Having spent several months competing against a man he played with ( Charles Oakley), a man he recently drafted ( Kwame Brown) and a man he recently traded ( Juwan Howard), it's time for Michael Jordan, the planet's best-known gym rat, to confront his most formidable opponent: Michael Jordan. On Monday he postponed the anticipated declaration of his return to the NBA, but his decision to do so was reportedly made and an announcement was imminent as SI went to press. When the Washington Wizards' president of basketball operations—the tide Jordan will relinquish when he divests himself of his 5% to 10% stake in one of the league's most dreadful teams—does proclaim his Third Coming, he will set up a confrontation with his myriad accomplishments, with a legend as colossal as any in the history of sport.
Jordan will be 39 on Feb. 17, 2002, right around midseason, one fourth of the way through what many expect to be a two-year stint. He will play for a team that lost 63 games last season—20 more than he lost during his last three seasons with the Chicago Bulls—and that has made the playoffs once since 1987 He cracked two ribs in June, and since 1991 he has been icing his knees because of tendinitis. A generation of young talent ( Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady et al.) has cartwheeled onto the main stage that Jordan, championship rings on six fingers, vacated after the 1997-98 season.
It seems that ol' Baldy has only one tiling going for him: He's Michael Jordan. "Nobody in his right mind would doubt him," says the Dallas Mavericks' Ail-Star swingman, Michael Finley, who frequently guarded His Airness in summer pickup games in Chicago. "He may not be able to do all the things physically he used to, but he'll still be one of the best players in the league."
Even among those who fear that Jordan's comeback won't be triumphal, there's no suggestion that he'll conjure up images of Willie Mays's stumbling around the outfield in the 1973 World Series or Muhammad Ali's getting pummeled by Larry Holmes in '80. Jordan begins his season at 38, the same age John Elway was when he won his second Super Bowl, a year younger than Jimmy Connors was when he reached the semifinals of the 1991 U.S. Open, two years younger than Cal Ripken was when he homered in the All-Star Game three months ago. Robert Parish found work in the NBA when he was 43, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar scored 10.1 points per game when he was 42. True, both were centers who by that time weren't expected to run the floor, as Jordan will be, whether at shooting guard or at small forward, his probable starting position. To that end, Jordan seems to have gotten himself into superb shape, having shed at least 30 pounds to get near his last playing weight of 212, and he's as strong as ever.
Rust never sleeps, of course—Neil Young taught us that—and there will be nights when Jordan will look ordinary. He'll certainly be an All-Star and a dangerous scorer, any reduction in his quickness compensated for by his savvy. "Watch how much he'll score off that head fake," says Detroit Pistons guard Jerry Stackhouse, another of Jordan's summer playmates. "When a guy has almost 30,000 points, how can you not go for it?"
It goes without saying that as one of the few team athletes to have hired the coach he plays for, Jordan will be Washington's leader, able, with a single look or sharp comment, to persuade his teammates to run the offense through him. In the new era of legal zone defense Jordan will be smart enough to find space to get off his shot and accurate enough with it to be one of the league's best outside shooters, as he was when he retired. Should the Wizards from time to time play zone themselves—one can envision Jordan, ahem, suggesting that very thing to coach Doug Collins—it will help him ease the searing pain he sometimes feels in his knees. "The new rules will force players to use their knowledge to find a way to score instead of just their physical ability," says Mavericks assistant coach Donn Nelson. "And we all know that Michael has the alltime best basketball IQ."
Several intriguing questions remain, however. First and foremost: Will being merely another top player be enough to satisfy Jordan? He didn't address that or anything else on Monday, but the answers to other questions seem obvious enough to warrant educated guesses.
?Why would he come back? During Jordan's here-I-am-but-I'm-not-telling-you-what-I'm-doing dance of the last six months, he has hinted at the answer: for the love of the game. There's no reason to disbelieve him, though that's not the whole story. Does he crave the attention he didn't get as a suit? Probably. Did his almost virulent competitiveness force him back into jockstrap and Air Jordans? Probably. Does he have one more plan for torturing the New York Knicks? Probably.
?Should he come back? Why the hell not? For all he did for the NBA—from the moment he was drafted in 1984, milewide smile blazing, through the moment his 17-foot jump shot over the Utah Jazz's Byron Russell capped a second Bulls three-peat in '98—Jordan has earned the right to do whatever he wants. Hey, Mike, you want to come back as G-Wiz? Here's the mascot costume, dude.
There's a chance that Jordan will tarnish his legacy by playing badly. But we don't own the man's legacy any more than we own the man. Jordan clearly doesn't believe that time froze when he hit his last jumper. Unlike many pro athletes, he didn't limp to the finish line, play through much pain, endure repeated dead-end seasons or peer into the abyss. It's generally those athletes—Larry Bird comes to mind—who have a reason to quit.