We thought we had seen the last of them, these images of Michael Jordan at play: palming the ball and faking a pass over an opponent’s head, teasing him as if he were a kitten; ball in hand, facing away from the basket, arching his back as if he wanted it scratched; leaping, hanging in the air to get a shot off, his legs splayed yet asymmetrically balanced, like the pieces of a Calder mobile; prowling pantherlike on defense; shifting with a stutter step from a calm, erect dribble into a drive down the lane, tongue wagging all the while; and of course dunking, arm out front, ball in hand, and some unfortunate running along below like a boy trying to chase a rain cloud.
Oh sure, we’ll be seeing those images forever on videotape, but it’s something different and infinitely better to see them in person or live on television in real time, to share the moment with thousands, if not millions, of like-minded fans. Michael Jordan’s abrupt retirement, and then his equally abrupt return a week ago last Sunday, cast in relief the very reasons we watch sports. A great athlete enhances our lives, in his grace and beauty, his flair for the dramatic, and his very demeanor on and off the court. (It’s an ontological point to be made, but if he didn’t enhance our lives in all those ways, he wouldn’t be great.) That athlete’s retirement, then, diminishes us all, whether at the end of a slow and graceful decline or, as was the case with Jordan, as an unexpected turning away from the game that was his greatest means of expression.
What is lost, in cases like Jordan’s, is a feeling of closure–of fullness and satisfaction, one hopes–of an athlete getting the utmost out of his abilities and moving on. (My father took me to see Stan Musial in his last go-round in Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field in 1963, and while I remember nothing of the day–and, in fact, Musial made only a pinch-hitting appearance–it’s something I cite with pride, an emblem of the precious things passed from one generation to another, truly great athletes being among the most precious of all.) Jordan’s retirement had much the same effect on sports fans as his father’s death must have had on him. Not to compare the events in magnitude, but in both there was a sense of irremediable loss, of not duly savoring what had turned out to be so fleeting and evanescent.
So of course the city was giddy–bordering on hysteria–when the rumors of a Jordan comeback were floated for the umpteenth time and–oh happy day–there were no denials forthcoming. And when he confirmed it, with a simple, two-word message, “I’m back,” well, if the much-abused “second coming” bordered on blasphemy then perhaps another biblical reference was more appropriate: The city was enraptured.
Jordan himself later said he felt embarrassed to be treated like a god, but he had to have expected it in some measure. Coach Phil Jackson had tried to dissuade Jordan in his initial retirement by citing his great gifts and the public’s great appreciation of them. Yet that was not something Jordan wanted to hear, as anyone who remembers the 1993 playoff season knows. The masses and their media had been in one of their periodic “let’s see how much pressure he can take” modes, and while Jordan’s exploits on the court were up to the test, his behavior off the court–petulance alternating with silence–oftentimes was not.
It was unpleasant to see him struggling so with the outside demands of the game, because that had always been one of Jordan’s exceptional qualities: his ability to withstand the public scrutiny, to analyze himself, to be–if not always eloquent in the manner of a Bobby Jones–at least forthcoming, to an extent uncommon for an athlete in this era. If his basketball abilities atrophied, a little bit, during his 18 months away from the major league spotlight, his forthrightness returned. After his first game, in Indiana against the Pacers, he sat through a 30-minute media conference and stated that he came back because he loved the game. The following day after practice he did another 30 minutes with reporters. He said his time spent in baseball’s minor leagues had both humbled him and refreshed his work ethic. “I guess I had to go see the guru,” he said.
So while Jordan was treated like a god on his return, his play and his self-image were noticeably more mortal. He missed his first six shots in Indiana. While he helped rally the Bulls from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter with a series of drives and no-look passes, it was Scottie Pippen who led the way, tying the game with a last-minute basket and sending it into overtime, where the Pacers–a hot team playing in sync–at last prevailed. Jordan looked much better a week ago Wednesday in the more familiar confines of the Boston Garden, where he shot well, played well overall, and at one point teamed up with Pippen on a pretty back-door play (Jordan’s palmed-ball fake pass, on that occasion, was no fake). Yet over and above his performance in those games, there were the familiar idiosyncrasies we had missed for so long: his backpedaling after a successful shot, the way he walks quickly into a diagrammed play before lowering his shoulders and lurching into full speed to cut around a screen and accept a pass.
These were the things many of us had forgotten to treasure the first time through, and so we were overjoyed at the opportunity to etch them into the mind’s eye. Just as Jordan was back, he said, for the love of the game, the fans were back at the United Center last Friday–24,247 strong–for the love of the player. A tape loop of Jordan highlights ran on the stadium TV screens from the moment we arrived, about 5 PM, until the 7:30 start, and it was hard not to get caught up in the feeling of instant nostalgia when those highlights fell into sync with Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” on the public-address system. Later, during a break in the first quarter, more highlights ran while the Jackson 5’s “Never Can Say Goodbye” played in the background. The attitude of this time preserving what we’d squandered was best expressed in one fan’s sign, which read, “We’re the luckiest people on [a painting of the earth],” punctuated by a small, script “thank you” in the corner. The United Center may not be the echo chamber the Chicago Stadium was, but Jordan’s name still couldn’t be heard during the introductions.
