- The Washington Times - Friday, September 27, 2002

With his intentions all but confirmed, Michael Jordan yesterday gave his official word to the Washington Wizards: He will play the 2002-03 season.

The announcement didn't carry the drama his previous two returns did, but it was the first time Jordan said definitively he would play his 15th NBA season and second in Washington after his first was cut short by right knee injuries.

"I am excited to return to the basketball court this year," Jordan said in a statement released by the team. "My love for the game of basketball continues to drive my decision. Physically, I am feeling very strong and feel that the steps I took in the offseason have allowed me to return to the game in great condition."

Jordan did not hold a news conference and did not put out a fax that read "I'm back" as he did in announcing a return from his first retirement in 1995. There were strong indications before yesterday's statement, as reported in The Washington Times on Wednesday.

Jordan, 39, is entering the second year of a two-year, $2.3 million contract. He was in Washington yesterday and will speak at the team's media day Monday before traveling to Wilmington, N.C., for training camp, which begins Tuesday.

There was some "will he or won't he" speculation throughout the offseason about playing a second season with the Wizards. Jordan had told coach Doug Collins to prepare as if he were not going to play. If he decided to play, it would be an "added attraction to the situation," he said in a televised interview with ESPN's Jack Ramsay earlier this summer.

At the very least, Jordan is an "added attraction." At his best, he can still single-handedly carry a team, as he did last season in back-to-back 40-plus point games, including his season-high 51 against the Hornets on Dec. 29. With the offseason acquisitions of guards Jerry Stackhouse and Larry Hughes, the Wizards have more scoring weapons than they did last season to lighten the load on Jordan.

More importantly, they have a bona fide superstar at shooting guard in Stackhouse. Collins intends to play Jordan more at shooting guard to reduce the wear and tear he suffered last season while playing mostly small forward and has spoken to Jordan about coming off the bench. However, Jordan said his role is still to be decided.

"I am especially excited about this year's Washington Wizards," Jordan also said in his statement. "I am convinced that the changes made this summer will greatly enhance our team. No decisions have been made as to my exact role on the team, but I expect that Coach Collins will make those assessments next week in training camp."

One of Jordan's biggest concerns was whether his health would allow him to play at his best. He played in 53 of the first 55 games last season, often playing minutes in the high 30s. Jordan had surgery on his right knee Feb. 27 and missed 12 games. He returned and played seven more games but averaged 12.4 points, and, with the Wizards struggling to stay in playoff contention, Jordan ended his season April 2 against Los Angeles Lakers after scoring two points in 12 minutes.

Jordan averaged 22.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 5.7 assists in 60 games last season. With a stronger cast around him, he likely won't have to shoulder as much of the scoring burden, allowing him to play fewer minutes and making him more likely to remain healthy through the season.

The superstar's announcement also provides a significant boon to the Wizards' ticket office, secondary ticket market and Comcast SportsNet, the Wizards' local TV rightsholder. In contrast to how Jordan instructed Collins to prepare for the season, the team, now with more than 11,000 season tickets sold for 2002-03, conducted business during the offseason as if he would return, even featuring him in advertisements.

"[Thursday night] will be very busy, and I know [Friday] will be very, very busy around here with ticket calls," team spokesman Matt Williams said yesterday afternoon. "Our renewal rate on season tickets was very good this summer anyway, but there was certainly an element out there sitting on the fence until the official word on Michael came down. Now we obviously have that."

Last year, Jordan's much-heralded return created a massive crush of ticket demand, and the team sold more than 3,000 season tickets in just the first week following the announcement. After a 2-9 start to the Wizards' 2001-02 season, many of those buyers dumped their tickets on the secondary markets, only to seek them back again when the team became more competitive by midseason. The Wizards ended the season with a franchise-record attendance of nearly 848,000 32 percent higher than the year before average local TV ratings quintupled and the team became a national merchandising force.

Staff writer Eric Fisher contributed to this article.

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