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Tuesday, May 1, 2001
Updated: November 9, 12:10 PM ET
Say it ain't so, Mike

By David Halberstam
Page 2 columnist

Michael Jordan, the most exciting basketball player I ever watched, is making serious noise about coming back. This is by way of a personal note to him saying, I hope he resists the temptation and leaves us with our memories of him as they now exist.

Michael Jordan
We remember Michael Jordan's sixth NBA title. We don't really remember what a struggle it was for him to win it.
I realize, having watched him for many seasons from a distance, and up close in what was at the time his final season, that the most dangerous thing in the world is to tell Michael he can't do something -- he almost surely will then go out and prove you wrong, just for the pleasure of that, of humiliating not merely opposing defenders, but writers as well. But it is extremely unlikely that any return will add to his legend. Almost surely, in fact, it will subtract. This is important because the last time he left the game, it was as perfect a departure as a screenwriter could script.

We are not friends, Michael and I. That is not the job of the reporter and biographer, but I think I know him reasonably well, and three years ago I wrote a book about him in that last season. When Dean Smith, his old Carolina coach, asked Michael what he thought about the book, he answered that he had started it, thought it quite good, but that reading it was like reading his obituary, and he would have to read it some other time.

Fair enough, and in fact a good answer: For a surpassing athlete like Michael, leaving the thing you love most and do best, and which defines you, is, in fact, like an early form of death.

This then is a personal plea to him to accept the fates and stay retired. If he comes back, he will be 38 when the season starts and 39 in the middle of it. In basketball terms, especially for a small man, that is senior-citizen status. Three years away from the game is a very long time in the life of a basketball player, even one who is something of an aerobic miracle.

Some of the young players out there are very good -- they might not be as great as Michael was, or as complete -- but they might be better than they seem when you watch them. (It is one of my beliefs that if players these days are not as complete as they used to be -- in no small part because they come out too early and have not been coached enough in college -- they are also physically more formidable and accomplished every year.)

Michael Jordan
If he does return, Jordan probably won't toy with young players like he used to.
Besides, it should be noted, the Wizards, the team he is paid so handsomely to run, are very bad. Even if Charles Barkley can get his weight down to that of say, Shaquille O'Neal, it will not be a very good team. Barkley, not exactly an aerobic miracle at any point in his career, and loathe to train very hard in the offseason when he was younger and it was easier, would start the season as 37, be 38 in the midst of it, and is now 50 pounds over his playing weight.

Michael, it should be noted, does not like to lose, and does not have much patience for players who are not good. He will be surrounded by a good many of them in Washington.

It is important at this point to recall the last moment when we all saw Michael play. That was in Salt Lake City in June 1998; he was in the process of breaking the hearts of thousands and thousands of Utah Jazz fans. It was Game 6 of the NBA Finals, and the Bulls had gone to Salt Lake City leading in games 3-2. But the home-court advantage rested with Utah. Worse, the Bulls were in trouble, because Scottie Pippen's back was killing him, and he could barely play. Michael had carried the Bulls that night, as he often had in the past.

Ron Harper was sick that night as well, and Pippen was used primarily as a decoy. By the second quarter, Phil Jackson was going with Bill Wennington, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Scott Burrell and Jud Buechler, not the most imposing five players to play so early in so critical a game.

As best he could, Jackson was buying time for his starters. He knew Jordan was exhausted, and he told Michael it was all right to cheat some on defense. Amazingly, the Jazz failed to put Chicago away early on. The Bulls managed to stay close, and late in the game Jordan once again put the Bulls on his back and carried them to the point where they could win. But the small tell-tale signs Michael gave out when he was tired were not so small at that point. The fatigue was obvious: He was not elevating well on his jump shot, and even shooting free throws looked like an ordeal.

Given all that, the last two minutes were remarkable even for Jordan. His jump shot looked terrible. His elevation and follow through were poor, and he had missed four in a row near the end of the game. With about five minutes left, Phil Jackson told him to forget the jumper and drive to the basket. That he did.

  The temptation for him to come back must be immense: You go from a life of the ultimate highs when every camera is always aimed at you, and then when you are still a young man, you enter a far more mundane middle-class existence. You get all the privacy you once wanted -- but at a terrible price, the loss of what was dearest to you.  
   

With 37 seconds left, Utah had the ball, but Chicago had whittled the lead to 86-85. And then it happened. Utah ran a little clock and with 16 seconds left, Jordan, sensing the play which was developing, slipped in on the blind side of Karl Malone and made a clean steal, brought the ball up court, slowly, deliberately, master of the universe once again, almost as if taunting Bryon Russell, left out there alone with the melancholy task of guarding him. With a little more than seven seconds left, Michael began his move, going to his right. Suddenly he pulled up, faked Russell to the floor (aided by a little tap on Russell's butt with his left hand) and absolutely confident of his shot, and with exceptional form, elevation and follow-through almost perfect, hit the game-winning jumper.

Utah missed its last shot, and Chicago won -- its sixth championship in the Jordan years. Afterward someone asked Jerry Sloan about Jordan. He should be remembered, Sloan said, "as the greatest player who ever played the game."

