've been trying to get Christian to shoot the ball. That pump fake he does, no one's bit on that for two years. It's not working, and he's our best shooter, so we want him to shoot."

Jordan was looking for some new Robins to run with. He seems to have found some. That's why it's working. That's why Jordan was right, again. He should start. He should play more minutes, as many as he wants.

"I don't care if he plays 100 minutes a game, long as we win," general manager Wes Unseld said.

Unseld should not tempt St. Mike with such a suggestion. The Wizards are going to need Jordan for the playoffs.

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