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Monday, January 13, 2003
MJ's 40,000-mile service

By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist

Over the years, there have been several 40-year-olds active in the NBA: Charley Jones, Herb Williams, Danny Schayes, Moses Malone, Robert Parish, James Edwards, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John Stockton all come to mind. Of these, only Kareem and Stockton played significant minutes. (And Kareem played into his dotage only because of financial difficulties. Because the referees refused to continue giving him the benefit of "All-Star calls," he was a marginal performer during his farewell tour. Stockton, of course, is still out there banging heads with the young bucks.)

And so, as Michael Jordan rapidly approaches the cusp of his 40th year among us mere mortals, it's time to take a last close look at what's left of MJ's game.

Here's the Wizards' in-house scouting report, courtesy of veteran assistant coach John Bach, who also coached MJ in Chicago: "Michael is mostly an earthbound jump shooter these days. He can't finish with the incredible power and vertical leap that he used to have. He needs more than one step to approach the basket cleanly, and instead of challenging all comers he has to be very tricky. But he can get it done. If he used to deliver in the clutch about 80 percent of the time, now he's down to about 60 percent -- which still isn't bad. His biggest advantage is that, while so many young kids play inside a tunnel, MJ can read the ball and read a defense in much the same way that guys like Bird and Magic could. That's why even though MJ stays away from the boards, he still averages about six rebounds per game."

MJ has dedicated his last NBA season to propelling the center-less and point-guard-less Wizards into the playoffs (something the franchise has accomplished only once -- 1997 -- in the past 14 seasons). To that end, Jordan has had multiple high-scoring performances so far, most of them in lopsided decisions early in the season when his legs were fresh -- 33 in a blowout of Memphis, 30 in a rout of Atlanta.

Michael Jordan
Not many legends still have gas in the tank at 40.
But his "breakout" game this season was a 107-104 double-overtime victory over Indiana in Washington on Jan. 4. His numbers against the Pacers had an old-time familiarity -- 53 minutes, 12-26 FGA, 3-4 3-pointers, 10-12 FT, 12 R, 4 A, 3 S, adding up to 41 total points -- and at every vital turn of the contest, Jordan was the Wizards' featured scorer. The cagey codger geared up and delivered a blast from the past.

But for me, the true measure of what Jordan has left in his tank was on display two days later when Washington hosted the Boston Celtics. Would his body recover? How about his concentration and his chops?

Let's see:

Indeed, for most of the game Jordan looks weary. Even in the opening period, he studiously avoids the battle of the boards, and on numerous forays in the offensive zone, Jordan simply spots up somewhere near the 3-point line on the weakside, resting while Jerry Stackhouse gets the go-to touches.

Doug Collins calls MJ to the bench with the score even and less than a minute remaining in the first quarter. And even though MJ has mostly been an interested spectator during his initial rotation, the Wizards offense stalls while he rests -- so with 9:12 remaining in the half, Jordan is sent back into the action.

Here's how Jordan's second rotation goes:

  • MJ attempts an entry pass into Christian Laettner in the pivot, but he never shakes the ball nor makes any attempt to deceive his defender, and the pass is easily intercepted.
  • After a lead-footed baseline cut, Jordan drifts to the right spot at the right time --the catch, then the shot. Count it.
  • He mostly plays matador defense -- unable to move laterally in time to prevent Eric Williams from driving around him, MJ tries to compensate by attacking Williams's dribble from behind. Too late.
  • Michael Jordan
    "Paul, 'Twan -- he's right behind me isn't he? Uh, oh."
  • MJ half-heartedly flashes into the low post, then, without ever fighting to establish and maintain position, he shuffles his way out to the weakside wing.
  • Running off a staggered pick, MJ catches at the top of the key. A head-fake that's more of a slow nod, then the shot is short.
  • Another lazy pass -- this time in a broken field.
  • Caught on the short end of a 3-on-2 fast break, MJ can't move his feet quickly enough to offer anything but token resistance. Reaching off-balance at the ball, he commits a foul.
  • Pulling up his dribble, he shoots his shot long -- a bad miss that shows no touch whatsoever.
  • Williams beats him baseline, but this time MJ anticipates his path to the basket and, digging at the ball, manages to knock it out of bounds.
  • At the half, Jordan slowly walks off the court looking exhausted and all used up. He sees and knows, but can't deliver.

    Fresh from his midgame rest, MJ begins the second half ...

