by | Sep 26, 2001 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

He will not be as good, or as fast, or as quick. He will still leap tall buildings, but one at a time. The dunks will be manly, but no longer magical, because magic, as any wizard will tell you, fades with strength. The rabbit will come more slowly from Michael Jordan’s hat. Now and then, he might need help sawing the lady in half.

Yet Jordan, 38, is returning to the NBA, after a three-season absence. And this time, instead of the Chicago Bulls, with whom he won six championships, he will play with the lowly Washington Wizards, a team he partially owned, supposedly runs, and, heretofore has failed to improve.

The question now — the only one worth asking — is why? Jordan is smart enough to know his personal copyright never expires, but his warranty does. His rust will show. His breakdowns will be more frequent. So, pourquoi, Michael, pourquoi?

Because, he says, he “loves” the game.

Wrong verb.

It should be “needs.”

There is only one explanation for Jordan’s return, and although it won’t come from him, it is nonetheless true. He needs this game the way an addict needs a fix, the way a drunk needs a drink.

Clearly nothing in the silk-suited business world, even at the penthouse level, can hold Michael’s interest, and no profit-loss challenge can match the rush of “You can’t take me!” from some young punk on the hardwood.

This is why he’s coming back, for the second time in six years. He needs it. The need is stealing his compass, making him ignore pleas from people he respects. And whatever narcotic lies within the game for Jordan — the physical challenge, the limelight, you name it — it’s bigger than logic. Has to be. When you risk your own legend, your own storybook ending, when you risk night-after-night embarrassment by younger guys who can’t wait to blow past you on the way to the hoop, you don’t do it because you want to.

You do it because you have to.

Can’t have a seat at that price

Meanwhile, as Jordan was determining his fate Tuesday, Chris Osgood, the Red Wings goalie, was having his determined for him.

The Wings, who suddenly have too many goalies, could not trade their not-so-long-ago favorite. And, business being business, they did not want to risk losing a cheaper alternative named Manny Legace in the waiver draft.

So after eight years, two Stanley Cups, and the second-most victories ever by a Detroit netminder, Osgood was tossed on hockey’s discard pile at the ripe old age of 28.

He is unprotected. Which means, come Friday, some other team can — and likely will — scoop him up. And maybe the biggest hero of the Wings’ last championship will depart the Motor City for almost nothing.

Here’s the kicker: He doesn’t want to go.

As recently as last month, Osgood told me he would swallow his pride and sit behind Dominik Hasek, the Superman of goaltenders whom the Wings acquired over the summer.

“If it was only for one year, I could deal with it,” he said. “This is my home. I want to stay here.”

That’s an amazing devotion. But sports is money and Osgood is expensive and the bench is no place for high-priced rear ends. So, barring any strange developments, Osgood, his devotion, and his nearly $4 million-per-year salary will be up for grabs Friday.

And his career in Detroit will come to a sadly quiet close.

All the world’s a stage

At first, there seems little correlation between Jordan and Osgood. One’s in basketball, one’s in hockey, one’s a flashy global superstar, the other’s a shy Detroit role model.

But look again. Osgood wants to stay on his stage. Jordan wants the same thing. The only difference is, Jordan controls his comings and goings. Osgood does not.

Both of them display a stubbornness that comes with great sportsmen, an unwillingness to accept even obvious circumstances.

Osgood would risk staying in Detroit even though, deep down, he knows it would never work. Jordan will risk coming back to the NBA, even though, by every reasonable account, it seems doomed to “B” status.

You want to shake both of them and say “Don’t you get it?” But I promise you, deep down, they honestly believe that, given the right chance, they could quickly get back to the championship moment, champagne burning their eyes, cheers ringing in their ears.

And that is the thing that ties most pro athletes together. Internal combustion. A stubborn sense that they know better than everyone. And who knows? In the end, maybe they do.

Jordan may be coming back and Osgood may be going, but they both prove this: No matter who may shove you around on the field, in the front office, or in the media, nothing, absolutely nothing, is as powerful as the push from inside.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760) and simulcast on MSNBC 3-5 p.m.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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