- The Washington Times - Friday, November 1, 2002

Michael Jordan is inclined to look all of his 39-plus years at times after limiting his preseason to 61 minutes in three games.

His capacity to respond to the stink in Toronto provided the subtext to the Wizards-Celtics game in Tony Cheng's neighborhood last night.

His response was strong and purposeful: 21 points, five assists and four rebounds in 21 minutes.

Hold the athletic obituaries on Jordan. He is not playing on memories just yet.

It was Jordan who renewed the sagging spirits of the Wizards, who made plays on both ends of the floor, who set the energetic tone. It was Jordan who converted two free throw attempts, then stole the inbound pass and made a 20-footer with a hand in his face just before the halftime buzzer sounded.

The sequence staked the Wizards to an 18-point lead and took the fight out of the visitors. It was over right there, and it was over mostly because of Jordan. No, he can't lead a team the way he once did, and he is susceptible to longer bouts of inconsistency, but he is arrogant enough to think he still can be the difference. The Celtics are not about to argue the point.

Jordan claims to be trying to stay ahead of the doubts, as if he has something to prove. He has six NBA championship rings, plus the title of the best who ever has played the game. He has nothing to prove, just a deep need to fight what can't be won, and a conviction that this season, probably his last as a player in the NBA, can be something special.

Jordan is up against the eternally undefeated Father Time, the last word in professional sports. Jordan's limitations are more obvious on some nights than others. He missed a breakaway dunk attempt, two free throw attempts and committed a turnover in the waning minutes of the ugly contest in Toronto. Then he went to the bench in the final seconds, the game lost.

Jordan missed a breakaway dunk attempt in the NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia last season, a telling sign of the deterioration in progress. Old legs are funny. Do you work them or rest them? Is there a price of failure either way? Jordan was far ahead of his conditioning pace at this time last year. Jordan dumped 41 points on the Nets in a preseason game last season, including a dunk shot in traffic.

Jordan is not apt to respond well to the concessions already in place. He is coming off the bench, allowing his minutes to be reduced. This is in response to his physical breakdown last season. This is not likely to hold if the Wizards falter in the first month of the season.

The player-coach dynamic between Jordan and Doug Collins is the oddest in the NBA. Jordan hired Collins before he came out of retirement the second time and remains, in effect, the de facto boss of the franchise. Jordan takes orders from Collins only as long as he endorses them. Playing time is a negotiable item between the two, sometimes subject to discussion on a quarter-to-quarter basis.

Collins finesses the circumstances as well as can be expected. His desire to win each game on the schedule is tempered by a desire to have Jordan available all season. Jordan is listening for now, beating back his competitive urges while trying to pace himself for the long haul.

The agreement has been forged with a playoff berth in mind, assuming there is a playoff berth for a franchise that has not earned one since 1997. The initial two offerings, one on the road and one at home, only confirm the tenuous nature of the NBA.

Collins and Jordan danced with the playing-time issue at the outset last season. A sense of desperation soon trumped their best intentions after a 2-9 start by the Wizards. The team's personnel is stronger this season, the net result uncertain.

Jordan is anchored to the floor and ever dependent on the pull-up jump shot. Even after he regains his legs, his ability to impose his will on the proceedings is a dwindling proposition. He is the reluctant role player who is only Air Jordan in honor of his past.

So who is he now? Where is he in his decline? How much does he have left in his 39-year-old body? There was one answer in Toronto, another answer on Fun Street.

It is all on him to find what works best for both him and the team.

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