He will be back. History tells us that. So does the man who guarded him better than anyone in the NBA, who looked into his eyes night after night, feeling the heat of his competitive furnace. Three hundred miles from Chicago, where Michael Jordan was dropping a bomb on the sports world by telling the NBA good-bye, Joe Dumars was driving up I-75, on his way to see the team physician. His nose was stuffy. He had a slight fever. It was the day before the start of Pistons training camp, and that was the last place on Earth he felt like going.
“Right now,” Dumars said, fighting a cold, “I can definitely understand what Jordan is going through. Believe me. Yesterday and today, even I felt like retiring.”
This is the time of year that NBA players get the blues. They ask themselves, “Do I really want to go through this again? The training camp? The questions from reporters? The sweat, the pain, the pounding? Months of travel? Months of spotlight?” If you’re weary of the game, the week before preseason starts is a seductive time to quit. The NBA seems like the world’s biggest mountain.
And if you’ve been to the top of that mountain three times in a row . . .
Jordan, king of the mountain until Wednesday, when he retired at age 30, stunning the world, will be back. He will be back. I say that from the gut. I say that from everything I’ve learned about the best athletes in the world. They almost always come back if they retire early, because their whole lives have been about sports, the rush of victory, the anger of defeat, and they find the rest of the world isn’t as challenging, or, frankly, as easy.
So Jordan will be back, because he’s only 30, with a body from the planet Krypton. He can disappear for two years and be a better player when he returns. Jordan himself even admitted this, when he told the packed news conference in Deerfield, Ill., “Will I ever unretire? The word retire means I can do anything I want to do, right?”
He’ll be back.
And yet, right now, coming back is the furthest thing from his mind. And no one can blame him. He is a kid who has climbed every tree in the backyard. A teenager who has listened to every record in his collection. When Jordan asked his own coach, Phil Jackson — whose vested interest in Jordan playing is like a farmer’s vested interest in rain — “Phil, do I have anything left to prove in the game?” even Jackson had to pause and think.
“That’s when I knew it was the right move,” Jordan said.
Remember, this is not O.J. Simpson, who shone brightly but for dull teams. This is not Nolan Ryan, whose statistics far outspeak his championships. No. This is the greatest athlete to ever play the sport of basketball realizing he has every toy he can collect from it. Not only does he have three championship rings, he has them in three straights years. He has more MVP awards than mantel space. He has as many scoring titles as days of the week. And he has more money than you can store in a vault — most of it from endorsement deals, not basketball. He also has two Olympic gold medals from two different Games eight years apart. Even Mark Spitz can’t say that.
Spitz, by the way, tried to come back.
And so will Jordan.
I say this despite his words of good-bye to an incredibly large media gathering Wednesday, despite the fact that the story was played in newspapers and TV stations higher than Moscow, Mogadishu or other places in the world where people are actually losing their lives. You wouldn’t figure a story this huge might have to be rescinded one day, but one day, it will be.
“I thought about what George Brett said when he retired,” Jordan, wearing a tidy tan suit, white shirt and striped tie, told the media throng. “Brett said, ‘If you ride a roller coaster for nine years, don’t you want to ride something else?’ . . .
“There’s nothing left for me to prove. I can’t step out on the court and know it’s for no reason. It’s not worth it for me. It’s not worth it for my teammates.”
He is right.
But the condition is temporary.
This is not a fire that has been extinguished. This is more like a coal that has momentarily lost its flame. Jordan has been slapped by the death of his father, whacked by the spotlight on his gambling habits, and hounded into an Elvis- like seclusion. His desire for a breath of air is completely understandable.
But Magic Johnson quit, then wanted to come back and play. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar quit, then wanted to come back and play. Every boxer under the sun has come back after he’s retired. Kirk Gibson, Sugar Ray Leonard, smart athletes, accomplished athletes, rich athletes. It is a pattern that repeats. And at the risk of playing armchair psychiatrist, this, were I to envision it, would be the way things might unfold for Jordan:
He will wake up today and for many days to come feeling lighter, relieved. He may even sleep in. For a while, doing business will be interesting. He will
travel. He will speak to enraptured corporate executives. He’ll enjoy visiting family, having conversations that don’t have to end because the plane is waiting. He will make up for the emptiness he feels due to his father’s death. He will breathe easier.
And time will pass. And maybe he’ll make a quick ton of money in some venture overseas — be it playing basketball or teaching a Nike clinic or just cutting endorsement deals — but he will do it, because the money will be too lucrative.
And time will pass. He will watch a few Bulls games, and have his number retired, and maybe do some TV analysis, and he will go to the gym, keep himself in shape, and eventually, after many rounds of golf and tennis and other distractions, he will pick up a basketball.
And time will pass. He will wonder whether it’s still there. He will scrimmage against some old friends, maybe some current players. He will dominate, because at 30 or 31 or 32 you not only still have skill, you have smarts. The simple joy of playing will begin to stir again.
And time will pass. He will wait until he hears the voices that have always moved him in life, the ones that say: “You can’t do it. You can’t come back and win again.”
And that’s when he will make his move. Leaving on a high note
“I never wanted to leave the game when my skills started to diminish,” Jordan said, “because that’s when you feel the foot in your back.”
And yet, anyone who knows Jordan knows when you stick a foot in his back, he pushes back harder. Tell him no, he tells you yes. Tell him he can’t win two rings, he wins three. John Starks says he will shut him down in the playoffs? John Starks is buried. The media say he shouldn’t gamble, he says,
“Mind your business” and heads for a casino. The Olympic committee says he has to wear a Reebok logo during the Barcelona Games, he says, “I’m Michael Jordan” and throws a flag over the emblem.
He is the greatest competitor of his time and his game. You don’t just lose that. Sorry. You can’t.
“Right now, he’s looking at a season where he has nothing to gain,” Dumars, who knows him as both friend and competitor, said while riding up I-75. “He’s had three short summers. He had the tragedy with his father. He’s had all that attention for the gambling stuff.
“He’s done everything. And now he’s looking at a season and saying, ‘I have to do this again?’ . . .
“You know, Michael always told me when he left, he wanted to surprise everybody. And I’ll tell you this, if he comes back, he’ll want to do it the same way.”
Count on it. One day. As sure as his jump shot.
We’ll be waiting.