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Friday, September 21, 2001
Memo to MJ: Just do it!

By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

Imagine your worst fears about Michael Jordan's impending comeback ... then imagine those fears springing to life.

Michael Jordan
No matter how MJ plays at age 38, we won't forget the memories of Air Jordan.
MJ lugging himself around in Boston, looking like he's wearing cement sneakers, trying hopelessly to stay with Paul Pierce. MJ tossing up a 6-for-28 in Philly, as Iverson explodes for 52 (and a ton of smack along the way). MJ coming off a switch in Orlando and suddenly finding himself on Tracy McGrady, as T-Mac waves his teammates away so he has room to abuse Jordan off the dribble. MJ ducking his head in Los Angeles, as Darius Miles soars over him for a thunderous dunk. MJ dribbling grimly up the court in Atlanta -- his team down by 20 in the second period, 15 games still remaining in the season -- looking like a guy who wants to dig a hole and hide.

Depressing? Absolutely.

Emotionally scarring? Puh-leeeeze.

And that's what I can't understand -- this condescending backlash from the national media about Jordan's imminent comeback. Writers across the country have treated this saga like MJ just announced plans to release his first snuff film. It's enough to make you want to throw up in your mouth:

Please, Michael ... don't come back ... don't ruin your great legacy ... last time you left on your terms as the best in the game ... don't sully that memory ... you have nothing else to prove ... your career started with a game-winning shot and it ended with a game-winning shot, and just thinking about that beautiful symmetry makes me want to pull my clothes off and roll around in a vat of body lotion.

CRYSTAL BALL
Here's what I see happening when Michael Jordan returns to the NBA:

  • I see MJ returning as a small forward, a slower, bulked-up version of the player we remember from the '98 playoffs.

  • I see him relying on his outside shot more than ever (especially step-back jumpers and 3-pointers).

  • I see him conserving his energy on both ends as much as possible (the way he did during those last three games in the '98 Finals).

  • I see him trying to accomplish too much during the first few games, mainly because he won't trust his teammates yet.

  • I see other teams guarding him with taller players and trying to create mismatches with him on the defensive end.

  • I see the referees inevitably giving him the benefit of the doubt at every turn (they're only human).

  • Because the Wizards won't be nearly as talented as those Bulls teams from the late-'90s -- maybe the understatement of the century -- I don't see him getting those 6-8 extra points a game from easy baskets (caused by turnovers). On the flip side, he won't be expending as much energy handling the ball (which happened frequently in Chicago).
  • Well, you get the idea.

    Say MJ comes out for the 2001-2002 season and pulls a "Mays in the '73 Series," or a "Kareem in the '89 Playoffs," or even a "Chase in Caddyshack 2." So what? Does that change everything that he accomplished from 1981 to 1998? Of course not. If Jordan doesn't have it anymore ... well, so be it. He won't be the first, and he certainly won't be the last. Willie Mays, Larry Bird, Mickey Mantle, Lawrence Taylor, Joe Louis, Julius Erving ... the list goes on and on. It's part of life. You rise, you peak, you fall.

    And maybe it ends like this: Jordan barely gets through the season. After giving up hope around January, we avert our eyes for the rest of the season and pretend it's not happening, the same way we look away during Thanksgiving dinner when our Token Old Relative puts chewed turkey in his napkin and then sticks the napkin on the table. Mercifully, the season will end.

    MJ schedules his 35th retirement press conference in June, humbled but satisfied that he finally has an answer. The Wizards immediately make plans to retire his number to milk one more sellout from him. ESPN revamps the ending to its SportsCentury show about him. David Halberstam writes another epilogue for his Jordan book. And then we all go on our merry way.

    That doesn't seem so horrible, does it? That's Option A.

    Of course, there's Option B.

    Here are the stakes: Jordan is attempting something that hasn't been done before. In the history of team sports, no player has returned to prominence after such a prolonged layoff and at such an advanced age. It has never happened. It has never even come close to happening. Call it impossible and I couldn't even disagree with you.