  • ... by attacking the offensive glass. But he bounces off the big men and is knocked to the floor.
  • Michael Jordan
    Whatever Collins said in the locker room, it worked.
  • At the top of the key, he cradles the ball in the classic Triple-Threat-Position, then he twitches with fakes until Antoine Walker is finally suckered into a foul.
  • Inbounding the ball under Washington's basket, MJ calmly waits and waits and waits until he finds Larry Hughes alone for a layup.
  • If MJ can no longer rebound in a crowd, he intuits that Laettner's corner jumper is long and he's on the spot to nab the loose ball.
  • MJ leads not a fast- but a medium-break.
  • More alert now, MJ moves the ball quickly and unselfishly. Holding the ball just above the foul line, MJ makes eye contact with Kwame Brown, who's standing along the baseline just minding his own business. Even after MJ fakes a bounce pass toward the basket, Brown doesn't budge. Another fake and Brown finally gets the idea -- he cuts to the hoop, finally receives a bounce pass and caps the sequence with an energetic dunk.
  • This time it's Walter McCarty who beats MJ baseline. Another sidestep and swipe, and MJ has a steal.
  • Jordan takes a seat with 35 seconds left in the third quarter. Had he been a lesser player with a lesser rep, his rather dismal performance so far wouldn't have earned him any more game time. Even so, he re-enters the fray with 9:30 left:

  • MJ is literally a coach on the floor, moving his teammates around with sharp words and impatient waves of his hand.
  • On a switch, MJ guards Tony Delk, who easily zips hoopward, with MJ's matadorian swipe turning up nothing but a slight breeze.
  • MJ drives baseline -- his only such venture of the game -- only to have his attempted layup blocked!
  • Michael Jordan
    Sorry, Paul -- the changing of the guard hasn't happened yet.
    The game grinds on. How much does MJ have left?

    "Michael has some source of power that's unavailable to the rest of us earthlings," Bach says, "and what energy he does have is never wasted. And if the refs won't let him get away with all of the extracurricular stuff as in times past, he sometimes still gets away with murder. Watch Michael when he's posted up and makes a quick pivot. That off arm swings around like a club. Pow! The same way that Dolph Schayes used to play when he had his right arm in a cast."

  • Behind by a point with only three minutes remaining, MJ is entrusted with the critical job of making an entry pass into a posting Stackhouse. Jordan correctly reads his teammate's defender and delivers the ball so perfectly that Stackhouse can simply catch, turn and bag an easy jumper.
  • The Wizards trail by a deuce when MJ leaps, trying to snare an offensive rebound. This is the quickest off the boards he has been all game long. A mighty effort. But he can barely get a fingertip on the ball before the Celts gain possession.
  • In the final minutes, MJ seems to have a second wind.

    Doug Collins does all the talking during a brief timeout, and MJ nods in agreement with whatever strategies his coach is devising. Collins and MJ have come a long way in the 14 years since Collins was canned by Jerry Krause. Even though Jordan was out of town when the ax fell, Collins believed that MJ had acquiesced in his dismissal by not voicing any protest. In fact, Jordan's hiring of Collins in Washington was his way of demonstrating that he had nothing to do with Collins' departure from Chicago. And after all these years, the two have developed a workable relationship.

    Late in the game, MJ is as bright-eyed as a rookie. "That's his gunfighter's gleam," Bach says. "MJ is as mean as he ever was, and he likes to make everything personal. He goes after guys like Jalen Rose and Antoine Walker like he just caught them trying to steal his wallet. MJ may no longer lead the NBA in scoring, but he's still the league's champion trash-talker. He holds his jersey up to his face to muffle his voice so the refs can't overhear when he's lambasting somebody. His skills are certainly diminished, but his competitive spirit is burning as fiercely as ever."

    Then, with only 32.8 seconds on the game clock and his team trailing 95-93, MJ makes three plays to win the game:

  • Isolated on Eric Williams, Jordan dribbles to the foul-line-extended left where he fakes, refakes, then fakes once more. Williams can't contain himself and leaps to block the phantom shot. MJ holds his fire until the contact is made, then uncorks the jumper. IT'S GOOD! AND A FOUL! A three-point play the hard way puts the Wizards up 96-95.
  • Michael Jordan
    Age is just a number when MJ is on the court.
  • After a Celtics' timeout, Walker misses a jump hook. MJ corrals the rebound and tosses a 60-foot lead pass to Stackhouse, who's fouled and converts two free throws.

  • Washington increases its lead to 100-95 and seems to have a death grip on the game. But Boston has one gasp left. Walker is bent on launching a 3-pointer, but MJ picks his pocket and tries to dribble out the clock. Too bad MJ then trips over the time-line and falls on his butt.
  • BUZZZT!

    Jordan walks slowly off the court, laughing with Hughes.

    In the postgame locker room, MJ will light up a Cuban cigar and grab himself a frosty six-pack of beer, the game already forgotten. "Women, food, cars, clothing, jewelry," says Bach. "None of those things mean anything to Michael. The only thing that lights his fire is the sheer joy of competing. I'm 78, but just being around MJ makes me feel like a teenager."

    So, let's not be too quick to coronate Kobe or Kidd, T-Mac or Dunkin' Duncan, AI or Shaq, or any other pretender. Because His Airness hasn't quite abdicated just yet.

    Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."