INDIANAPOLIS — It wasn’t the way he chewed gum as he jogged out of the tunnel, nor the ease with which he carried the ball in his first lay-up drill, one-handed, effortless, as if putting a glass on a shelf. No. What convinced you the guy was back for real were those familiar beads of sweat glistening on his smoothly shaved head, exerting himself again, in basketball, after nearly two years away. His number was already retired and a statue erected in his honor. Now he stripped off his warm-ups to the familiar red-and-black uniform. The crowd exploded. It was like watching Superman burst out of a phone booth.
Look. Up in the sky. The world’s truly big stars have one thing in common: You can’t take your eyes off of them. And all day Sunday at Market Square Arena, whether he was shooting, passing, driving, hanging, grimacing, falling down — or even just sitting on the bench — that’s where your eyes were, locked on Michael Jordan. Was he smiling? Was he breathing hard? Was that really him, ducking his head, then pulling up high for a jump shot, quick as he ever was? Forget what the Chicago Bulls will pay this guy; every team in the league should kick in a Brinks truck. Jordan, in a single afternoon, has lifted the NBA to another level of interest.
“I’m back for the love of the game,” said arguably the greatest player to ever play it, 21 months after his last game, a hiatus spent mostly in the minor leagues of baseball. “It’s not financial. I’m still under my old contract. There’s nothing under the table . . . although I wish there was.
“I’m back because I missed it.”
How long, Michael, they asked, how long?
“I’m back at least until the end of the season. Hopefully longer. I want to help my team win.
“This is not a cameo.”
Well. Whatever it was, however long it lasts — and with Jordan, you never know — Sunday was a remarkable afternoon in the history of athlete-watching. Before a screaming sellout crowd, and some 400 media members
— at least 300 of whom had no idea they’d be here the day before — we saw Jordan’s skills refocus inside his 32-year-old body, like a photograph in the tray of a developer. He began with awkward shots. He missed his first six. He was out of sync. Then slowly, the shots got closer. He hit one, then another. He outjumped his defenders. He stopped running into his teammates. The tongue began to flop loosely from his mouth.
Finally, at 8:55 of the third quarter, he snatched the ball cleanly from an unsuspecting Rik Smits and exploded downcourt. The crowd rose as Jordan lifted to the basket, over two Pacers players, and finger-rolled the ball through the hoop. He landed with the hint of a smile. After all these months away, this is how long it took him — exactly 27 minutes and five seconds off an NBA clock — to return to a level no one else can touch.
Which is his own.
“Were you surprised he lasted 43 minutes in his first game?” someone asked Phil Jackson, Jordan’s coach, who, like the rest of the Chicago franchise, is now back in the big light.
“Yes,” Jackson said, “I was surprised. I told him, ‘Mike, I didn’t expect you to give me an overtime.’ “
Look. Up in the sky. Personal jet and 19 points
For the record, Jordan played longer than any Bull except Scottie Pippen. He survived leg cramps and fatigue and scored 19 points. Rusty? Sure. He took a third of his team’s shots (28), made just a quarter of them (seven), had six rebounds, six assists, three steals, missed all four of this three-point attempts and had no dunks. And his team lost to the Pacers.
So on a statistical level, it may not have been the greatest moment in sports. But it was certainly a Large One. From the army of media, to the Lear Jet that Jordan took to Indianapolis — for security — to the seven pages one Chicago newspaper devoted to his return, to the tickets for Sunday’s otherwise insignificant midseason game, which were scalped for up to $500 a pop, LARGE was the word.
How big is Jordan? The five corporations for which he is a major spokesman — including Nike and Quaker Oats — saw their stocks rise an aggregate $2 billion in equity last week, largely on speculation Jordan would return.
“So I guess I’m the CEO of those companies now, huh?” Jordan said. “I’ll tell you, none of it is trickling down to me. . . . I mean, beyond what I’m already getting.”
He laughed. In his black-and-white plaid suit, white shirt, black tie, gold watch, gold bracelet and trademark stud earring, he looked every bit the three-time NBA champion, league MVP, $30 million-a-year-in-endorsements legend he was when he left the game.
Which brings us to a key issue. Jordan may have answered the question of
“Can he return?” on Sunday — and never mind the jump shot, which will come, doing what he did with no NBA competition in two seasons is nearly superhuman
— but he still hasn’t answered, “Why did he leave?”
In his startling 1993 farewell news conference, Jordan was somewhat annoyed and looking forward to the serenity of life away from the NBA. He promised to “watch the grass grow, maybe mow it once or twice,” play with his kids, spend time with his wife. He said he had accomplished all that he could in basketball. He said he was serious.
Then what happened? Four months later, he signed a baseball contract, jumped right back into the limelight, the only grass he watched was the stuff in the outfield between pitches, and his family saw him less than ever. Now he returns to the biggest sideshow you could imagine.
Jordan is a lot of things; consistent verbally is not one of them.
“When I left the game, I probably needed a break from it,” he said Sunday.
“I meant what I said about my family. And they’re behind my decision. They know I need to be happy. But I found that I missed the game. I missed my friends. I missed my teammates. So I came back.”
Maybe. Rumors will persist that he was told to take a break by the league, before his habit of laying down gambling bets got him and the game in trouble.
Not that anybody cares at the moment. Something positive
Jordan seemed humble at his news conference. Relaxed. Self-effacing. He even joked that he left baseball and returned to basketball because “at least I know what I’m doing in this game.”
“It’s funny,” he said, “down in the minor leagues, all the guys wanted to play me in basketball. In Arizona, we got a gym and played pick-up games. And the more of them we played, the more my appetite got whetted. . . .
“I’m coming back to put something positive in the game. There’s been a lot of negative. Some of the younger players today are not taking the responsibility they have to the game, for the love of the game. They’re in it for the money and the business. I’m more from the era of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Doctor J. Some of those guys aren’t able to come back. I’m coming back because I can.”
Well. From an NBA perspective, that’s a grand slam. What could be better than this? Biggest star of the game returns to save it from itself.
Maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s just a cleverly calculated plan by a clever man and some clever agents. It was Jordan’s main adviser, David Falk, who issued Jordan’s press release Saturday, which read, rather arrogantly, “I’m back.”
Whatever. Time will tell if he can make the Bulls a championship team (it says here he can get them to the NBA Finals). And time will tell about team jealousies, about his 32-year-old legs and whether the NBA can afford Jordan, who, under the current pay scale, should get at least $10 million a year.
But for now, you ask whether his return is good for the game? Ask yourself this. If you know he’s playing, will you turn on the TV?