    But one mitigating factor hasn't been mentioned by anyone, at least to my knowledge: If you examine the careers of any other superstar in any other sport -- Koufax, Bird, McEnroe, Nicklaus, Gretzky, etc. -- all of them rose to prominence, peaked around their fourth or fifth years, enjoyed their primes, crested and slowly started fading from there. Some of them enjoyed brief "I'm not dead yet!" resurgences, like Nicklaus at the '86 Masters, or Kareem in the '85 Finals, or even Lemieux during the last NHL regular season ... but they never lasted very long.

    Not Jordan. MJ peaked four different times during his career. That's right ... four. Here's a quick recap:

    Michael Jordan
    In 1989, MJ made "The Leap" and became an unstoppable NBA force.
    Peak No. 1: Spring, 1989
    His fifth season, normally the season when a star player makes The Leap and starts scratching the limits of his talents. Jordan carried a mediocre Bulls team during the '88-'89 season and carried a mediocre Bulls team to the Eastern Conference Finals (during a time when the league was extremely competitive, no less).

    As a pure scorer, this was the year when he peaked -- his athletic ability was unparalleled; the referees were awarding him "Larry/Magic"-level respect; he would never be faster or more explosive; and he did whatever he wanted offensively. You needed three people to guard him. Period.

    Peak No. 2: Spring, 1993
    His ninth season, also the year in which the Bulls won their third consecutive title and staved off a talented Suns team in the Finals. Jordan wasn't quite as explosive as he was during the early-MJ years -- maybe 85-90 percent -- but he made up for that barely perceptable erosion in other ways.

    First of all, thanks to a rigorous workout routine, he sculpted his body and whipped himself into superior shape. Not only could he absorb constant punishment around the basket, he also wasn't tiring at the end of games anymore. As a bonus, the added muscle made him nearly unstoppable on the low block, providing him with a whole new arsenal of weapons. And he had become a savvier all-around basketball player, with a much better sense of "how" (to use his teammates) and "when" (was the right time to take over a game).

    MEMORIES OF MIKE
    Everybody has a favorite Michael Jordan memory, and the Sports Guy is certainly no exception. Click here to read Bill Simmons' recollection of the time Antoine Walker made the mistake of messing with MJ.

    Peak No. 3: Spring, 1996
    After shaking off the rust from his sabbatical, the new MJ emerged as the greatest all-around NBA player of all-time. He didn't have that same pre-baseball explosiveness, compensating for it by playing more physically on both ends. Instead of being Barry Sanders, he was Emmitt Smith, picking his spots, plugging away and punishing defenders for four quarters. This version of MJ was extremely resourceful; he had developed an uncanny, cerebral sense of the game at this point, much like Bird or Magic. And you could feel the assertiveness and competitiveness literally oozing from him (remember, the Bulls won 87 games that season, including the playoffs).

    More importantly, Jordan became a much better all-around teammate -- his failures in baseball taught him to embrace his teammates, to accept their faults, to adapt his own considerable skills and complement theirs. And that's the truest test of greatness in team sports -- can you inspire your teammates, improve their games and raise their collective level of play?

    Until '96, you couldn't say that about Jordan.

    Peak No. 4: Spring, 1998
    My favorite version of MJ. His hops were pretty much gone, yet he maintained his quickness and never lost a step. Somehow he kept chugging along, making up for that loss of explosiveness with an renewed intensity and resiliency. Rarely would Jordan exhibit emotion on the court anymore; even game-winning jumpers were celebrated with a simple fist-pump and a relieved smile. Like Ali in the mid-'70s, he relied on guile, experience, memory and heart, and he knew just about every trick in the book (like when he shoved Bryon Russell to free himself for the final shot of the '98 Finals).

