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2007, April 24: ESPN.com Page 2 – Say it ain’t so (JRose vs. MJ)

June 24, 2008

mj.jpgMichael Jordan, the most exciting basketball player I ever watched, is
making serious noise about coming back. This is by way of a personal
note to him saying, I hope he resists the temptation and leaves us with
our memories of him as they now exist.

I realize, having watched him for many seasons from a distance, and up
close in what was at the time his final season, that the most dangerous
thing in the world is to tell Michael he can’t do something — he
almost surely will then go out and prove you wrong, just for the
pleasure of that, of humiliating not merely opposing defenders, but
writers as well. But it is extremely unlikely that any return will add
to his legend. Almost surely, in fact, it will subtract. This is
important because the last time he left the game, it was as perfect a
departure as a screenwriter could script.

We are not friends, Michael and I. That is not the job of the reporter
and biographer, but I think I know him reasonably well, and three years
ago I wrote a book about him in that last season. When Dean Smith, his
old Carolina coach, asked Michael what he thought about the book, he
answered that he had started it, thought it quite good, but that
reading it was like reading his obituary, and he would have to read it
some other time.

Fair enough, and in fact a good answer: For a surpassing athlete like
Michael, leaving the thing you love most and do best, and which defines
you, is, in fact, like an early form of death.

This then is a personal plea to him to accept the fates and stay
retired. If he comes back, he will be 38 when the season starts and 39
in the middle of it. In basketball terms, especially for a small man,
that is senior-citizen status. Three years away from the game is a very
long time in the life of a basketball player, even one who is something
of an aerobic miracle.

Some of the young players out there are very good — they might not be
as great as Michael was, or as complete — but they might be better
than they seem when you watch them. (It is one of my beliefs that if
players these days are not as complete as they used to be — in no
small part because they come out too early and have not been coached
enough in college — they are also physically more formidable and
accomplished every year.)

Besides, it should be noted, the Wizards, the team he is paid so
handsomely to run, are very bad. Even if Charles Barkley can get his
weight down to that of say, Shaquille O’Neal, it will not be a very
good team. Barkley, not exactly an aerobic miracle at any point in his
career, and loathe to train very hard in the offseason when he was
younger and it was easier, would start the season as 37, be 38 in the
midst of it, and is now 50 pounds over his playing weight.

Michael, it should be noted, does not like to lose, and does not have
much patience for players who are not good. He will be surrounded by a
good many of them in Washington.

It is important at this point to recall the last moment when we all saw
Michael play. That was in Salt Lake City in June 1998; he was in the
process of breaking the hearts of thousands and thousands of Utah Jazz
fans. It was Game 6 of the NBA Finals, and the Bulls had gone to Salt
Lake City leading in games 3-2. But the home-court advantage rested
with Utah. Worse, the Bulls were in trouble, because Scottie Pippen’s
back was killing him, and he could barely play. Michael had carried the
Bulls that night, as he often had in the past.

Ron Harper was sick that night as well, and Pippen was used primarily
as a decoy. By the second quarter, Phil Jackson was going with Bill
Wennington, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc, Scott Burrell and Jud Buechler, not
the most imposing five players to play so early in so critical a game.

As best he could, Jackson was buying time for his starters. He knew
Jordan was exhausted, and he told Michael it was all right to cheat
some on defense. Amazingly, the Jazz failed to put Chicago away early
on. The Bulls managed to stay close, and late in the game Jordan once
again put the Bulls on his back and carried them to the point where
they could win. But the small tell-tale signs Michael gave out when he
was tired were not so small at that point. The fatigue was obvious: He
was not elevating well on his jump shot, and even shooting free throws
looked like an ordeal.

Given all that, the last two minutes were remarkable even for Jordan.
His jump shot looked terrible. His elevation and follow through were
poor, and he had missed four in a row near the end of the game. With
about five minutes left, Phil Jackson told him to forget the jumper and
drive to the basket. That he did.

With 37 seconds left, Utah had the ball, but Chicago had whittled the
lead to 86-85. And then it happened. Utah ran a little clock and with
16 seconds left, Jordan, sensing the play which was developing, slipped
in on the blind side of Karl Malone and made a clean steal, brought the
ball up court, slowly, deliberately, master of the universe once again,
almost as if taunting Bryon Russell, left out there alone with the
melancholy task of guarding him. With a little more than seven seconds
left, Michael began his move, going to his right. Suddenly he pulled
up, faked Russell to the floor (aided by a little tap on Russell’s butt
with his left hand) and absolutely confident of his shot, and with
exceptional form, elevation and follow-through almost perfect, hit the
game-winning jumper.

Utah missed its last shot, and Chicago won — its sixth championship in
the Jordan years. Afterward someone asked Jerry Sloan about Jordan. He
should be remembered, Sloan said, "as the greatest player who ever
played the game."

It was the perfect final moment to one of the most brilliant careers in
team sports. Michael was 35 at the time, not so much showing his age —
he was as good as ever — but working ever so much harder to compete at
that level.

