It's morning again in the NBA.
With a two-paragraph statement that ended two weeks of speculation, the Chicago Bulls announced Saturday that Michael Jordan, basketball's greatest star, will return during today's nationally televised game at Indianapolis.
"Michael Jordan today informed the Chicago Bulls that he is ending his retirement from professional basketball," the statement said. "He will make his return to the Bulls' lineup tomorrow when the Bulls face the Indiana Pacers."
Jordan released a shorter statement through his agent, David Falk, saying only: "I'm back."
Jordan, 32, retired in the fall of 1993, having won seven consecutive scoring titles and three consecutive National Basketball Assn. championships. In his last trip to the finals, against the Phoenix Suns, the NBA's TV ratings passed those of the World Series for the first time.
Last season, while Jordan played minor league baseball, ratings for the NBA finals, even with a New York entry, dropped 31%, to levels the league had not seen since the early 1980s.
It is not known how long Jordan intends his comeback to last. He reportedly received assurances from Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf that players Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong will not be traded, suggesting that Jordan is planning on staying another season or two.
"I hoped for it (a comeback)," Bulls Coach Phil Jackson said. "I never thought it would be an actuality.
"I don't know anything about what I'm going to do coaching-wise. He went through some of the plays (Saturday) we use in critical situations. It seems like he hasn't missed a beat."
The Bulls, now sixth in the Eastern Conference, have won three games in a row and trail No. 5 Cleveland by three games. However, they have sliced five games off the Cavaliers' lead in the last three weeks.
Reports of Jordan's possible comeback saw Bulls games throughout the league selling out, even in slow markets such as Atlanta. The corporations with which Jordan has endorsement ties saw their stock prices spurt, in what became known on Wall Street as "the $2-billion rumor."
Five days after the first reports of a comeback, Nike, his main endorsement deal, had jumped from 74 7/8 to 77 3/8, a gain in market value of $200 million.
Sara Lee, for whom he endorses Hanes underwear, was up 1 1/8, a gain of $500 million.
Quaker Oats, for whom he endorses Gatorade, was up one-eighth, a gain of $100 million.
General Mills (Wheaties) was up 2 7/8, a gain of $500 million.
McDonald's was up 1 7/8, a gain of $1 billion.
In all, it added up to a $2.3-billion gain. Jordan has continued to draw his $3.8-million annual salary from the Bulls. There have been reports he wanted a new contract, but there is a leaguewide freeze until a new labor contract is signed.
Hundreds of fans began gathering early Saturday at the Bulls' practice facility in suburban Deerfield after word leaked out of Jordan's imminent return.
After Jordan left practice and sped out of the parking lot in his red Corvette, a big cheer went up as signs proclaiming "Welcome Back Mike" were waved wildly.
"It really brings the city together," said Mary Imhof of Chicago. "It's wonderful, exhilarating. If he can do what he did before, it would be great for the city."
"I'm going to be glued to that TV," said Karin Ellefsen of Elmhurst. "I didn't think it was going to happen after all that waiting, but I'm happy it did."
Jordan is not going to start today's game, but will get playing time. He is expected to wear No. 45, his number while playing baseball. His former No. 23 has been retired by the Bulls and hangs from the rafters of the United Center in Chicago.
Speculation on what Jordan might do for the Bulls doesn't vary among NBA players.
"It's great for the game and it's great for the NBA," said Phoenix guard Danny Ainge. "I think everybody will be tuned in tomorrow to watch Michael play. I'm excited. I think Michael will raise the level of play of everybody.
"The guy has had 17 months off. He should be better than anybody," Ainge added. "The last time he did that--took a year off with his broken foot--he scored 63 on me."
That was on April 20, 1986, at Boston Garden, just over a month after Jordan returned after missing 64 regular-season games.
Chuck Person, a longtime trash-talking rival in Indiana now toiling for San Antonio in the Western Conference, said:
"He's like a poltergeist," Person said. "He's an incident by himself. I'm a Jordan fan, and I hope he gets to the finals. He's the best already this year, even though he hasn't played a game."
On Oct. 6, 1993, when Jordan retired, he was asked if he might return.
"I don't believe in never," he said. "Five years down the line, if the urge comes back. . . . I may come back."
OK, so he lasted only 17 1/2 months. As events have confirmed, he's a basketball player, not a fortuneteller.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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