MICHAEL JORDAN is waiting for a light to go off

Wednesday, September 5th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ Michael Jordan sits behind the wheel of a fire engine-red Ferrari convertible.

There are 70 miles (113 kilometers) on the odometer and rhythm-and-blues playing on the stereo. A black bucket hat is pulled low across his forehead, just above smoke-gray sunglasses. His fingers tap the wheel in time with the tune.

At that moment, it's impossible to decide whether Jordan is too old to come back to the NBA or too young to be wrestling with a midlife crisis.

``Nobody is pushing me,'' he said. ``I'll do what I want to do.''

Jordan promises an answer two weeks from now. Just two weeks ago, he told the Chicago Sun-Times his readiness to return was six on a scale of one to 10. Tuesday, despite losing all four of the pickup games he played that afternoon, Jordan racheted his rating up to seven.

In one sense, it was like releasing news on a stock just after the market closes. An hour earlier in Washington, the Wizards' deadline passed for season-ticket holders who put down a dlrs 500 nonrefundable deposit to come up with the rest of the money.

At first, Jordan seemed pained that anybody would make the connection. A moment later, he turned defiant.

``Business pressures have absolutely nothing to do with this. I could still say no,'' Jordan said. ``I could very easily still say no.''

Fear not _ unless you're one of those who fear FOR Jordan on this latest adventure. Despite sprinkling in a few more disclaimers, the comeback tour for the ages (some would say aged) remains squarely on track.

There is no other way to explain the grueling workouts. Jordan remains every bit as committed as he was back in April, when he first admitted his workout schedule was more than just a weight-control plan. The people around Jordan haven't seen him take a backward step since, despite cracking two ribs in one practice, fighting occasional back spasms and a recurring bout of tendinitis in his right knee.

The people who play against him might say the same, except they're not supposed to be talking. And the ones that have talked, despite agreeing to Jordan's request for a news blackout, talk less about a failure of will than conditioning.

One NBA veteran who attended the comeback camp last week let it slip that there were times when Jordan's game ``looked kind of like garbage.'' But that same pro was smart enough not to let his name appear at the end of the appraisal. Either way, Jordan appeared unfazed.

``I can still hit my jumper,'' he said. ``I can still draw a double-team.''

Lately, though, it seems like he's being triple-teamed by doubt. There was a rush of sportswriters warning Jordan not to mess with his legacy or the storybook ending he crafted in Utah three years ago.

Then, longtime trainer Tim Grover said the four weeks off to heal the cracked ribs made it unlikely his 38-year-old client would be fit enough by the mid-September deadline to come back. Last week, good buddy Charles Barkley pleaded with Jordan to call it off. That would be the same Barkley who vowed just last spring to come back alongside Jordan.

``He's the greatest basketball player who ever lived and he can't compete against that,'' Barkley said. ``There's nothing positive for him to gain by coming back. ... He's chasing his own ghost.''

Jordan replied, ``I'm not going to get into a war of words with Charles. He's too witty.''

But he couldn't resist giving as good as he got. Reminded that Barkley suggested part of his pal's motivation was to ``get his franchise out of dire straits,'' Jordan reminded everyone else that Barkley's appetite was always stronger in the buffet line than on the court.

``Charles never won a championship,'' Jordan said. ``He doesn't know what it's like.''

Jordan does, but right now that memory still seems distant. When he hatched this comeback plan in April, Jordan was counting on big-time help. He talked about stealing Kobe Bryant in a trade, or convincing a free-agent like Chris Webber to move to Washington on the cheap. He knows better now.

Jordan will have to make up the deficit between the Wizards and the rest of the league pretty much by himself. What he needs to find out is whether two more weeks of work are enough.

``I'm waiting,'' he said, ``for a light to go off.''