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The Life


No magic this time
ESPN The Magazine

NEW YORK -- It was a team, the Knicks, which he had tormented so many times in his career.

It was an arena, Madison Square Garden, where he had experienced some of his finest moments.

And in that setting it was a passionate Knicks fan, after witnessing the game's greatest player clank one shot after another, who summed up Michael Jordan's return to the NBA after a three-year absence. "Hey Michael," he shouted at the top of his lungs, for all to hear. "Do us all a favor and just keep shooting."

For Jordan, there was no miracle on 33rd Street. No double-nickel, like his first visit to The Garden five games into his first comeback. In the NBA's most anticipated opener, Jordan was a non-factor as the Wizards lost to the Knicks, 93-91.

Most NBA players could live with Jordan's final line last night: 19 points, five rebounds, six assists and four steals. But Jordan isn't most players: he's a worldwide icon, who retired in 1998 with the highest scoring average in NBA history. And to see him miss 14 of his 21 shots -- with no explosive first step, with no quickness, with no ability to greatly impact the game -- was sad and disappointing.

"The difference is I'm just a little bit older, the game's a little bit different, my team's a little bit different," Jordan said, explaining his evening. "But I feel good about myself."

Maybe Jordan knows something that we don't know. Maybe he's confident that he'll be a better player -- if you remember, he was a shell of his former self when he returned with 17 games left in the 1994-95 season and only returned to his dominant self the next season.

The difference: the Jordan that returned in 1995 did so to a team that still had Scottie Pippen, at the time one of the game's best players. The following season the Bulls added Dennis Rodman, giving the team three dominant players and the necessary foundation to win three straight titles.

In Washington, there is no Pippen and no Rodman. Not even a Ron Harper, just an older Jordan and a bunch of very ordinary players. "Chicago had guys who were perfect in their roles as second, third and fourth options," an NBA scout, who watched Jordan closely during the preseason, told me recently. "Washington doesn't have that. Take Michael away, and they're still the Wizards."

Jordan began the game essentially playing a point forward position, but immediately faced double teams as soon as he advanced the ball past halfcourt. On his rare drives to the basket it was evident he had no ability to lift-off -- in fact on one fast-break drive against Mark Jackson, all Jordan managed to throw up was a meek off balance lay-up attempt that hit off the back iron.

By halftime Jordan had 11 points, but missed eight of his 13 shots. By the end of the third quarter fans, perhaps realizing they were not going to be witnessing the Jordan of old, began heading for the exits. For a guy who once showed the determination to go down with both guns blazing, Jordan in the fourth quarter took just six shots, scored four points and was essentially a non-factor. His six free throw attempts were an indication of a guy who did not drive to the basket. With a chance to finish the game as a hero, he missed a three-point attempt with 16 seconds left that would have tied the game.

Jordan's going to get better, there's no question. As the season progresses he'll get his legs back, will become more confident and just might be able to recapture some of his old magic.

But the Wizards, barring a miracle, are not going to change. Christian Laettner will never be a Dennis Rodman, Courtney Alexander will not grow into a Scottie Pippen and the Wizards will never, at least this season, contend. So it'll be those dog days of March, when the Wizards have little to play for and when Michael will be facing the prospect of failing to make the playoffs for the first time in his career -- and opponents will revel in attempting to make a name for themselves by attempting to embarrass Jordan along the way -- that we'll see how deeply Jordan loves this game.

When Jordan entered the pressroom to face the media, he did so with dark glasses -- resembling a fighter who had taken too many blows.

There was no magic moment to relish in. No reason to gloat. And no way to convince those who doubt that his comeback will, indeed, be successful.

Jerry Bembry is the NBA editor for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at jerry.bembry@espnmag.com.



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