The Wizard at Odds

His earthly triumphs interrupted by exhaustion and injury, home-run king Mark McGwire retired a couple of weeks ago. This came as unhappy news in baseball-savvy St. Louis, where the massive, red-headed slugger made home-run history in 1998, and in countless other precincts of the grand old game. It's a good bet, for instance, that the major-league offices clouded with gloom the instant McGwire made his announcement. Commissar Bud Selig has so many other items on his plate these days -- looming labor pains, the summary executions of two franchises found guilty of anemia, the very survival of the sport -- that the departure of baseball's most popular star (and its most potent box-office attraction) must have felt a little like death. Or omen. When Jesse "The Governor" Ventura challenges Selig to go two falls out of three for the existence of the Minnesota Twins, the Commish won't have Big Mac to stand in for him.

Say what you want about McGwire's controversial use of "nutritional supplements," but his integrity is otherwise spotless, and never more so than now. For all the right reasons, the 38-year-old veteran of sixteen seasons is taking his World Series ring, his 583 homers and the affection of baseball fans everywhere with him to Shangri-La -- or whatever golf course 250-pound sluggers play once they toss away their Louisville Sluggers. This spring, Mac had agreed to a two-year, $30 million contract extension with the Cardinals, but he delayed signing pending the outcome of the season. As it happened, the big fellow was hobbled, as he had been for most of 2000, by a bum right knee: He batted only .187 with 29 home runs this year, and in the Cardinals' dismal playoff series with the Arizona Diamondbacks, he got just one hit in eleven at-bats.

In light of the vanities and insatiable hungers that afflict today's professional athletes, McGwire's retirement announcement sounded less like a throwback to another era than a miracle from another planet: "I have decided not to sign the extension, as I am unable to perform at a level equal to the salary the organization would be paying me." What? A scant seventeen home runs short of becoming the sixth major-leaguer to hit 600, McGwire was hanging 'em up because he could no longer meet his own exacting standards, and because he thought he would be stealing millions from the Cards were he to play on. Ancient Ted Williams may have hit a home run in his final at-bat, and old Ray Bourke was able, at last, to hoist the Stanley Cup over his grizzled head before leaving the rink a happy man. But McGwire's retirement has to be the class act of our time.

"For years I have said my motivation for playing wasn't fame and fortune," he further explained, "but rather the love of competing.... I owe it to the Cardinals and the fans of St. Louis to step aside so a talented free agent can be brought in as the final piece of what I expect can be a World Championship-caliber team."

That brings us, of course, to Michael Jordan, who has once more resumed his storied basketball career, this time after a three-year absence, in the uniform of the lowly Washington Wizards. As everyone knows, he is also the general manager, part owner and on-floor guru of the team. Jordan's motives have been chewed over so thoroughly in recent months that it wouldn't do to go over that ground again. Instead, it should suffice to repeat the old saw about how great athletes die twice -- first when they retire from the game, next when they breathe their last. Clearly, the proud and stubborn Jordan is trying to forestall that first death for as long as he can. Hobbled Willie Mays tried it too, reeling under the suddenly mysterious fly balls of 1973. Muhammad Ali fought and lost to time, staggering around the ring at 39 in his sad last fight against a journeyman named Trevor Berbick. Roberto Duran came out of retirement so many times they should name the Social Security program after him.

With the exception of Ali, Jordan is the finest athlete of them all -- certainly far greater than McGwire. But even his most fervent supporters, his worshipers, are giving mixed reviews to his return. At 38, the greatest player the game has ever known still has the respect -- no, the love -- of every opponent, and he's still in the top five among NBA scorers. The Wizards now draw sellout crowds, home and away. Having reclaimed its biggest star, the NBA's entire economic picture suddenly looks rosier. But as headmaster of his own version of Hogwarts School, Jordan has had some odd and unintended effects on the young Wizards in his care. Trying to inspire them, he often intimidates, and it's easy to see the commingled awe and fear in the faces of teammates who also happen to be his employees. Most of them -- even veterans such as Popeye Jones and Christian Laettner -- find themselves simply feeding the ball to His Airness so he can work his fading magic. He leads the league in shots taken (the Nuggets' Nick Van Exel is second), but the Wizards are just 3-9 in the standings -- not what Jordan had in mind in September when he barked at reporters skeptical about his return: "America is supposed to be about free will.... I'm not committing a crime here. I'm just trying to play a game of basketball."

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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