All photos from Michael Jordan's official website

He Still Has One Thing Left To Prove:
By Neal Shaffer

In recent years the NBA has become less and less interesting. As went stars like Bird and Johnson, so went the league. Its new face is that of Kobe Bryant—an amazing athlete who perfectly represents the overall focus on style over substance. With the college game offering a more pure and compelling alternative, the NBA rarely fails to rise above the mundane. That said, it would be negligent to not address the phenomenon that is the second Michael Jordan comeback.

When Jordan made the decision this past off season to return to the NBA a second time the smart money said it was a mistake. He’s pushing 40 years old, and his new team, the Washington Wizards, have been a model of haplessness for more years than are worth counting. One man, even if that man is arguably the greatest player the game has ever known, is still just one man. When the Wizards proceeded to lose seven of their first ten games, the smart money seemed even smarter.

"He’s going to tarnish his legacy," the thinking was. "He should have known better. Everybody else could see it was a mistake, why couldn’t he?" There was some pleasure to be taken in seeing him fail. Everybody wants to root for the underdog, of course, but Michael Jordan has never been an underdog. Even when he suited up for the NBA’s lowliest team, he still wasn’t exactly an underdog. A fool, perhaps, but not an underdog. So when it seemed to be not working out, there was a sort of tidiness about the whole affair that allowed even the casual observer to feel a little smug.

Then last Friday, coming off yet another all-star appearance, Jordan nailed an 18-footer with .02 seconds remaining to bury the Phoenix Suns. It’s past time to admit it: the Wizards look good.

Jordan still has it. He’s still one of the best players in the game, and he’s still the best player with the game on the line. He’s lost a step, maybe two or three, but he remains a couple of steps ahead of everybody else. His talent is contagious, and the Wizards will probably be a threat come playoff time. It is, so far and by any measure, impressive.

All of which points us in one inevitable direction: so what?

Nobody, save for maybe somebody who hasn’t lived in this country since the early eighties and/or doesn’t know what basketball is, ever doubted Jordan’s greatness. He was as great when he retired the first time, came back, and retired again as he is now, and he has never been shy about reminding us of that fact. He is, quite literally, a one-man media empire. Even if we wanted to forget he would never let us. Perhaps that has something to do with this latest comeback. Perhaps Allen Iverson and Kevin Garnett are just getting too good and he felt the need to work some more cultural voodoo. Or perhaps the more generous members of the sports commentary community are right when they say that Jordan is simply a fantastic competitor and he won’t really be ready to hang it up until his body makes that choice for him. Either way it simply does not matter.

It doesn’t amount to much when somebody proves a point that nobody ever thought to contest. Since everybody secretly acknowledges this fact the line has become "But look at what he’s done to the Wizards!" There’s some truth to this, sure. Richard Hamilton was, before this year, both their brightest light and a perennial underachiever. Before Jordan joined him on the floor he hadn’t really begun to live up to his promise. Is this year’s performance Jordan’s doing, or is it Hamilton’s natural maturation coming around?

The real measure of this latest Jordan comeback will be written in its epitaph. If he can retire (again) and leave the Wizards in a position to contend for years to come then, and only then, can we say that this comeback was a success. As it stands now almost every team in the Eastern conference is one impact player away from a playoff berth—it’s simply not a strong group of teams. People are jumping all over themselves to praise Jordan for this latest achievement when in reality he hasn’t done anything that shouldn’t have been expected. He’s playing well, and while that is impressive at 39 years of age it is no different than what Karl Malone and John Stockton do every time they take the floor.

We will never be free of Jordan’s mystique, whether because he’s playing or because he’s selling us shoes, Gatorade, and underwear. But we shouldn’t be so quick to anoint him this time—he still has one thing left to prove.