Lest we — and he — forget, in those final weeks there had been a
number of signs of age. The series with Indiana had been very hard, and
the Bulls had barely slipped by the Pacers. If anything, the Indiana
series was tougher than the Finals against the Jazz. In particular, I
remember matchups he had with Jalen Rose. Rose, just emerging as one of
the premier players in the league after a spotty beginning to his
career, had proved very frustrating to Michael: He was tall, strong,
and he seemed to be quite rested in those moments in the game, late
second half, late fourth quarter, when Michael was accustomed to
putting (smaller) tired defenders away.

That Chicago team, for all of Dennis Rodman’s wackiness, was a lot
better than the Washington Wizards are likely to be next year. By the
end of that season, Dennissimo was unraveling at an ever-faster rate,
his drinking was getting worse, and even someone as nuanced with bad
boys as Jackson was having trouble keeping him even partially focused.
But still he averaged 15 rebounds a game.

Pippen, only 32 back then, was — once he recovered from a foot injury
and accepted his unhappy relationship with the Chicago management — in
peak condition and playing at the top of his game. Kukoc was both
talented and erratic — one was never sure which Toni would show up on
a given night. The other players had played together for some time,
knew their roles and their limitations. But the number of Bulls’
victories per season was on the way down, from 72 to 69 to 62 wins in
what might be called Jordan II, his return after his quick baseball
retirement.

It will not be like that in Washington. I am one of those people who
thought taking the Washington job was a mistake in the first place —
not that Michael can’t be a fine basketball executive, if he wants.
He’s smart and shrewd, and if he can get away from David Falk, who is
too smart by half, he’ll probably be a successful manager in his life
after basketball.

Becoming a part owner and perhaps eventually a principal owner at
Charlotte, an opportunity offered to him earlier on, was a far better
choice than Washington. Charlotte was a young team, was not capped out,
and had vastly more upside. Washington was the worst of two worlds, an
old team that was capped out. The sweetener in Washington was said to
be a $30 million bonus in taking the job, a short-range plus and a
long-range minus, if you’re already rich and your most precious
commodity is your reputation.

I can understand Michael’s frustration and impatience — he’s a very
impatient young man — with his own team, and I can understand him
looking out at the current NBA and thinking to himself that he can
still do it, that his game is more complete than that of almost all
these players. And he’s both right in many ways — and, I suspect,
wrong. That is, I think he can still come back and play if he’s with a
quite good team that is only one piece short and does not have to
depend on him. The Wizards, even if both he and Barkley play, will not
be a very good team, and it will be, I suspect, very frustrating for
him.

I realize that there is something unfair in all this — I write as
someone who has been able to enjoy my own profession for 46 years now,
and I realize that life is crueler for athletes, taking away from them
at a young age what they do best, love best, finally what defines them.
I realize as well that with someone as driven and passionate as
Michael, that playing is like life itself, that there is, in a benign
sense, an addiction here, and that is harder to walk away from his
sport than almost any of the rest of us can imagine.

But Michael, when he played, was always aware of his special niché, and
of not wanting to slip. Of not playing a moment in his career when he
was less than his best. He knew too many stories of athletes who had
stayed too long, and were on the way down and held on, of Willie Mays
falling down in center field late in his career. Michael would talk to
his friend, Johnny Bach, the assistant coach, telling Bach to let him
know when he began to slip.

But here is the real truth: The player he will really be competing
against is not Latrell Sprewell or Vince Carter. The player he will be
competing against will be Michael Jordan, the best ever at that
position, the Michael Jordan who emerged those six wonderful years with
an almost perfect complement of talent around him.

That will be the toughest matchup of his career, going against the myth
of the most charismatic and exciting player most of us ever saw, and
who again and again — in what was ostensibly a big man’s game —
lifted his team above the odds and the competition. Those are images
most of us would prefer to leave as they are.

The temptation for him to come back must be immense: You go from a life
of the ultimate highs when every camera is always aimed at you, and
then when you are still a young man, you enter a far more mundane
middle-class existence. You get all the privacy you once wanted — but
at a terrible price, the loss of what was dearest to you.

I suspect if he comes back it will be fun again for him for a time — a
brief time — playing the game he loves so much, and being on the road
with his teammates; he and Charles will be quite a pair. He will love
the excitement generated by the crowd and the thrill of the
competition. The NBA’s television ratings, now in a predictable
post-Jordan depression, will probably bloom again. God knows, I’ll
watch again for a time.

And some of it might work. Michael might lift the Wizards to a higher
level than they’ve played at — that would not be too hard. There might
well be some wonderful nights when it all comes back, and he can score
40 or 50 points.

But I remember how hard those final weeks were in 1998, and I know how
much he hates to lose and how much he hates to play with indifferent
teammates, and if I were Michael, I would not take a chance on what was
not only one of the most brilliant careers in modern sports, but as
close to a perfect exit as I’ve ever seen.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam, who has written 12
bestsellers, including Playing for Keeps: Michael Jordan and the World
He Made, The Best and the Brightest, The Powers That Be, The Reckoning
and Summer of ’49, writes a bi-weekly column for Page 2.

By David Halberstam
Page 2 columnist