His (Fresh) Airness

If Michael Jordan suits up again for the NBA, will that suit his fans?

Who can fathom the mystery of Michael Jordan? The man has enough National Basketball Association championship rings to open a chain of pawnshops. But the gold and the diamonds and everything they stand for are not enough. Millions of awestruck kids wear Jordan's $150 sneakers, eat his Wheaties, slurp his Gatorade and drench themselves in his aftershave. But these triumphs of the marketplace -- all Jordan, all the time -- are not enough. The guy has a couple hundred million in the bank, shoots a decent round of golf and can book a table at a hot restaurant on short notice. But that's not enough. Nor is the fact that he may be the most beloved human being on the planet. Or that he can bask in the knowledge that his very name -- his unadorned first name -- remains nothing less than a condition of contemporary life. Michael. Be Like Mike. These gaudy monuments to the self are insufficient to his needs.

Michael Jordan wants to play basketball again.

He wants to play against Allen Iverson and Shaquille O'Neal and Antonio McDyess, of course, but there's no escaping the notion that what he really wants is to go one on one against himself -- against the Michael Jordan of myth, the guy who scored 29,277 points in his career, won six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls and forever transformed Dr. Naismith's quaint game of leather ball and woven peach basket. Proud and defiant, he clearly wants to see how he stacks up against that guy.

For the moment, Jordan's determination to return to the NBA next season is cloaked in halfhearted qualifications. If the greatest player the game has ever known can regain some of the old form and the old physique in the practice gym, he says, then he might come back. If, after three years on the shelf, he can rekindle the old fires, he would come back. If the two ribs he cracked on June 13 in a pickup game heal properly, then he could give it a try.

Anybody who takes these hesitations and cautions seriously is crazy. The day he quit basketball, Michael Jordan lost the one essential, priceless necessity in his life, the source of his passion, and clearly he wants it back. If only for a year -- or a couple of months. If only while wearing the uniform of the hapless Washington Wizards, a team notably short of wizardry, despite having Jordan as part owner and architect. Barring amputation of both his legs, Jordan will be in the Wizards' starting lineup come fall. By mid-season, he will be 39 years old.

The real question is whether we should avert our eyes.

People who oppose a Jordan comeback -- including thousands of his most fervent fans -- say they don't want to see his greatness diminished or his image besmirched. They want to remember, intact and in loving detail, the matchless star who won five MVP trophies and compiled the highest career scoring average, regular season and playoffs, in NBA history -- not an aging warrior whose fading skills remind them of their own mortality. They want to remember The Shot, the final jump shot of Air Jordan's storied career, the marvel that clinched the last game of the NBA finals in 1998, sending the Bulls aloft and breaking the hearts of the Utah Jazz -- not what they imagine to be Jordan's vain efforts to inspire an undertalented Wizards team this year. The naysayers remind us that Willie Mays, still hanging around the diamonds at age 42, stumbled and fell in the outfield during his last season. They sadly point to 39-year-old fighter Hector "Macho" Camacho and fifty-year-old fighter Roberto Duran, scheduled to do battle of a sort right here in Denver come July 14. Jordan fans adore Jordan, but they couldn't help noticing that, since his retirement, their hero has been prowling the Wizards' luxury boxes with cocktail and cigar in hand and some spare avoirdupois about his middle.

The gloom merchants and comic ironists in the house even compare Jordan to Mountain Rivera, the tragic boxer in Requiem for a Heavyweight. Or to Tonya Harding, the disgraced figure skater who is launching a comeback of her own these days. Equipped with brand-new breast implants, Harding is negotiating to head up a topless ice show in -- where else? -- Las Vegas.

But before critics of American celebrity culture and hand-wringing hoop-heads proclaim Jordan's return the end of civilization as we know it, they might do well to hear the other side of the argument. To wit: The greatest player of all time might still be pretty good with a little work. Besides, who are we to impose our expectations on his dreams? Former Chicago teammate John Paxson drains this one from downtown: "The thing I keep hearing is that he's going to ruin his legacy," Paxson told a magazine reporter recently. "I've always been of the opinion that you can't make judgments for him. People have tried to do that to him his whole career. If it's in his heart to try it again, I don't see any downside."

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