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CHICAGO -- Have you seen Michael Jordan play this summer?
No, you haven't. Almost no one has. So be quiet and listen.
Because I have seen him play. It was at Hoops the Gym, a place co-run by a friend of mine, Gary Cowen, and Tim Grover, Jordan's trainer since 1989.
I have heard so much blather about Jordan being old (he's 38; younger than John Stockton, who did just fine last season, and way younger than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played until he was 42 and averaged 23.4 points per game when he was 39). And I have heard how Jordan can't do this or that on the court anymore.
In the games I watched in mid-June, Jordan was clearly the best player on the floor. Who played? A mix of NBA guys, former NBA guys, and college guys who want to be in the NBA.
Antoine Walker played. So did Jamal Crawford, Thomas Hamilton, Dickey Simpkins, Leon Smith, George McCloud, and a certain round mound named Charles Barkley. One day Marcus Fizer showed up with A.J. Guyton, hoping to run, but they were too late.
"Eleven-thirty, not 2 p.m.," said Jordan, with his usual soft touch. "Way to be on time, guys."
The games weren't refereed and you called your own fouls. First team to 10 won, with every basket -- even long threes -- counting for one.
Yeah, it's true there was some basket-hanging and not everyone was in shape -- ahem, Chuckie -- and there wasn't the urgency of, say, a Bulls-Jazz 1998 Game Six. But only winners stayed on, and even NBA guys in pickup games don't like to lose.
But Jordan wanted to lose less than anyone.
He was playing with Jamal Crawford, and the two of them couldn't be beat. Crawford is the skinny, now almost 6'7" second-year point guard for the Bulls, and his long-range shooting and court decisions clearly pleased Jordan. In fact, Wizards GM Jordan would make overtures to the Bulls to see about acquiring Crawford, but he was rebuffed.
That was probably just as well, since Crawford would blow out the ACL in his left knee on July 18 while warming up at Hoops, and he is likely lost for the entire 2001-02 season.
But on this day the two men were smoking. The big guys -- Hamilton, Simpkins, and Smith -- would grab a few rebounds, but Jordan and Crawford showed how the game can be dominated by midrange athletes.
Jordan's dribbling ability was as dominating as ever. His passes to teammates after foes would double-team him made for some very easy baskets.
And then there was his jet propulsion. Crawford threw him an alley-oop pass and MJ slammed it through as though playing on a kiddie basket.
On a baseline move, Jordan shook his man and went up and tomahawked the ball viciously through the rim. You don't often see a lot of jams in games like this, except when somebody doesn't bother to come down court on defense and gets a full-court outlet pass. You can count on getting severely hacked before getting off a big dunk. But Jordan's dunks were faster than anybody else's, too quick to reject.
And then there was his fall-away.
"He's the perfect guy to play with," Crawford told me a few days ago, as he was sitting on a folding chair at Hoops, watching the action, his left leg wrapped nearly from ankle to mid-thigh, resting on another folding chair to keep it comfortable. "When it all breaks down, just throw the ball into him. He demands all those double-teams. And his fall-away? You can't stop it."
Nobody could. Antoine Walker's team lost again and again. So did the other teams, even as players switched from side to side.
Jordan would back his man down, check the defense, either duck under for a short jumper or fly backward on a fall-away that seemed to come with the greatest of ease in the midst of endless Air time. Just as in the old days, nobody could touch it.
"I don't think we ever lost," recalled Crawford of the few days he played with Jordan. "Ten, eleven in a row."
That day in June, Jordan saw me watching from the sideline.
"Oh, man," he said with his usual mock disgust. "You're gonna write how I'm reinventing my game."
But really, his game looked the same as it had when he walked off in full glory three years ago and retired as a player. He had sweated through his gray Nike jersey and trunks, and his body was chiseled and lean and magnificent. He was already down to his playing weight of 218 pounds, the 20 or so pounds of executive fat having been shed with ease.
Poor Barkley was another story. He went upstairs after the games to work with Grover on agility and footwork drills, looking like a half-drowned walrus.
"This was my first scrimmage since surgery," he said apologetically as Grover hooked him up to an electronic belt sending signals to a video screen. Jordan rested after his games and pondered the changes in the NBA's zone defense rules.
Did he still think the games would be low-scoring, as he had predicted, with scores maybe even in the 60s?
"Yeah," he said. "But they haven't even sent us the new rules yet."
He was the king of the roost, with all the players keeping an eye on him, the way they would on Jennifer Lopez or the Pope.
Then two days later, he broke two ribs playing the same kind of pickup games.
I saw him at Hoops a week or so after that, sitting resplendent in all white at halfcourt, watching the games go on without him. His two boys, Marcus and Jeffrey, were with him, shooting alone at distant baskets.
They looked fluid and disciplined. I noticed each dribbled mostly with his right hand but shot left-handed. What was up with that?
"They're right-handed, but they shoot lefty," said MJ. "They're Jordans. They do things different."
He told me about the deals he tried to make as a GM and how he was rebuffed by certain other league GMs and how he wouldn't forget that. Of course, he also had Kwame Brown from the first pick in the draft, and he loved that.
He was mad about the way it had been rumored he broke his ribs.
The Chicago Tribune wrote that Jordan had been trash-talking with Antoine Walker and Ron Artest, and that the Bulls' Artest "grabbed him and slammed him to the floor." That's supposedly when the ribs were broken.
Artest is also said to have thrown a punch at Jordan afterward. Word is the participants were sworn to secrecy or wouldn't be allowed back in the private gym.
One hundred percent hogwash, said MJ. Artest had said as much. As had DePaul's Steven Hunter, who was also in the game. Jordan demonstrated how it had happened, playing defense on me.
"I'm you and I've got the ball, right?" I said.
"Right. And I made a spin move and Artest's hand was around me," Jordan replied as he showed how Artest's right hand had reached into his mid-section and how, as Jordan spun, Artest had yanked on the tips of those bottom ribs.
"I have never, ever heard of anyone breaking ribs in basketball," I said. "Maybe that's what being 38 does for you."
Jordan shrugged. I went to mock-punch him and he flinched backward. He was still so sore, he couldn't even swing a golf club. Pure torment.
"That's what people are saying," he said.
Two weeks after that, defying all prognoses, Jordan was playing golf again.
Now he's back on the hardwood.
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