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Jordan's Leap: Washed Up to Ageless Wonder

November 03, 2002|Joseph White | Associated Press

WASHINGTON — He drove around defenders with ease and did a little high-step when he made his jump shots. He scored a point for every minute he played.

Michael Jordan may be 39, but who could tell on this night? His game had all the compelling elements of years past -- flow, rhythm, aggression, confidence.

"That felt good," he said.

The performance during the Washington Wizards' 114-69 victory over the Boston Celtics on Thursday came a night after Jordan missed two free throws and a breakaway dunk in the fourth quarter of a defeat in Toronto.

In one of the worst games of his 15-year career, Jordan labored on the court, looking less like the greatest basketball player ever and more like an old man who should be doing something else.

The 24-hour turn of events reinforced a Michael Jordan axiom: Never underestimate his determination to prove his critics wrong.

"I'm trying to stay ahead of all the criticism. That's the driving force for me," Jordan said on the eve of the season opener against the Toronto Raptors. "It's not that I can't do it; it's a matter of doing it at this age."

But at the Air Canada Centre, Jordan seemed as if he were trying simply to hang on for one more year. The rest of the team that Jordan assembled over the summer looked almost as bad in the 74-68 loss.

Sports talk shows nationwide spent much of Thursday comparing Jordan to stars like Willie Mays, who became a sad embarrassment by playing well past his prime.

They spoke too soon about No. 23.

Jordan scored 21 points in 21 minutes against the Celtics, who endured the worst regular-season loss in their storied history.

He showed no ill effects from the knee problems that bothered him all of last season. His four-point sequence at the end of the first half -- two free throws, stolen inbounds pass, 21-foot jumper, celebratory cancan kick -- lifted the arena as only Jordan can.

The superstar who led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships had two reasons to gloat afterward. First, as a proud Wizards executive: "In terms of what we all envisioned, in putting this team together, tonight it worked perfectly."

Second, as player, when he was reminded that old friend and Chicago native Antoine Walker plays for the Celtics: "I can go back to Chicago with some bragging rights."

Last season -- his first since coming out of retirement for the second time -- Jordan followed a career-worst six-point game with a 51-point onslaught. The whole season was a roller coaster as he struggled with his knees and tried to carry a team short on talent.

The game plan has changed this season. To save his knees, Jordan is a substitute. He can afford to do that because he upgraded the players around him, adding Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes and Bryon Russell, among others.

"You can't really write him off," Walker said after Thursday's game. "He's coming off the bench, so it's going to take him awhile to get warmed up.

"There are going to be nights when he doesn't play well, and there are going to be nights when he plays great. But he's going to play more better games than worse games."

Jordan admitted he overdid his workouts at the expense of his knees last season. This year, he played in just three of eight exhibition games, so a bit of rust at the start is expected.

"Michael is a genius as a basketball player," Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "What he went through last year physically makes him more aware this year of what we do have to do. He's still working to get himself in the shape he needs to play."

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