JORDAN STILL LOOKS LIKE HE BELONGS

How’d he look? He looked sweaty. He looked bald. He looked bald and sweaty and muscular and quick. He chewed gum. He sipped water. He did that familiar jog after sinking a shot, with his head looking back over his shoulder, his big hands dangling toward the floor, as if to say, “Yep, it’s me, and I’m in town again.” Did he smile? I think he smiled. Yes. He definitely smiled.

How’d he look? He looked busy. He swiped a big right arm across a Ben Wallace lay-up try and smacked the ball away. The crowd went nuts. He reset his jaw. This was 20 seconds into his third debut as a pro basketball player. First statistic: one block. Yep, it’s me, and I’m in town again. How’d he look? He looked like himself. If this were the first preseason game of another Michael Jordan year, no one would flinch. People would say, “What did you expect?”

Except this was not just another year, this was his Lazarus moment, from the ashes of retirement, a three-year layoff. And now here he was, at age 38, the greatest player ever to play the game, suiting up alongside a 19-year-old rookie teammate, Kwame Brown, who was literally young enough to be his son.

How’d he look? I’m inventing a new word here. This is how he looked:

Michaelish.

Jordan: ‘I surprised myself’

“I surprised myself,” Jordan said when it was all over Thursday night. “My energy level was pretty good — I’m getting my legs back under me. I haven’t jumped in three years. I’m not going to try and touch the top of the backboard just yet.”

He was dressed in a tailored gray suit, black shirt, silver earring, tinted charcoal glasses. All the tones of a high-rise CEO’s office. For the game, he played 17 minutes. He shot eight times, made four baskets. Three of the four were jump shots with pump fakes.

So he still looks as good as he leaps.

There was a moment in the second quarter when he turned on the jets, hit a couple of shots, the crowd exploded — this was a Detroit crowd, remember — and he seemingly had the inside lane on every other racer out there. But a minute later he was called for palming — Jordan? Palming? Is that allowed? — and a minute later he was done for the night.

“I’m a rookie,” he joked about the palming call.

How’d he look? He looked smooth. He looked buff. He looked like a health club ad. And he looked lost in a forest of Washington teammates who haven’t a clue as to what to do with him. Richard Hamilton is not Scottie Pippen, Kwame Brown is not Bill Cartwright.

But Michael is still Michaelish.

Not that anyone should be surprised. For one thing, he has always been a specimen. For another, he doesn’t do things unless he’s ready. Like a diva who owns the key to the dressing room, no one sees him until he wants.

As Pistons coach Rick Carlisle said, “He is not one to make timid entrances.”

Then again, this was a preseason game against the Pistons. Not Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

“I’m on schedule,” Jordan said.

How’d he look? He looked content.

He never really left

About the night? It was packed, electric, and preseason games are never packed or electric. There were some 300 media credentials issued, a ridiculous number. The Washington Post has a full-time Michael Jordan reporter, and he was at the Palace. International news outlets were there. I personally sat at a desk spot that read, “The Pistons Welcome Mitsuhiro Nizuno, from Dunkshoot-Japan.”

Dunkshoot? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

But then, so is a Michael Jordan comeback. The truth is, he never really left. His spirit hovered over the NBA, his style spawned countless wannabes, and his commercials popped up during every break from the action.

He didn’t return out of nowhere. He just started playing again. He’s a big face, the biggest in the business.

On the other hand, the game was stopped in the first quarter so fans could hear President Bush speak about the war.

So there are bigger faces than Michael’s right now.

“How am I different?” he said, his hands folded professionally. “I’m wiser. I’m more patient. I’m more thankful. . . . When you guys see me play, you’ll see it’s for the enjoyment of the game.”

Is that the truth? Who knows — or cares? The fact is, there is one more fabulous player to watch in the NBA, and he carries everything he always did on his shoulders — for better or for worse — whenever he takes the floor.

How’d he look? He looked like there is no other place on earth where he feels this much at home.

Maybe that’s why he’s here.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. 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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