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 Bryantan 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. Hes 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
"Hes going to tarnish
his legacy," the thinking was. "He should have known better.
Everybody else could see it was a mistake, why couldnt
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 NBAs lowliest team, he still
wasnt 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. Its past time to admit it: the Wizards look
Jordan still has it. Hes
still one of the best players in the game, and hes
still the best player with the game on the line.
Hes 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 hasnt lived in this country since the
early eighties and/or doesnt know what basketball
is, ever doubted Jordans 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
wont really be ready to hang it up until his body
makes that choice for him. Either way it simply does not
It doesnt 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 hes
done to the Wizards!" Theres 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 hadnt really begun
to live up to his promise. Is this years performance
Jordans doing, or is it Hamiltons 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 berthits
simply not a strong group of teams. People are jumping
all over themselves to praise Jordan for this latest achievement
when in reality he hasnt done anything that shouldnt
have been expected. Hes 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
Jordans mystique, whether because hes playing
or because hes selling us shoes, Gatorade, and underwear.
But we shouldnt be so quick to anoint him this timehe
still has one thing left to prove.