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FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL

In the original, which goes back to 1941, Robert Montgomery played a prizefighter who's accidentally spirited off to heaven before his time, then forced to return to Earth in a different, far less efficient body. When they remade the thing in 1978, complete with a new title, Warren Beatty was an NFL quarterback who gets prematurely hit by a truck. Beatty's ghost also comes back, but in the meantime, his lean, Pro Bowl body has been cremated. He finds a new one, but it throws like Annette Bening.

In case you haven't heard, the third and most popular version of Here Comes Mr. Jordan opened Sunday at Market Square Arena in Indianapolis.

In this one, an aspiring outfielder hits .202 as a rookie for the Birmingham Barons. That vision of hell prompts him to kill his baseball career and come back as the greatest basketball player in history. Not only that, he gets to keep the same extraordinary body he's always had. There's a little more to it, of course. But never mind. Look for this boffo hit to sweep the Oscars as well as the NBA championship.

Actually, the strange saga of Michael Jordan is not so strange at all. Not even stranger than fiction. If you had led your club to three consecutive league titles, collected $35.9 million in endorsements in 1992 alone and seen your face on every TV screen in America night and day, you too might decide to kick back for a year or two and try something else.

"I don't dream about basketball anymore," Jordan told an interviewer six months before his shocking retirement from the Chicago Bulls in October 1993. Apparently, he was dreaming about baseball--or about turning himself into the greatest two-sport athlete the world had ever seen. By the time he became a seven-time NBA scoring leader, after all, his ego had clearly grown as tall as his leap, and the challenge of excelling on the diamond as well as the court must have seemed seductive indeed.

But hitting a round ball with a round bat--even in Double-A--proved difficult for a thirty-year-old who hadn't played baseball since high school. Jordan worked hard last season, and through his generosity the Barons are now the proud owners of a new, air-conditioned $200,000 bus equipped with a wet bar and half a dozen TV sets. When it looked like MJ would stay with the game, one unlucky manufacturer of aluminum baseball bats went ahead this winter with a series of Michael Jordan models for kids.

But the major-league baseball strike has dragged on just long enough for Mr. Jordan to exit gracefully.

If you didn't know better, you might even suspect Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, the toughest of the tough nuts when it comes to negotiating with the players' union, of remaining hardball-stubborn until Jordan got fed up with the personal frustrations of baseball and the intricacies of its current scab/nonscab dispute. Reinsdorf is, of course, also owner of basketball's Bulls--a team that hasn't fared so well since losing its star.

"I used to think that Michael Jordan was the Babe Ruth of basketball," Reinsdorf said on retirement day. "I've come to believe that Babe Ruth was the Michael Jordan of baseball."

Actually, it may turn out that Michael Jordan is still the Michael Jordan of basketball. However, the entire Reinsdorf motif is but a speculative subplot in the grand scheme of Here Comes Mr. Jordan III and could easily wind up on the cutting-room floor.

Early on, our story's main action depended on a kind of dramatic tension. Reporters and camera people came scurrying every time Jordan showed up at Bulls' practice in his black Jeep, begging to know the latest, and in the saloons of Chicago, basketball fans gripped their schooners of Old Style ever tighter in anticipation. But Jordan, like Hamlet, demurred: To Bull or not to Bull, that was the question in the Windy City. The long-suffering sports fans in that place didn't have long to wait.

"I don't believe in `never,'" Jordan said the day of his retirement, meaning that his hoop dreams weren't finished.

Oddly, the rest of the league seems relieved. Charles Barkley of the Phoenix Suns says he wants another taste of the ultimate one-on-one. The New York Knicks, second-best last year to Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets, were rarely able to win an Eastern Conference title with Jordan in Chicago, but they say they're happy to have him back, too. The Denver Nuggets spoke almost as one last week: We Like Mike!, the message said. Disgruntled Bull Scottie Pippen could be the most fervent acolyte in the current round of Michael-worship: His Airness has openly campaigned to get his old teammate the hefty raise that could make him feel better about his employment.

In fact, there's not a single guy in the NBA who doesn't understand what riches troubled major-league baseball is handing them on a silver platter. Imagine the shoe on the other foot. Imagine, for instance, a fictional 1929: Babe Ruth (the Michael Jordan of baseball) has just taken the 1928 season off to smoke cigars and try his luck on the golf circuit. Now he's returning to the Yankees. Not much difference, is there?

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