    Michael Jordan
    When he made his first NBA comeback in 1995, Michael Jordan learned to compensate for the erosion of his physical skills.
    This version of MJ demonstrated a nearly surreal ability to take command of games in optimum moments; he had evolved from the greatest basketball player of all-time to the greatest winner of all-time. Jordan's collective performance against Indiana and Utah in the playoffs -- when he fought the effects of a 100-game season, paced his 36-year-old body, shouldered some of Scottie Pippen's burden (when Pippen was derailed by a bad back) and still managed to carry the Bulls through the final two rounds -- was simply the most extraordinary basketball achievement of my lifetime. Just thinking about it gives me the chills.

    So he peaked four times. Four. Look it up.

    And you're telling me that Michael Jordan can't peak one last time? That he can't become an elite NBA player again? That his age (39) and the lengthy layoff (three years) makes up too much of a collective handicap, even for him? You're willing to tell me that it can't happen? That it's beyond the realm of possibility?

    I didn't think so.

    ***** ***** *****

    Maybe this comeback isn't about Jordan as much as it's about us. For instance, I was flipping channels a few months ago and stumbled across the reunion concert for Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. There was Clarence Clemons, the Big Man, suddenly looking like a 300-pound version of Grace Jones. There was Little Stevie, wearing a bandanna, hamming it up ... and looking like he was about 75 years old. There was Max Weinberg, desperately trying to keep up on the drums and seemingly ready to keel over at any moment. There was Bruce's wife joining in for a few songs, much to the chagrin of just about everyone.

    Worst of all, there was Bruce (one of my personal icons in the '80s, along with Sonny Crockett, David Letterman and Larry Bird) gleefully throwing himself into the proceedings with his trademark intensity ... but sounding like Bea Arthur after an all-night cigarette binge. And the thing that killed me was that everyone seemed to be having such a grand time -- band members and fans alike -- and I just couldn't pull myself away from the television, even as I was thinking, "No, no, this can't be happening, please, no."

    At the time, I couldn't believe that the Boss allowed this travesty to happen. He had to know, right? He had to know that this particular concert at Madison Square Garden wasn't even in the same universe as some of the stuff they were submitting in the '70s and '80s. How could he not know? Was he living in denial or something?

    Bruce Springsteen
    Bruce Springsteen isn't what he used to be, but that doesn't stop The Boss from continuing to perform.
    But then I realized something: Hey, maybe Bruce did know.

    Maybe he knew that the band wasn't as good, he knew his voice was shot, he knew they could never come close to approaching their primes... and he accepted it. Maybe he just liked playing music with those people. Maybe he wanted to hear the roar of the crowd again. Maybe he wanted to make a little money along the way. And maybe, just maybe, there would be a few moments along the way when everything came together, when their chemistry would start cooking again and the crowd would lift them to a higher place, if only for a few moments.

    So what's wrong with that?

    As fans, we cling to the past -- almost to a fault -- and when our heroes hang on past their primes, it provokes a curious level of condescension and disappointment. And yet few of us have ever achieved true greatness, so we couldn't possibly understand what it feels like to give up on your talents, to accept the effects of time, to walk away from something you love. Either it's a mind game (you convince yourself that you still have "it," even if you don't) or a good-natured acceptance (you admit to yourself that you don't have "it" anymore, but you can still have fun), but it's a battle that every talented person faces at some point. That's life, isn't it?

    To begrudge someone for holding on, for making one last run, for seeing if they have anything left in the tank ... it just doesn't make sense to me. And that's why I was disappointed in myself that I reacted so badly to Springsteen and his gang during that concert. The Boss is older than 50 and still putting on a pretty good show. You had to hand it to him.

    ***** ***** *****

    As for Michael Jordan, there seem to be three possibilities here:

    Possibility No. 1: MJ isn't playing at an All-Star level anymore, he knows this ... but he loves the game so much that those "Springsteen at MSG" terms are acceptable to him. He'll have good games and lousy games, he'll show flashes from time to time and he'll have one last chance to play the game that he loves.

    Possibility No. 2: MJ believes he could play at an All-Star level again --potentially -- but also realizes that "The Man" status is out of his reach.

