A man cannot win when he confronts his own legend. Michael Jordan knows this better than anyone. His 21-month absence from basketball has only enhanced his greatness in our memories, and to live up to his larger-than-life image, he would have to have been more than just spectacular in his return to the NBA on Sunday—he would have to have been magical. He would have to have simply materialized at center court, a genie in black and red, capable not only of soaring over the Indiana Pacers for poster-perfect dunks but also of making the Chicago Bulls champions again with a wave of his hand, or perhaps a wag of his tongue.
But Jordan refuses to compete with his own ghost, and if that surprises some people, it is only because they have not paid attention to his hints. He wore number 45 on Sunday, the number he wore in his baseball fling with the Chicago White Sox organization, refusing to take his retired Bull number 23 down from the rafters because, he said, his late father, James, saw the last game he played wearing that uniform, and he wants to keep it that way. But the new number also seems to be his way of saying that this is a new era, a new Jordan, and that nothing he accomplishes or fails to accomplish in this new incarnation should have the slightest effect on our memories of the old one.
His written statement the day before the nationally televised Indiana game consisted of simply the two words "I'm back," and he promised no more than that. In time, we will ask more of him, and he will demand more of himself than the 7-for-28 shooting performance he delivered in a 103-96 overtime loss to the Pacers at Indianapolis's Market Square Arena. But on Sunday it was enough just to see Jordan's shaved head slick with sweat again and his tongue poking out on drives to the basket. He is back—not better than ever, not even as good as ever quite yet—just back, and for now, that is enough.
It didn't seem like it would be enough in the days leading up to Jordan's comeback. As the media and fans searched eagerly for confirmation of his return, Jordan did his best Howard Hughes imitation, becoming a recluse and refusing to utter a public word. That only heightened anticipation, as reporters and fans speculated on when he would come back and how effective he would be. As the rumors escalated, so did the expectations. "It was a little embarrassing," he said when he finally broke his silence in a postgame press conference on Sunday. "I'm human like everybody else. Everyone was treating me like a god."
Some news organizations got carried away in their pursuit of the story. At the Bulls' practice last Thursday at the Berto Center in suburban Deerfield, Ill., one reporter disabled the electronic gate to the parking lot in hopes of keeping Jordan from driving in without a word before practice. (Jordan heard about the maneuver, alerted the Bulls and had the gate opened manually.) On Saturday night the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis broke into regular programming to show the Bulls' bus arriving at the team hotel. Unfortunately, Jordan wasn't on it. He flew in on his private plane on Sunday morning and stayed at a different hotel from the rest of the team. After the game Indiana coach Larry Brown captured the manic mood perfectly. When reporters approached him, Brown said, "You guys made my day. The Beatles and Elvis are back, and you came to talk to me."
Jordan, of course, knew better than anyone how rusty he was after nearly two seasons away from the NBA, and he seemed to expect a difficult first outing. Like a producer opening a show out of town before taking it to Broadway, he chose to make his debut on the road against the Pacers instead of at Chicago's seven-month-old United Center, where the Bulls next play on March 24 against the Orlando Magic. "I certainly didn't want to go through this type of game at home," he said.
His decision to come back in this Sunday-afternoon game was fortuitous for NBC, which already had Chicago-Indiana on its broadcast schedule for 53% of the country. The network quickly expanded coverage to include all but the Charlotte and Salt Lake City markets, which saw the Charlotte Hornets-Utah Jazz contest. According to preliminary Nielsen figures, Jordan's return was easily NBC's most watched NBA regular-season telecast in five years, swamping CBS's competing NCAA coverage. (Jordan insisted that neither the network nor the NBA influenced his timing.)
No one can accuse Jordan of choosing to work his way back gradually. He was in the starting lineup, played 43 minutes and, despite his ragged shooting, finished with 19 points, six rebounds, six assists and three steals. Moreover, he elected to make his reentry against the Central Division-leading Pacers and one of his fiercest antagonists, All-Star guard Reggie Miller, who clearly got the better of their duel, scoring 28 points. As the Bulls mounted a furious fourth-quarter comeback from 16 points down to force overtime, Jordan and Miller stopped the hearts of every Bull and Pacer fan, not to mention NBA and NBC executives. With the score tied at 92 and three seconds left in regulation, Jordan crashed into Miller, fouling him in the act of shooting, and the two went down in a heap. Both were painfully slow in getting up, and Miller suffered a right-thigh contusion, courtesy of Jordan's knee, and returned only briefly in overtime.
The Pacer fans, who had given Jordan a huge ovation when he took the floor, now booed him, but Miller was untroubled. "It was a good play because he knew he had a foul to give," Miller said. "It was just unfortunate that I got hurt on it."
"Playing your first game in two years against one of the best guards in the league is a lot to ask of any player," said Brown. "Michael might be the closest thing to Superman, but Reggie can make a lot of guys look like Clark Kent."