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THE JORDAN FILEAge: 38
To play or not to play? That is the question for basketball's Hamlet. Whether 'tis nobler in MJ's mind to suffer the slings and arrows of owning the Wizards, or to take arms against a sea of naysayers by lacing 'em up? Yes, Michael said he was "99.9% sure" he wasn't going to trade in his wing tips for a pair of Air Jordan XVIs, but that percentage is dropping -- fast. When will he decide for sure for sure? What's in it for him? What's in it for us? If he does come back, who will he play for? How good will he be? Won't another comeback tarnish his legacy, diminish the coolest exit in sports history, undermine the NBA's campaign to build up a new cast of superheroes? Speaking of which, who's most likely to talk smack to Michael? Questions, questions. We went out and got some answers.
Lighten the Load
Bill Walton, Hall of Famer
"It's unbelievable, the amount of time required to get to the level he's used to playing at. No one's ever done it before. He was the most dedicated, disciplined player ever to lace up sneakers. When you get older, your body doesn't always answer the commands you send it, even though your mind is still capable of making the right decisions. The fact that he hasn't been in a competitive situation for three years works against him. That's why, if he comes back, he should play for the Lakers. He'll need someone like Shaq carrying the physical burden so he can come in with the pretty stuff at the end. My question to Michael is this: Why are you letting all these people talk about you? What do you have, laryngitis?"
Steve Woods, Sports Marketer
"If Jordan comes back, the apocalypse is at the front door of pro sports. It reeks of something Madonna would do. Jordan's very astute. He knows the appetite for Jordan the brand, and he's being very coy in anguishing over whether or not to come back. If he comes back, he's relaunching a brand."
Phil Jackson, Guru
"Michael's not going to embarrass himself. He'll know what he can't do. When he played 17 games after playing baseball for a season and a half, he knew he wasn't as good as he wanted to be. That following summer, he played all the time, lifted all the time. He was a dog on himself, and he came back better than ever. Not that he could jump better, or hang more. He just knew how to play better. I know, he's 38 now. But look at John Stockton -- he's 39, and still beating people with quickness. Michael knows that if this guy can do it, he can do it. Michael will know his limitations. He'll be able to master them."
Bring Him On
Horace Grant, Ex-Bull
"A lot of those young guys are licking their chops. Kobe and Allen would go after him the most. And Vince, everyone is always comparing him to Air Jordan. If Michael doesn't come back and set the forest on fire, it'll be like, 'He should have stayed gone.' The hardest part will be mental. You don't know your teammates, don't feel comfortable with them, don't know your opponents. Then some guy like Iverson goes by you, and it's like, 'I should have stayed in my rocking chair.' "
No One's Close
Ron Harper, Ex-Bull
"Which young players in the league will Michael dread facing? [Laughter ... More laughter.] Let me tell you this, all of them think they can do the things that he does. A lot of guys are potential superstars. Potential stands for not a damn thing until it happens. It's already happened for Mike. I'm saying, when they get five, six championship rings, come talk to me then."
Stanley Crouch, Cultural Critic
"If I were one of the young kids in the league, I wouldn't want him to come back. If you outrun him, outplay him, so what? It would be like sparring with your father after he had a stroke. Larry Holmes didn't want to fight Ali, because he didn't want to fight him so late in his career. If the Knicks hold Michael to nine points, it won't feel the same."
Three kids: How I'll take him on
Dermarr Johnson, Hawks: "I don't think he could stop me from getting to the hole. Not with my crossover. I'm going to try to dunk on anybody, and he's too smart to try to block a dunk. At least I hope he's smarter than that."
Quentin Richardson, Clippers: "He talks a lot of trash. He'll shoot a fadeaway and say, "Oops, I thought you had that." He's in control when he talks trash, so I would just try to avoid it."
Darius Miles, Clippers: "If you go out there thinking, I'm gonna do this or I'm gonna do that, you can't focus on him. Play him that way and when you look up, he'll have 40."
George Karl, Bucks Coach
"He gets juiced by competition, by challenge. I don't think the normal business world gives him that challenge on a daily basis. Screw up his legacy? I have to laugh at that. No matter how he plays, he's going to be good, probably very good. The legacy is safe. I bought 1,000 shares of Nike today. The day he comes back, it's going to go up $10 a share."
This article appears in the April 30 issue of ESPN The Magazine.