When the NBA schedule was released, someone asked if I'd already reserved my press credential for opening night in Madison Square Garden, where a certain familiar face is expected to be wearing the Wizards' No. 23.
Answer: I haven't -- and I won't. I've never circled back to check out a car accident, and I'm not about to start now.
I'm not looking forward to seeing Michael Jordan play again. Not with the Wizards. Not at 38. Not after what my source, a former player who's been watching him work out, relayed to me on Thursday. And not with any number of young players lying in wait.
David Stern, of course, is delighted -- he just picked up another bargaining chip in the current TV negotiations, a new souvenir jersey to hawk and a draw to bump attendance, at least for awhile. The numbers should look good, even in the scoring column, where Jordan still could average 20-plus points.
He could come out opening night and be spectacular -- no one ever has risen to an occasion the way he has. But lift the woeful Wizards into the playoffs? Take on Kobe or AI or T-Mac? He couldn't have done that the last time we saw him, three years and a dozen boxes of cigars ago. Scottie Pippen would have been asked to defend those players then, and MJ doesn't have any semblance of a Scottie now.
Of course, when Pippen struggled in Houston and then Portland, it became fashionable to downgrade his contribution to the Bulls' six championships and add that much more to Jordan's ledger. Now, I suspect, we are about to find out how important Scottie -- along with Phil and Tex and Dennis -- was to Jordan (particularly in those last few years when Pippen did the defensive dirty work and rebounding that allowed Jordan to save his energy for scoring).
Sure, I remember how MJ stole the ball from Karl and nailed that magical game-winning jumper against the Jazz in '98, while Scottie and his aching back were planted firmly on the bench. I also remember the debate up until then: that Pippen deserved the MVP award over Jordan in that series. Nor have I forgotten the feeling that Pip would not play in a Game 7 and without him the Bulls had no chance of winning.
"Physically, Mike can't do it, certainly not with that group the Wizards have," says my source, after watching several workouts. Jordan adopted a mid-range game the first time he came out of retirement. He still had enough elevation on his fadeaway to shoot over just about anybody. Not anymore. Now, I'm told, he has to pull up and pump-fake to get his shot off. He still can post up, but he needs to bump his man off-balance to create the space to get off that step-back J. Forget any dunks.
In one sense, this comeback is the noblest move Jordan has made. Until he retired as a champion, the best player on the league's best team hadn't left the throne until his scepter had been clearly relinquished. Dr. J gave way to Magic-Bird, who gave way to Isiah, who gave way to Jordan -- who gave way to no one until now.
Rest assured, any number of players are looking to punish MJ the way he once did them. That's why Kobe, for one, passed on working out with Jordan -- he doesn't want Mike to know, or have a chance to prepare for, what's coming at him. Mike never played summer pick-up with opposing players in his heyday for the same reason.
Maybe I'm being sentimental. Maybe, for most people, seeing a glimpse or two of the old Jordan makes it all worthwhile. But I remember when he was such a force that he could choose which element of the game to dominate, quarter by quarter. He could make a Dan Majerle or a Latrell Sprewell simply disappear. Even in '98, he still had enough left that, if given an opening, he could bend the game's outcome to his will. That's why I considered any chance to see him play live a thrill and a privilege.
Now? I'd go out of curiosity -- which, in my book, is the same as rubbernecking. And this is one piece of priceless machinery I'd rather not see pushed up against the guardrail.
Ric Bucher is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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