It was the perfect final moment to one of the most brilliant careers in team sports. Michael was 35 at the time, not so much showing his age -- he was as good as ever -- but working ever so much harder to compete at that level.

Lest we -- and he -- forget, in those final weeks there had been a number of signs of age. The series with Indiana had been very hard, and the Bulls had barely slipped by the Pacers. If anything, the Indiana series was tougher than the Finals against the Jazz. In particular, I remember matchups he had with Jalen Rose. Rose, just emerging as one of the premier players in the league after a spotty beginning to his career, had proved very frustrating to Michael: He was tall, strong, and he seemed to be quite rested in those moments in the game, late second half, late fourth quarter, when Michael was accustomed to putting (smaller) tired defenders away.

Michael Jordan
Jordan's aerial acrobatics endeared him to millions of fans.
That Chicago team, for all of Dennis Rodman's wackiness, was a lot better than the Washington Wizards are likely to be next year. By the end of that season, Dennissimo was unraveling at an ever-faster rate, his drinking was getting worse, and even someone as nuanced with bad boys as Jackson was having trouble keeping him even partially focused. But still he averaged 15 rebounds a game.

Pippen, only 32 back then, was -- once he recovered from a foot injury and accepted his unhappy relationship with the Chicago management -- in peak condition and playing at the top of his game. Kukoc was both talented and erratic -- one was never sure which Toni would show up on a given night. The other players had played together for some time, knew their roles and their limitations. But the number of Bulls' victories per season was on the way down, from 72 to 69 to 62 wins in what might be called Jordan II, his return after his quick baseball retirement.

It will not be like that in Washington. I am one of those people who thought taking the Washington job was a mistake in the first place -- not that Michael can't be a fine basketball executive, if he wants. He's smart and shrewd, and if he can get away from David Falk, who is too smart by half, he'll probably be a successful manager in his life after basketball.

Becoming a part owner and perhaps eventually a principal owner at Charlotte, an opportunity offered to him earlier on, was a far better choice than Washington. Charlotte was a young team, was not capped out, and had vastly more upside. Washington was the worst of two worlds, an old team that was capped out. The sweetener in Washington was said to be a $30 million bonus in taking the job, a short-range plus and a long-range minus, if you're already rich and your most precious commodity is your reputation.

I can understand Michael's frustration and impatience -- he's a very impatient young man -- with his own team, and I can understand him looking out at the current NBA and thinking to himself that he can still do it, that his game is more complete than that of almost all these players. And he's both right in many ways -- and, I suspect, wrong. That is, I think he can still come back and play if he's with a quite good team that is only one piece short and does not have to depend on him. The Wizards, even if both he and Barkley play, will not be a very good team, and it will be, I suspect, very frustrating for him.

Michael Jordan
Perhaps MJ could satisfy his competitive urges by playing another sport.
I realize that there is something unfair in all this -- I write as someone who has been able to enjoy my own profession for 46 years now, and I realize that life is crueler for athletes, taking away from them at a young age what they do best, love best, finally what defines them. I realize as well that with someone as driven and passionate as Michael, that playing is like life itself, that there is, in a benign sense, an addiction here, and that is harder to walk away from his sport than almost any of the rest of us can imagine.

But Michael, when he played, was always aware of his special niché, and of not wanting to slip. Of not playing a moment in his career when he was less than his best. He knew too many stories of athletes who had stayed too long, and were on the way down and held on, of Willie Mays falling down in center field late in his career. Michael would talk to his friend, Johnny Bach, the assistant coach, telling Bach to let him know when he began to slip.

But here is the real truth: The player he will really be competing against is not Latrell Sprewell or Vince Carter. The player he will be competing against will be Michael Jordan, the best ever at that position, the Michael Jordan who emerged those six wonderful years with an almost perfect complement of talent around him.

That will be the toughest matchup of his career, going against the myth of the most charismatic and exciting player most of us ever saw, and who again and again -- in what was ostensibly a big man's game -- lifted his team above the odds and the competition. Those are images most of us would prefer to leave as they are.

The temptation for him to come back must be immense: You go from a life of the ultimate highs when every camera is always aimed at you, and then when you are still a young man, you enter a far more mundane middle-class existence. You get all the privacy you once wanted -- but at a terrible price, the loss of what was dearest to you.

I suspect if he comes back it will be fun again for him for a time -- a brief time -- playing the game he loves so much, and being on the road with his teammates; he and Charles will be quite a pair. He will love the excitement generated by the crowd and the thrill of the competition. The NBA's television ratings, now in a predictable post-Jordan depression, will probably bloom again. God knows, I'll watch again for a time.

And some of it might work. Michael might lift the Wizards to a higher level than they've played at -- that would not be too hard. There might well be some wonderful nights when it all comes back, and he can score 40 or 50 points.

But I remember how hard those final weeks were in 1998, and I know how much he hates to lose and how much he hates to play with indifferent teammates, and if I were Michael, I would not take a chance on what was not only one of the most brilliant careers in modern sports, but as close to a perfect exit as I've ever seen.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12 bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning and Summer of '49, writes a bi-weekly column for Page 2.