Don't listen to him. Listen to me. Michael Jordan does too want to come back—and he wants Charles Barkley to come with him.
I know, I know, Jordan is saying what he always says: "There's a 99.9 percent chance that I am not coming back." But trust me, you could march the Ohio State band through Jordan's 00.1% chance. What's more, don't forget something else he said last week: "I will never say never."
According to a source very close to Jordan, he is "90 percent committed" to making a comeback next season with the Washington Wizards, for whom he would play for the minimum $1 million to clear more room under the salary cap for a top-drawer free agent. The Round Mound of Sound, TNT analyst Barkley, would quit that gig and play for the minimum too, providing he can lose the equivalent of a ninth-grader. Having accidentally swallowed the MetLife blimp on his way to 337 pounds he's already down 30 pounds in the last month.
For some reason Jordan wouldn't return my calls. (Perhaps he lost my cell phone number.) Barkley said "No comment," but couldn't help adding, "Put it this way: It would take extraordinary circumstances to get me out of retirement." If Jordan isn't extraordinary, then Madonna is a nun. The source says Jordan faces two obstacles—"convincing his wife and getting out of ownership."
Unlike the NHL—in which Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux was allowed by the Board of Governors to retain his ownership in the club after returning to the ice—the NBA prohibits a player from having a stake in a team. Jordan reportedly owns 5% to 10% of the Wizards through Lincoln Holdings, which owns the Washington Capitals and a large interest in a few other toys. That makes it a little sticky but it's nothing his Greyhound full of accountants can't jury-rig, if he wanted to get back his stake in the team after he retires again.
Barkley and Jordan have been shooting and working out religiously; one report out of Chicago had Jordan working out six hours a day. He played hoops four times in six nights last week at the Gainey Village Health Club and Spa, near Barkley's house in Scottsdale, Ariz. "He looked 25 years old," said a health club employee. Why would he come back again? Three reasons. One, he sees Lemieux having the time of his life while proving he can still bring it. And don't think Jordan wouldn't love to slap around Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant like rented mules.
Two, he loves to have fun. And Jordan has the most fun when he's turning pro basketball players into soggy lumps on the court and hanging with his teammates afterward. He has always wanted to play with Barkley, one of his best friends in the world, and Barkley has always wanted to play with him.
Three, he hates to lose. As the Wizards' president of basketball operations, he's losing only slightly fewer games than the Washington Generals did. He doesn't want to wait two or three years to win. He wants to win yesterday. Has the NBA East ever been riper? Has the league ever been weaker? You think he's really having nightmares about Dallas point guard Steve Nash? All right maybe about Nash's hair but not about Nash's game.
In the last three weeks Jordan has unloaded Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland. He'll probably dump Mitch Richmond, now 108 years old, in the summer. That gets him a few million under the cap. With a good calculator, he might be able to sign a big-name free agent, like, oh, say, Chris Webber. You don't think Mr. Bored would sell his mother for a chance to play with Jordan? Not only that, but it also gets Webber out of Sacramento and back to Washington a city he played in and loved.
Don't start with the Why would Jordan ruin the perfect ending he already wrote for his career? That stuff is for sportswriters to worry about over their free lobster bisque. If there's one thing Jordan loves, it's a dare. The thing that makes him want to do this at 38 is the same thing that made him want to ride minor league buses at 30 and jump over picket fences at eight. To see if he can.