- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 22, 2001

Michael Jordan is in Chicago this week, looking to interest the leading players in the NBA in a pick-up game, ostensibly to further gauge where he is in his comeback attempt.

Jordan does not necessarily need Kobe Bryant, or anyone else, for that matter, to take his basketball pulse, but this is the process as he has implemented it this summer.

Jordan is seemingly caught between two antithetical forces, measuring the appeal of playing again against the blow to his considerable ego.

If he returns, Jordan will be one of the best players in the NBA. No one questions that. He won't be the Jordan of five years ago, the best of the best who led the Bulls to a record-setting 72-10 record. But he still will be plenty good, among the top 10 players, able to dominate on certain nights, but just not as consistently dominant as in his early 30s, especially on defense.

Jordan possibly could mean as many as 20 victories to the Wizards, which would be no small accomplishment, but no meaningful accomplishment, either, given where the franchise is.

At 19-63 last season, the Wizards were among the dregs of the NBA, their prospects not significantly enhanced in the short term by the hiring of coach Doug Collins and the drafting of 19-year-old Kwame Brown.

As decision day nears, Jordan is, on some level, asking himself this: Is he really going to be satisfied with a 41-41 record and the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs?

That is a long way from the 72-10 season and the six NBA championships in the '90s.

He doesn't put his decision in that context, because as director of basketball operations, the franchise is his baby, and it would be a reach to blame Jerry Krause.

Instead, he told the Chicago Sun-Times this week: "People think I've made up my mind, but they don't know what I'm thinking. I'm not going to be pushed into this. I haven't decided anything."

The shift in tone, however subtle, reflects the unyielding reality before him.

Back in April, as talk of his comeback started to gather a life of its own, Jordan could envision a different team around him. There was talk of Charles Barkley joining the fold, of Patrick Ewing, of Dennis Rodman, of even Scottie Pippen. No one was necessarily impressed by the list of has-beens, but collectively, two or three of them anyway, they would have been a distinct improvement over the never-weres on the roster. They might have meant 10 games to the cause.

Jordan undoubtedly crunched the numbers as the playoffs unfolded in the spring. If he could get his team up to 50-52 victories, he just might have a team that could be a viable postseason contender next spring.

The modest make-up of the Eastern Conference only encourages such thinking. For all the glad-handing that awaited Allen Iverson and the 76ers in the NBA Finals, they were only a Vince Carter jump shot away from being eliminated in the semifinals of the playoffs.

None of the talk, however, has amounted to anything. Ewing signed with the Magic, Barkley came to terms with his aging body and decided against the comeback, Pippen and the Trail Blazers remained stuck to one another, and Rodman held a 40th birthday bash that violated the noise ordinance in his neighborhood.

No one of substance, excluding Collins, has answered Jordan's distress signal, and now, four months into his fact-finding mission, he finds himself on his own, still.

The NBA compiled its schedule under the assumption, the hope at least, that Jordan graces the league with his money-boosting presence. If not, nothing is lost by the Wizards opening the season in Madison Square Garden.

He may be there in uniform on opening night. He may not be. For now, it depends on the day, his mood, how his 38-year-old body is responding to the workouts and whether he has glanced at his roster in the last hour.

Jordan has not acquiesced to the deflating elements associated with his comeback: the back spasms, the two broken ribs, the tendinitis in a knee, the 38 years and the three-season layoff.

But can he accept the lack of help around him and a season fraught with frustration? Can he accept Washington's scaled-down definition of success?

As Jordan is indicating, that is no easy call to make.


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