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Jack McCallum
November 12, 2001
In the first week of his comeback Michael Jordan shot poorly, passed deftly and launched a new era for the young Wizards
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November 12, 2001

Lift Off

In the first week of his comeback Michael Jordan shot poorly, passed deftly and launched a new era for the young Wizards

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Here we are trying to figure out how to keep sports in perspective, and along comes the Michael Jordan One-Man Traveling Band Magical Mystery and Coronation Tour. How's a nation supposed to remember that pro athletes aren't really heroes when Ol' 23 has returned again—pate glistening, tongue wagging, eyes blazing—to rekindle memories and rewrite history? No second acts in American life, F. Scott? If last week's sellout crowds, trans-global media turnouts and pregame hosannas normally reserved for players on the home team were any indication, the Air Dude is off to a helluva start on a third.

Despite shooting poorly (38.9% from the field) but often (22.5 attempts per game), Jordan used his myriad skills and masterful presence to help the Washington Wizards to a 2-2 record at week's end, their best start since the 1997-98 season. Suggestions that Congress confer a special commendation should be put on hold, however, considering the Wizards' 100-78 loss to the Pistons in Detroit on Sunday. So decisive was the drubbing that Jordan played only 22 minutes, scoring 19 points and grabbing eight rebounds.

Still, Washington appears to be better than last season's 19-win team—make that much better lest it be damned with faint praise—and Jordan is the reason. He is the main man for the Wizards ("a guy who's down there in the foxhole with us," as backup center Popeye Jones puts it), yet he is not really of them. He travels with his own trainer, his own security staff and a Wizards p.r. man of his own. He even has his own Washington Post writer, Michael Leahy, whose beat for at least the next six months is Michael Jordan. "Could you tell us, please, what it is like to be on the team with Mr. Michael Jordan, world's most famous athlete?" a Japanese television reporter inquired of the other Wizards last week.

Hmm, that's not such an easy question. These latest Jordanaires can give chapter and verse on the benefits of Michael's competitiveness and how their scoring opportunities have increased because he draws double and triple teams. On the other hand, they have no clue about what's going on inside the man's head. At 38 MJ is older, wiser, richer and inclined to keep company with a select few who are under orders not to spill beans of any variety.

"I'll talk about Michael when he tells me I can," says Tim Grover, the Chicago-based trainer who whipped Jordan back into shape and is now on Washington's payroll solely to take care of him. "Can't talk about him yet," says Fred Whitfield, a longtime friend whom Jordan, in his former capacity as team president, hired in May 2000 as assistant legal counsel and salary-cap expert.

Indeed, while we have seen a lot of Jordan over the past few weeks, we still know little about what he's thinking. He deftly orchestrates the huge, postpractice and postgame group gropes with journalists-he does not talk to reporters, by the way; he addresses the media—saying not quite nothing but not quite something, offering pronouncements that sound vaguely Biblical: If you put forth the effort, then success will be bestowed upon you.

At this early juncture the portrait that emerges of the suddenly captivating Wizards is one of a monarchy rather than of a hoops squad. Superstars in all sports are accorded special status, but Jordan's goes way beyond what even he enjoyed with the Chicago Bulls. He had already ascended into the rare air of legend—twice—and here he comes swooping back to earth again to lend a hand to a team whose second-best player is...who? The quick answer is third-year swingman Richard (Rip) Hamilton, who dumped 29 points on the Philadelphia 76ers in a 90-76 Wizards win last Saturday evening in Washington, but until then one could have made a case for journeyman Jones.

It doesn't much matter who Jordan's dance partner for the night happens to be, though. There is Michael and there is Everyone Else. Wizards coach Doug Collins, as knowledgeable a basketball man as there is, admits that he bounces pregame plans and in-game strategy off Jordan and credits Jordan's halftime rant last Thursday in Atlanta as being "100 percent responsible" for Washington's 98-88 win over the Hawks. Everything is viewed through the prism of Jordan. Of Wizards point guard Chris Whitney, for example, Jordan says, "He's my John Paxson and my Steve Kerr." Nice identity, eh, Chris?

One wonders: Won't a team with such a top-heavy structure eventually fall?

The answer: maybe not.

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