It's easy to look at Clark Kent and see Superman just beneath the surface, and that was the case with Jordan against the Pacers. Even though he shot poorly, several signs of the old Jordan were in evidence. His quickness hasn't left him; when he was isolated against a defender one-on-one, he had little trouble shaking free for a good look at the basket on his jump shot; and he was able to drive to the basket when he chose to.
Jordan's biggest problem was simply conditioning. One of the most remarkable aspects of his nine-year, prebaseball NBA career was his apparent tirelessness. "It would be the fourth quarter, he'd have about 40 points, and you'd look at him and he wouldn't even be breathing hard," says Chicago guard B.J. Armstrong. But on Sunday, before the first quarter had ended, the 32-year-old Jordan was bending over and tugging on his shorts, the universal symbol for fatigue, and in the overtime he developed leg cramps. Asked if he was disappointed that he didn't get a chance to dunk, Jordan replied, "I was cramping so bad I didn't really want to."
Not all of the adjustments Jordan will have to make are physical. He will also have to familiarize himself with a Bull team that is vastly different from the one he left. Armstrong, forward Scottie Pippen and center Will Perdue are the only current teammates who played on the Bulls' three title teams, and despite several practice sessions the lack of familiarity was evident, as several of Jordan's passes were fumbled by teammates who weren't expecting the ball. "We were really out of sync at times," said coach Phil Jackson. As Jackson pointed out, most of these Bulls are new to playing with Jordan, and one or two might be a bit in awe of him.
Toni Kukoc was clearly among the awestruck on Sunday. Kukoc, a Croat, left Europe to join the Bulls two years ago largely to fulfill his dream of playing alongside Jordan, only to see him retire before they ever took the court together. Kukoc's dream came true Sunday, and he seemed unable to do much except stand around and watch. He finished with seven points in 27 minutes. "Toni really had a bad game," Jordan said. "I did all I could to talk to him and help him relax."
Now the challenge for Jordan will be to get to know his teammates while he is finding out about himself. There were moments on Sunday that were reminiscent of his prechampionship days with the Bulls, when he was a brilliant one-on-one player who was not always sure of when to take matters into his own hands and when to get his teammates involved. He eventually developed an almost perfect instinct for such decisions. On Sunday that instinct wasn't always there.
The rest of the regular season will be an interesting experiment for the Bulls. They will try to improve their playoff position (at week's end they stood sixth in the Eastern Conference with a 34-32 record) while they help Jordan hone his game. On Sunday, for instance, Jordan seemed determined to take his jump shot even though he was struggling with it, because he needed the practice, like a pitcher in spring training who keeps throwing his curveball even though he can't get it over the plate. It would probably take a full training camp for Jordan and his new Jordanaires to feel completely comfortable with one another. Although Jordan returned with more than the rest of this season in mind—"I don't want to make this a cameo," he says—it's far from definite that he's back for the long term. He says he has no assurances from Bull owner Jerry Reinsdorf regarding his hope that Pip-pen, Armstrong and Jackson will receive contract extensions or renegotiations, and says he hasn't been promised, implicitly or otherwise, a new deal of his own. His current eight-year, $26 million contract expires after next season. "There's nothing under the table," he says. "I wish there were. I didn't have any stipulations as far as Scottie or B.J. or Phil. I asked, certainly, for my own knowledge. But I didn't request."
Jordan emphasizes that he returned "for the love of the game," and he sounds like a complete innocent when he insists he has done no behind-closed-doors negotiating with Reinsdorf about his future with the Bulls. But he is much shrewder than that, and it is hard to imagine that he would make a long-term commitment to a team that isn't a realistic championship contender. Once a new collective bargaining agreement is signed and the moratorium on contract renegotiations agreed to by the NBA and the players' association is lifted, expect Jordan and the Bulls to begin talking about a contract that would pay him quite a bit more than his current deal.
Yet Jordan never sounds more sincere than when he says, "Eventually I just decided that I loved the game too much to stay away." Ironically, his baseball teammates were instrumental in helping him develop the itch to put on the Bulls' uniform again. "When I was down in the minor leagues, every guy wanted to play me in basketball," he says. Jordan obliged some of the minor leaguers by playing pickup hoops with them, and in the process his passion for basketball was rekindled. At Sunday's press conference, he said of his baseball buddies, "Maybe they're like me. They believe they can be a basketball player like I believe I can be a baseball player."
For the moment Jordan is back to believing he is, first and foremost, a basketball player. It may be a week before he is the same basketball player he was two years ago, or it may be a month or a year. But for a little while longer maybe we should simply enjoy the knowledge that Jordan still loves the game and that even when he is at less than his best, the game still loves him back.