If Jordan Returns, He'll Be Marked


Saturday, April 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6



If Michael Jordan returns to the NBA, there's a 99.9 percent chance that every young whippersnapper in the league will be looking to knock a little of the tarnish off his legend.

At 38, Jordan would be a marked man among a new generation of players who were toddlers back when Jordan was pushing Magic Johnson and Larry Bird aside.

``The younger players have seen the Michael of old, and they want to go out there and say, 'Hey, we can attack him now,''' said Ray Allen of the Milwaukee Bucks. ``With Mike, he's dogged all of us for so long. We came in and we were young and he gave it to every single one of us.

``I think with the younger guys being at the top of their games now, it'd be a chance to kind of go and try to get him.''

The basketball world is abuzz over the possibility of a comeback next season by Jordan, the 12-time All-Star, six-time champion, 10-time scoring leader, five-time MVP and one-time minor league baseball player (during his first retirement from 1993-95).

He re-retired in 1998 after a storybook ending to his last game when he hit his final shot to give the Chicago Bulls a title-clinching victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

The Jordan comeback stories, which first surfaced last month when Sports Illustrated reported he was ''90 percent committed'' to returning, gained additional credence last week when Abe Pollin, the majority owner of the Wizards, said he had a ``gut feeling'' that Jordan would return next season to play for Washington.

Mario Lemieux, a friend of Jordan's, also fueled the speculation by again saying that he was ``sure'' Jordan will return.

Jordan, a part owner and the president of basketball operations for the Wizards, has stubbornly clung to the statement he made the day he retired from the Bulls _ that he was ''99.9 percent sure'' he won't play again.

But Jordan has been trying to shed several pounds, working out at health clubs in Chicago and playing pickup games with working stiffs and ex-college players. He's also dropped by to practice with the Wizards, a team so downtrodden that one of its players, Jordan acquisition Tyrone Nesby, was arrested in the locker room after a game against the Pacers in Indiana last week. (The charges, stemming from a 1995 assault case, were dismissed the next day).

Jordan publicly insists that practicing with the Wizards was no big deal, but that's the same thing the Miami Heat said a month ago when Alonzo Mourning began full-scale workouts even though he was expected to be out all season with a kidney ailment. Two weeks later, Mourning returned to the team.

Comebacks are a big part of professional sports, and the NBA has a history of them. Johnson did it with the Lakers in 1995, and Hall of Famer Bob Cousy made a brief comeback at age 41 with the Cincinnati Royals in 1969 _ seven seasons after he retired from the Celtics.

Jordan seems to be considering the idea seriously. In a conversation Thursday with AP columnist Jim Litke, Jordan said he was now only eight pounds over his playing weight and he pulled up his shirt to show off his midsection.

Asked how he plans to make up the difference against younger, fresher legs, Jordan cracked a mischievous grin.

``I'm smarter,'' he said.

Lemieux's successful comeback with the Pittsburgh Penguins this season after 3 1/2 years of retirement might have convinced Jordan he could make a comeback and perform at the level he would expect from himself.

Jordan told Litke he would have to be able to run the court at full speed for an entire game and be able to score in the clutch the way he did before.

Coming back as a player would require Jordan to sell his share of ownership in the Wizards. Once he did, he would be free to sign with any team in the league.

``Guys would obviously still respect Mike and try to play him tough. But who knows what he's going to be like, how effective he's going to be, that type of thing,'' said Latrell Sprewell of the New York Knicks.

It has been three years since Jordan last played, and the league has persevered through a post-Jordan hangover that it is only now starting to recover from.

The NBA has been eager to move the focus to new stars, younger players like Allen (25), Vince Carter (24), Kobe Bryant (22), Tracy McGrady (21) and Kevin Garnett (24), whose talents are perhaps equal to or better than Jordan's when he was their age. Jordan, after all, didn't win his first championship until he was 28.

There have been nights in the past 5 1/2 months when the league's new stars have looked positively Jordanesque. On any given night, somebody is as likely to score 40 or more points much more often than in recent seasons.

Players have scored 40 or more 80 times this season (through Thursday's games), nearly a twofold increase over last season when it happened 41 times.

It is questionable whether Jordan would have the stamina or physical capability to keep up with an entire new generation of players who can run faster, jump higher and, in some cases, shoot better than Jordan would.

If Jordan returned with the Wizards, he'd be joining one of the three worst teams in the league with a roster that has been depleted of nearly all of its high-salaried veterans as part of Jordan's rebuilding project in his role as team president.

The best remaining player on Washington's roster, Richard Hamilton, plays the same position _ shooting guard _ that Jordan would.

``I still don't know why he would come back. I mean, what does he have to prove? He's already the greatest player ever to play the game. Why bother? What's to gain?'' Sprewell said.

But there would be nothing stopping Jordan from signing somewhere else, perhaps in Los Angeles with the Lakers. That might sound farfetched, and it might come as a shock to Pollin, but consider the fact that Jordan has never backed off the statement he made during the 1997-98 season that he would never play for a coach other than Phil Jackson.

When Jordan left the NBA, he left at the top as the most widely know sportsman of his time.

That mantle has since passed to Tiger Woods _ a changing of the guard that must be hard to accept for a man like Jordan who probably still believes he's still the best basketball player out there. And that might be the reason Jordan hasn't slammed the door entirely on the possibility of a comeback.

Jordan himself asked that question rhetorically last week when confronted with the latest round of speculation.

It's a question only he can answer, and until he does so definitively _ that's 100 percent, Mike, not 99.9 _ the question of whether there will be a Jordan comeback will not go away.