VS. JAMAL CRAWFORD AND THE BULLS
MARCH 1 AT CHICAGO
Jordan is racing against Bulls general manager Jerry Krause to see if he can construct a championship team in Washington before Krause builds another one in Chicago. Jordan hasn't said as much, but he doesn't have to. He claims he was forced to retire after the 1997-98 season because Krause declined to retain Jackson as coach, effectively breaking up the dynasty. At the very least Jordan wants to embarrass Chicago in each of the four Bulls-Wizards games (of which this will be the third).
Jordan's summer workouts in Chicago served the purpose of honing not only his body but also his patience. The development of young players will be the key to whatever success the Wizards have this season, and it will be up to Jordan to help his inexperienced teammates the way he has helped Jamal Crawford, the Bulls' 21-year-old point guard. When they played on the same pickup team over the summer, Jordan and Crawford went some 20 straight games without a loss. Jordan was so happy with Crawford's progress that he tried to acquire him in a trade. Crawford, in turn, was struck by Jordan's military approach to basketball. "Even when he was playing, his shirt was always tucked in perfectly," the 6'5", 190-pound Crawford says. "I came into the gym one time at 6:30 in the morning, and he was already there working out. The thing he kept telling me about my game was to just be simple. Be basic. Make the right decision."
In July, Crawford tore his left ACL during a workout and underwent reconstructive surgery. He talks of making a quick recovery and returning to the Bulls in February. If so, this would be his debut against his mentor. That—along with a sold-out United Center, a chance to show up Krause and the prospect of an easy win—will only deepen Jordan's motivation. No one channels emotions into his performance like MJ. Look for him to drop 40.
VS. TRACY McGRADY AND THE MAGIC
MARCH 8 AT ORLANDO
It will be late in the season, and Jordan will be weary, maybe exhausted, but look who'll be at the center circle to greet him: the 22-year-old McGrady, believed by many to be the best player in the East—pending Jordan's revival. "I'm going to play my butt off against him," McGrady says. "I'll forget who he is. If I don't, it's over before it starts."
This will be the fourth and final regular-season meeting between Jordan and McGrady. A playoff berth may be at stake for Washington, and the whole league will be paying attention. McGrady is nearly the athlete that Jordan used to be. He can jump high, he can run all night, and he is serious about every facet of the game—rebounding, passing, defense, scoring inside and out. At 6'8" he is two inches taller than Jordan. He should be quick enough to hassle Jordan on drives to the basket and long enough to contest Jordan's jump shots. Can Jordan overcome so much energy? For the player who made winning look easy, it is not going to seem easy anymore.
At the other end of the floor Jordan will have to guard McGrady or Grant Hill. If Jordan can rise to this challenge, his Wizards teammates will see the ultimate results of hard work and staying composed under pressure. That's why a matchup like this one with McGrady is crucial not only to Jordan but also to the franchise: Jordan can show the young Wizards what it really means to be like Mike.
"He's turned out to be a lot cooler than I thought," says 6'11" Washington rookie Kwame Brown, whom Jordan made the first high school player to be taken with the No. 1 pick in the draft. "Everybody talks about how he will jump down your throat whenever you make a mistake, but it hasn't been like that. He's been encouraging."
For Jordan—as well as his teammates, and those of us watching—the struggles of this season will clarify what makes him tick. Think about Jack Nicklaus winning the Masters at 46, Nolan Ryan throwing his seventh no-hitter at 44, a hobbled John Elway winning two Super Bowls after his 37th birthday, Ali knocking out Foreman at 32. Remember: Not one of them was as dominant as Jordan used to be. "I just want to enjoy this moment," says Jordan, "because I know it's coming to an end."