It didn’t matter, for the moment, that the TV camera angles hadn’t lied from Indiana and Boston, that Jordan’s basketball skills clearly had slackened during the layoff. In the second quarter he pushed a fast break, sliced between two defenders, went up–and found himself a little short of the hoop, so that he had to roll the ball in over the front rim, much as he had in one play in Indiana. In the third quarter Jordan again came up shorter than he expected on a leap off a fast break, this time bouncing the ball off the front rim. The rebound wound up in his hands, but then he badly missed a bank shot. At one point Brian Shaw stuffed him on his fadeaway turnaround jumper. Jordan is 32, but much of his lost lift is probably due to upper body weight he added to play baseball. Early reports before spring training claimed he had put on 20 pounds in his chest and arms, and his triceps are obviously more developed than they were when he left basketball. The lift should be back when there’s less to lift, or when Jordan grows accustomed to his new aerodynamics.
Overall, the Bulls were out of sync against the Orlando Magic in Jordan’s United Center debut, and prone to uncharacteristically stupid errors. Toni Kukoc committed a foul with a half-second left in the first quarter, and turncoat Horace Grant (booed with gusto) converted the two free throws to tie the game at 32 at the break. With the Bulls down 93-90 in the fourth quarter, Larry Krystkowiak picked up two technical fouls. He was ejected from his spot on the bench, but much more costly were the two free throws Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway converted to send the Magic on their way to a 106-99 victory. Jackson kept Jordan in the game even late, when he appeared gassed, explaining later, “I wanted him to have an opportunity to really play this game. And, you know, people came to see him.”
That is a refreshing attitude. Jackson’s love of competition is almost as great as Jordan’s, but he also has a sense of the players as human beings as well as a wider perspective of what the Jordan comeback means, not only for the Bulls but for Jordan and the fans. With Grant gone, the Bulls lack a ferocious rebounder. Yet that seems secondary to the immediate problem of getting Jordan comfortable with the new Bulls and vice versa–especially in light of all the hoopla–and if any coach can handle that it’s Jackson.
Jordan came off the court late in last Saturday’s game in Atlanta after committing a minor muff, and he was smiling, shaking his head. Jackson looked stern, but then as Jordan said something in passing he started smiling too, as did the players on the bench. With all of us trying to represerve memories of Jordan, this stood out as something we hadn’t seen in a while; certainly it was an unfamiliar sight in that last championship season. Jordan smiling without pitching a product: what a concept.
Jordan had not been so lighthearted after the Magic game. He explained that Jackson was playing him so much as a sort of crash course in team chemistry and in Jordan’s own conditioning. And to be sure, there were moments of sudden clarity. Early on, Kukoc led a three-on-two fast break, passed to Pippen at the edge of the lane, and Pippen returned a touch pass to Jordan trailing in Kukoc’s wake for a dunk. Just before halftime, Jordan led Pippen with a classic two-on-one alley-oop pass for a jam. And in the third quarter came the moment everyone had been waiting for, a Jordan steal in the open court leading to a dunk–not poster material, but cathartic nevertheless.
In a way, it really doesn’t matter what heights Jordan attains on his return to basketball. With three straight championships, an unrivaled renown for athletic creativity, and a fiery reputation as a competitor, his position as a great is secure. But what his comeback does, above all, is put a great athlete in a position for additional greatness–right where he belongs. He may not succeed; he may fail. But either way, triumph or tragedy, there is sure to be great drama for as long as Jordan plays.
On the day he went out to play the U.S. Amateur golf final last summer, 18-year-old Tiger Woods was given a simple piece of advice by his very driven and ambitious father: “Let the legend grow.” A quote like that is priceless, but only if Woods comes from six down to win, claiming the lead on the penultimate hole by hitting a wedge into a narrow strip of grass between flagstick and water on a par three. How many other athletes, given the same advice, go out and butcher the day? The world will never know.
Last Saturday Jordan completed his first week back with that away game in Atlanta, not 24 hours after the loss to the Magic. Once again there were moments of brilliance mixed with moments of ragged play. In the third quarter, however, Jordan took over like the Jordan of old, hitting a lovely array of jumpers and drives to score 18 points and lead the Bulls ahead of the Hawks. Then, however, he staggered toward the end. With the Bulls up three points in the last minute and a half, Steve Smith blocked a Jordan jump shot, and the Hawks scored on the breakaway. Then they scored again to take the lead. They had a chance to score yet again, but missed a shot as the 24-second clock ran down and Jordan rebounded the ball with six seconds to play. After a time-out, the Bulls inbounded the ball at the far end of the court to Jordan. He trotted the ball up, businesslike but unhurried, against Smith. Then he lowered his shoulders, picked up speed, faked left, jimmied right, leapt, and shot over Smith’s outstretched hand. And it rattled in, with no time on the clock.
Let the legend grow.