No longer the star to scintillate our senses and soar the ratings and chase championships, the return of Michael Jordan as a 40-year-old sixth-man is greeted with something between scorn and a shrug. Why hang on? Why bother?
Whatever his motivations for a 17th season -- self-absorbed or selfless -- they're completely secondary to the unmistakable residuals of his presence: The NBA doesn't need his greatness, just the way he's forever pursued it.
Jordan is still a statement of pure professionalism, a standard bearer for pro sports' losing fight with its petulant young superstars. The greatest athletes of a generation are still pushing hard -- Jordan in the NBA, Jerry Rice in the NFL, Roger Clemens in baseball and Pete Sampras on the men's tennis tour. They aren't the best night to night, week to week, but they can still deliver these flashes, these moments, that are a testament to an unrelenting ethic extending beyond the public's wildest expectations for staying power.
As Minnesota's Randy Moss goes to Seattle on Sunday to play in a game when Vikings management should've had the guts to suspend him, Jordan goes to Wilmington, N.C., to start Wizards training camp.
An old Vikings teammate, Cris Carter, had called Moss the "Michael Jordan of Football," insisting this prodigy brought an element of electricity, brought a size and strength, an agility and athleticism, to wide receiver that was comparable to the Bulls' old No. 23. Nobody argued with him. When motivated, Moss is surreal.
And yet, more and more, Moss has dishonored his talent and undermined his team's chances for winning, leaving him shoulder to shoulder with the NBA's Allen Iverson in believing that commitment is a conditional choice. For sure, they aren't alone. Play when you feel like playing hard, practice when you feel like practicing, act like a menace when you feel like acting like a menace.
When the best players behave this way, the feeling trickles down to everyone else. For these young Wizards, the Kwame Browns and Jared Jeffries and Juan Dixons, there's perhaps a greater educational value to watching Jordan get to the gym earliest and leave latest when the reward won't be a championship and MVP, but 25 minutes a game and maybe the Eastern Conference's eighth seed.
Before Pete Sampras made his championship run at the U.S. Open, his coach, Paul Annacone, listened to everyone talking about tennis' greatest champion, the way they did Jordan: As though he owed it to his legacy to retire. For six straight years, Sampras was No. 1 in the world. He had 13 Grand Slam championships. He had done everything. Now, it wasn't so easy for him. He had stopped winning tournaments. He had dropped in the rankings.
As it turned out, fighting back at 31 years old, this was the time to watch Sampras. This was the time to truly understand the will of a winner.
"Now is the time you can learn the most from him," said Annacone. "You watch him adjust and refocus and go at it a completely different way."
As Australian Lleyton Hewitt raged on the ATP Tour this year, he threatened to scale back his tournament appearances next season. He has the talent to be No. 1 in the world for a long time, but he's considering the possibility of just cherry-picking most of the major tournaments. Hewitt wants to pick his spots. He wants to take it easy, when he should be pushing harder than ever.
"When I was his age, it was all about being No. 1 and trying to stay on top for as long as you could," Sampras said. "He might have different goals. I understand where he's coming from. It is about peaking at the right time. But at his age, I think he's OK to play all of them -- like I did."
This isn't just the oldest game in sports, but the oldest in society: Our generation did it better. We worked harder. Today, it does have merit.
There is a generation of elite young athletes who've never worked even a part-time job. At the youngest age, they're identified, pampered and fed into the corruptive and corroding system. Because of changing societal values, and because of the money, there has never been a greater sense of entitlement out of rising young stars. This isn't true for everyone, of course, but it increases at an alarming rate.
So, when they make it to the pros and everything has come so easy, just maybe
they'll share a locker room with Jerry Rice, 39, and Roger Clemens, 40.
Baseball's greatest right-hander works out harder on the days he's starting than most do on the four between. Before one start this season, Clemens could be seen running to the VIP level of the Toronto SkyDome. He hired Evander Holyfield's trainer to supervise his personal workouts in the winter. Whenever a Yankee starter suffers a last-minute injury, he volunteers to pitch on short rest. He's the oldest pitcher ever to win a Cy Young a year ago, and now, closing on 300 career victories, it sometimes seems his drive and determination could let him pitch forever.
Rice completely reshaped himself in the offseason, turning a lithe 185 pound into a muscled 212. Later, he regretted it. Fearing he was too thick, that he had lost too much speed and agility, he dropped the weight. After catching 83 balls for 1,139 yards for the Raiders in 2001, Rice had stayed the course on his unparalleled conditioning to prepare himself for the football season he did the unthinkable at his position: He turned 40.
"Over the years I have always had a gimmick," Rice told Les Carpenter of The Seattle Times. "I guess that keeps me going. One year I might be bigger. One year I might be lighter. One year maybe I'm working on my stance.
"I've got to keep trying something new."
It isn't too late for the Randy Mosses and Allen Iversons to try something new for themselves, too -- giving a damn, 24/7 on the job -- because Jordan and Sampras, Rice and Clemens, they can't play ball forever. Sooner than later, they'll be gone, leaving behind the lessons of their legacies.
Just maybe, people ought to consider the work of these living legends isn't done in sports. When Moss gives you a week like this one, on the field and off it, just maybe the old men's work is still just beginning.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.