WHILE JORDAN HAS FUN, DUMARS GETS JOB DONE

The toughest defender Michael Jordan ever faced got up Wednesday morning and made breakfast for his son. Then he drove him to school. Then he went to the office, answered calls, did e-mail, and eventually picked his son back up at school and helped him with his homework. Joe Dumars is a few months younger than Michael Jordan. But he didn’t touch a basketball all day. He didn’t break a sweat until late afternoon, when he worked out on a StairMaster while watching CNN. In the evening, he put on a white cotton sweater and brown slacks, drove to the Palace, and spent the night in his suite, watching the game.

Jordan, meanwhile, followed the same old NBA routine, just like teammates 20 years younger. He stayed at the team hotel, took the team bus to a morning shoot-around, went back to the hotel, returned on the team bus a few hours later. He dressed with the other Washington Wizards in the cramped visitors’ locker room. When he emerged on the court, the place was two-thirds empty. It was an exhibition game, meaning nobody cared who won. Jordan was not a starter. He stood while his teammates were introduced.

You wonder why he does it. You wonder how, approaching 40, this can possibly be worth it to the greatest player in history, these empty nights, devoid of glory, no longer the athlete he once was, no longer on a team that can win anything that matters.

“What would you be thinking,” Dumars was asked before the game as he sat in an office as Jordan dressed down the hall, “if you were in his position right now?”

Dumars grimaced. “It would be hard to find any emotion to get up for the game.” He pursed his lips. “Extremely hard.”

Once, Dumars was Jordan’s biggest nemesis. Their battles in the Eastern Conference finals of the late 1980s and early ’90s were basketball purity, flash against fundamentals, swoop against stick.

But Dumars retired several years ago, saying enough was enough. He had his rings. He had a family. He put on wire-rimmed glasses, became the Pistons’ president, and never played the game again, not even pick-up.

“Right when Michael was first coming back, he called me and said, ‘Come on, you and me, we can both do it,’ ” Dumars recalled.

What did he say?

He laughed, and held out a straight arm.

“I said, ‘Uh-uh. Uh-uh. Don’t even start.’ “

Exasperation fills bubble gum

When Jordan entered the game Wednesday night, with 4:43 left in the first quarter, there was considerable applause, but not like last year, when he came back after a two-year absence. He blew a bubble with his pink chewing gum, as if to remind us — or maybe himself — that a game can keep you young.

And then he looked old. He tried backing in on 24-year-old Richard Hamilton and threw up a shot that hit the backboard. He tried an open three-pointer but clanged it off the rim. He threw the ball away. He yelled at younger teammates, including Kwame Brown, who was in high school 18 months ago. He looked, at times, like an exasperated camp counselor.

This is not to say there isn’t still some Jordan in Jordan. He eventually hit one shot, and another. He grabbed rebounds. His instincts remain impeccable. His grace in simply running the court is worth the ticket.

But there is less of him than there was before. The jumps are not dazzling. The quickness is only average. He can bury jumpers, but jumpers are like socks in a superstar’s suitcase.

You wonder why he does it. When he returned to the bench, after 23 minutes and five baskets in 14 tries, he took a seat not far from Patrick Ewing, the former Knick who used to battle Jordan at Madison Square Garden. Ewing finally quit this summer. Now he wears a suit and sits on the Wizards’ bench, dry as talcum, while Jordan sweats. It’s as if Michael is trying to outlast everyone he ever played against.

Michael is like a museum piece

The other night, in Denver, the Nuggets offered $200,000 to the Wizards if Jordan would play in their exhibition game. It is the first time, I believe, that an NBA player has commanded an appearance fee.

But in many ways, that is what Jordan’s career has come to. Years ago, teams would have paid to keep Michael off the court; now they’ll pay to catch a glimpse. With six championships and a fistful of scoring titles, he is like a museum piece, wonderful for NBA marketers and fathers who want to point him out to their sons.

But what is in it for him? His body broke down last year. He had surgery and again he returned. Does he love it that much? Did he find “real” life so dull? Or does he, as some suspect, truly believe he can lift a mediocre team to a championship?

After the game, Dumars drove himself home to his wife and kids; Jordan got on another team bus, headed to another airport. You wonder why he does it. He said, on his way out, that he never asks himself that. He insisted he is
“having fun.”

He could have left at the top of the top, the greatest ever, kissing a trophy. Instead, while his old rivals relax, he labors in exhibition games, in half-empty arenas, trying to continue casting a long shadow, instead of becoming one.

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