- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

Doug Collins has let it slip that Michael Jordan may be finished after the season, one season sooner than intended last fall.

This is the duh that goes with the delicate right knee and 39-year-old body.

Jordan is going to wind up about 37 games short of a complete season, if you're inclined to dismiss what passes as a game played for him these days and the games that accelerated his trip to a surgeon's table.

Jordan is a shell of his December self at the moment, just off knee surgery, in the throes of a highly public rehabilitation process. The sight is not pretty, the lifting minimal. Jordan is barely shooting his weight.

Jordan lives by his own basketball rules, and as the game's best player ever and the player/boss of the organization, he has earned the right.

No one tells Jordan what to do, starting with those in the medical community. They make suggestions, as does the coach. The rest is up to him.

Jordan has been in a similar position once before in his career, in his second season with the Bulls in 1986. He missed 64 games because of a broken foot.

He was young then, just 23, and vital enough to ignore the advice that he not return to the lineup until the following season.

He came back anyway, in time to rescue the Bulls from the lottery. The reward was a first-round playoff date with the Celtics, who claimed the NBA championship that season.

Jordan nearly beat the Celtics all by himself in Game 2 of the best-of-5 series, scoring a playoff-record 63 points. The Celtics won the game in double overtime, Jordan the admiration of the NBA and fans.

The same spirit is still there in Jordan, just not the capacity to neutralize Father Time.

The Wizards remain in the playoff hunt, at least mathematically, and Jordan has expressed a desire not to set a precedent in his career and miss the postseason.

In a way, he is stuck between a nearly spent season and the team's tenuous place in the standings. So he is forever the defiant one, working his way back, the ego be darned. The work is shaky, as expected.

Jordan undoubtedly was surprised by the sudden shot-blocking ability of Voshon Lenard in the last game. That fact probably was not noted in the chalkboard session before the game.

Yet the first time Jordan tried to shoot the ball over Lenard, after first backing the 6-foot-4 guard to the basket, Lenard planted his paw on the ball with such force that Jordan fell to the floor, with the ball in tow.

From a prone position, Jordan was able to pass the ball to Popeye Jones and avert a turnover. That was a small victory, as if Jordan ever has been about small victories.

That block defines where Jordan is now as much as his game-preserving block on Ron Mercer in early January defined where he was then.

The two blocks also capture the before-and-after element of the team's season.

In thinking out loud this week, Collins seems to have come to terms with the obvious. Whenever the subject of Jordan returning to the owner's suite was raised before the All-Star break, Collins responded with amusement and mock fear.

The last two months have made the notion all too real. The season has become an ordeal for Jordan, which was not part of the original vision.

Jordan did not return to the game to be consigned to a stationary bicycle while his teammates are on the floor. He did not return to be a role player with a playoff berth at stake. He returned to show a moribund franchise the way it is, and he achieved a measure of that in the first half of the season.

Now Jordan has been reduced to hoping against hope that his body can right itself in these last 11 games, that the Wizards somehow can beat the long odds and claim the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

This is the modest compromise to a season that burned with grander aspirations before the NBA All-Star Game.

This is not about his legacy, ever secure. This is about a competition addict trying to dictate the terms of his athletic surrender, with dignity, and with possibly one last statement.


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