    Possibility No. 3: MJ honestly believes that he can become the best player in the league again.

    Personally, I'm putting my money on No. 2. But here's the neat thing about this -- nobody has the slightest idea what Jordan is thinking. Just remember, we're talking about the greatest basketball player of all-time. If you were going to put your money on a 38-year-old athlete making a comeback, bucking the odds and somehow elevating himself back to elite status, wouldn't Jordan be your first pick? Over everybody? Doesn't his track record deserve and command your respect? Isn't there an outside chance that he might pull this off?

    THE BIG THREE
    Three questions will ultimately determine whether this comeback succeeds:

    1. Are the Wizards good enough?
    On paper, it's a pretty motley crew; no other Wizard other than Jordan could potentially make next year's All-Star Team. Even with the '93 version of MJ, the Wizards would barely make the playoffs. So what happens if the losses start mounting? How will Jordan handle it?

    2. Will his skills still be there?
    With the advances in conditioning over the past 10 years, it's reasonable that Jordan could return at an All-Star level. If Stockton, Clemens and Bonds can keep chugging along, why rule Jordan out? I can see MJ averaging between 22 and 25 points a game next season, depending on one question ...

    3. Can he stay healthy?
    And here's the big X-factor. Can Jordan's body hold up? Remember, he already suffered broken ribs during a pickup game back in July. Can MJ remain in the same super-human, indestructable shape that carried him through those final three Chicago seasons? Can his aging body handle the rigors of an NBA schedule? Will his body keep betraying him even when his skills haven't slipped?

    Stay tuned ...

    If you're not convinced, somebody told me a story this summer that explains everything. During the month before last June's NBA draft, the braintrusts from a number of NBA teams -- including the Wizards -- had voyaged down to Los Angeles to watch some California area prospects work out. So Jordan was in the house. As it turns out, a current NBA star was also in attendance.

    At some point, The Star and MJ crossed paths ... and The Star started talking smack to MJ, good-natured stuff. You better not come back. This is our league now. We don't want to embarrass you. That kind of stuff. And Jordan was nodding happily, finally saying, "When's our first game against you guys? I'm gonna make it a point to drop 40 on you." You could almost imagine Jordan pulling out a piece of paper and adding The Star's name to the list of "Guys Whose Butts Need to Be Kicked, Part One."

    Of course, as the story goes, The Star's coach caught wind of this running exchange and immediately headed over to pull his player away from Jordan. And as they walked away, the coach told The Star, "Never talk to him. You hear me? That's the one guy you don't talk smack to!"

    The coach was referring to Jordan's near-mystical ability to take every slight personally -- vengefully -- in a "Clint Eastwood during the last 20 minutes of 'Unforgiven' " kind of way. During his playing days, MJ was always motivating himself with petty little slights, whether it was somebody writing that Clyde Drexler was his equal during the '92 FInals, or Rick Pitino questioning his hamstring injury during the '89 Playoffs, or Karl Malone lobbying for the MVP Award after the '97 season ... with Jordan, it was always something. Somebody was always rubbing him the wrong way. If you looked at him cross-eyed during his reign, he torched you for 45 out of principle. And that's how he remained on top, because he was always searching for the next challenge, even if he had to create that challenge himself.

    Eventually his opponents learned to leave him alone, and in a phenomenon unlike anything else we've witnessed in sports; Michael Jordan became the basketball version of a sleeping tiger. In a league full of smack-talkers, chest-thumpers and yappers, amazingly, Jordan remained completely off-limits. That hasn't happened before or since. And even if Michael Jordan has been retired for three full years, a current NBA coach still considered him a viable threat, someone who shouldn't be angered under any circumstances without a valid reason. Maybe that tells us everything we need to know.

    Hey, MJ's coming back. As far as we can tell, it's happening for all the right reasons; there's a better-than-average chance that he won't end up embarrassing himself. So sit back, relax and enjoy it. And in the words of Dr. Sam Loomis, just remember who you're dealing with here.

    Don't underestimate him.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.