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The Wizard at Odds

While McGwire picked the right time to retire, Jordan tries to outrun the clock.

But how do the others join in? Last week, in the midst of Washington's seventh straight loss (to the Charlotte Hornets), nineteen-year-old Kwame Brown -- who was playing high school basketball in November 2000 -- was so spooked by the presence of his idol, boss and mentor that he simply froze up as another game slipped away. As for emergent NBA worthies like Jahidi White and Tyrone Nesby, they are often content to stand and watch the old master at work. In the first half of the Charlotte game, Jordan scored 18 points, the remaining Wizards 22. Even TV commentators Danny Ainge and John Thompson commented on the bedazzlement Jordan has inflicted. Most of the time, he's doing more to inspire young opponents, who've always dreamed of playing against him, than the uncertain Wizards. Washington's nominal head coach, Doug Collins, is in a peculiar bind: The actual coach may be wearing number 23 on his back.

Meanwhile, the current Jordan Watch has taken on the worried tone of those daily condition reports that come out of the intensive-care unit whenever a beloved old celebrity falls gravely ill. On November 11, the day McGwire retired, Jordan suffered through the worst night of Comeback II when he missed his first fourteen shots against the Seattle Supersonics and very nearly ended a league-record string of 846 -- think of it, 846-- straight games in which he'd scored at least ten points. He didn't sink his first field goal until the end of the third quarter, and with nineteen seconds left in the game, he was charged with a technical foul. Jordan wound up with sixteen points. The Wizards lost, 99-84.

At other times, the patient's condition seems to improve dramatically. On November 16, Jordan scored 44 points against Utah (alas, another Wizards loss), and only last week, his approval rating in an ongoing ESPN fan poll stood at 54 percent. He's already the leading vote-getter for this year's NBA All-Star Game, which will probably keep at least one deserving young NBA guard off the roster.

Jordan can't do this forever, of course, as his old pal Charles Barkley points out. Orlando Magic forward Grant Hill, for one, looks forward to the time when he succeeds as an executive. "He set the example, especially for African-American athletes," Hill told the New York Times. "It would be nice to see him stick it out in the front office."

But the competitive fire still burns, and free will beckons. So damn the consequences that befall Washington's vulnerable young players with Jordan on the floor, or the example set by the graceful retirements of athletes like Mc-Gwire and Minnesota Vikings back Robert Smith. Whether he's gone in a month or two years, Jordan seems determined to battle the ravages of time at all costs.

But he might do better to heed Smith. "It's better to walk away early," the ex-running back said the other day, "than limp away late."

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