When he heard that Michael Jordan was coming back, Paul Pierce upped his off-season workouts from two a day to three—the third being his " Michael Jordan session." At his gym in Los Angeles, Pierce acted like a little kid again, pretending to shoot last-second jumpers over his idol. "The whole time I'm working out, I'm thinking, Michael Jordan, Michael Jordan," says Pierce, the skilled 24-year-old Boston Celtics swingman. "Michael sets the standard, even at his age. I'm not in there saying Vince Carter or Kobe Bryant."
Even during Jordan's three years in retirement, the league belonged to him. No one played like Mike, sold sneakers like Mike, drew ratings like Mike—delivered like Mike. Burgeoning stars, no matter how preposterously good, squared off for a tide that both elevated and diminished them: the Next Jordan.
Now Michael is back, dressed strangely in the blue of the Washington Wizards. Having exited a champion after each of his last six full NBA seasons, the player who was unassailable is a 38-year-old small forward on a middling team who hasn't played a league game in 40 months. For 82 days or nights this season, his tendons and hamstrings willing, Jordan will face younger men looking to challenge him one-on-one. Further, for the first time in a decade there is doubt about the outcome. No longer assured of athletic superiority, Jordan is the equivalent of Muhammad Ali going into the ring against a succession of George Foremans from October to April—or longer, if he can somehow outwit them.
For those who like a suspenseful plot, this incarnation of His Airness is going to be more intriguing than his first two put together. As we look ahead to his major bouts, it's important to remember that Jordan is not after mere moral victories. "I don't think he's coming back because he misses the game or to be one of the guys," Pierce says. "I think he's coming back to dominate again."
VS. BRYON RUSSELL AND THE JAZZ
NOV. 16 AT WASHINGTON
This reunion will immediately incite more debate about why Jordan couldn't leave well enough alone. He departed on a perfect note last time, the argument goes, swishing his last shot over Russell to win the 1997-98 NBA championship. But let's get one thing straight about that perfect ending. It was preceded by an obvious foul. If anyone of lesser stature had shoved Russell aside as blatantly as Jordan did, we all would have chuckled at his audacity.
Even Russell laughed it off last month in training camp. "Everybody's telling [Michael] he pushed off," said Russell, 30, "so he's coming back to redeem himself." Don't doubt, however, that Russell too is out to erase that last, posterized image from Game 6: There he is, hunched over and helpless, Jordan ascendant. A tenacious swingman beginning his ninth NBA season, Russell is the rare defender eager to challenge top scorers. If Jordan spins past him or bodies him away, Russell won't give up on the play. Especially now.
It will be intriguing to see whether Jordan, in the interest of self-preservation, develops a less levitational game, like those of his two fellow Dream Teamers on the Jazz, Karl Malone and John Stockton. Jordan struggled with a strained left foot during the preseason. Malone has missed seven games in his 16 seasons; Stockton 22 in his 17. "They play on the floor, and that's good," Utah coach Jerry Sloan says. "When you play on the floor, as opposed to playing in the air, you play with more control, and you're more likely to avoid injuries."
If Michael follows that model, Russell may deliver on the preseason promise he made regarding Jordan's next attempt at a game-winner: "I'll block it."
VS. VINCE CARTER AND THE RAPTORS
DEC. 16 AT TORONTO