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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

Jordan Knows How to Romance a City

September 29, 2002|TONY KORNHEISER | WASHINGTON POST

Last season Michael Jordan had the fire and needed the ice. He had knee surgery during the offseason and now says he is ready to go.

For Washington, This Is a Fine Romance

He's baaaaaaack.

Those of you who were waiting for the other $175 Nike to drop, you can relax.

Michael Jordan isn't ditching us.

Over the last several months there were many people on many occasions who offered how they didn't think Jordan would play anymore. To a man they knew Jordan wanted to play. They know Jordan burns to play.

But they considered the way Jordan went out last season--with a knee injury that seemed a metaphor for the cumulative shock his body had absorbed over so many years of jumping so high and landing so hard. And they considered that he would be 40 years old this season, and they suggested the strain on Jordan's body would be too great. Most of the folks who held that view are easy to dismiss; they're sportswriters. But two of them were Doug Collins and Phil Jackson. So it made news when they said they had a hunch Jordan might be done.

We'd be crazy not to think Jordan had the same hunch. Wanting to play is one thing. Even needing to play. But what if the spirit is willing, and the flesh is weak? The last thing Jordan would want is to embarrass himself on the stage he has ruled for so many years. You can get by with losing a step here and there. But you'd better still be able to dance.

So this is how Michael Jordan spends his summer vacations these days: Training to see if he can still play basketball. Last year he was satisfied he could come back after three years away. This year he's satisfied he can come back after knee surgery. Or maybe he's looking to believe it. How does that song go? "Oh, it's a long, long time from May to December. But the days grow short when you reach September."

Jordan coming back is good news for Washington--the city as much as the basketball team. He is like a butterfly in that he won't be around long, but in full flight his beauty can lift our spirits. And the beauty is powerful enough to rule you. For Washington, having Jordan in town is like having a romance with a gorgeous girl you know is going to eventually break your heart by leaving. It's like dating Julia Roberts; you know it's never going to last--but in the meantime you're dating Julia Roberts.

In a statement released by the Wizards, Jordan is quoted saying he is "excited" to return to the court, that he "loves" basketball and that he is feeling "very strong." It is unclear how many times you have to pull the string on Estee Portnoy's head to get these responses.

Jordan is also quoted as saying, "No decisions have been made as to my exact role on the team, but I expect Coach Collins will make those assessments next week in training camp." How about we take a guess? How about: Michael Jordan will play as much as he likes, wherever he likes, for as long as he likes.

Because here's what's true: The next time Jordan gets substantively hurt--like with a knee injury--and he has to miss a bunch of games, that's sayonara, baby. This is the last go-round, and it only lasts as long as Jordan's healthy. So however much time he spends on the bench at the beginning of each game, he isn't putting on satin shorts to get a modeling deal.

He will play 30-35 minutes, often more. Playing with Jerry Stackhouse will energize Jordan, and make the Wizards big fun for him. He's played against Stackhouse and Brendan Haywood for years in pickup games in Chapel Hill. For years he's played against the new assistant coach, Patrick Ewing (and teamed with him at the 1992 Olympics); they're fast friends. He's had a whole summer to consider how to get the most out of his prized pick from last year, Kwame Brown. He's got eager young kids like Jared Jeffries and Juan Dixon to study at his feet like acolytes. This could be swell. This could be, "Hey, kids, let's go out to the barn and put on a show!" Who knows, this bunch could make the playoffs.

My concern is that when Jordan's gone this time, he's gone forever. I have always thought Michael Jordan was on loan to us, like a museum piece. He lives in Chicago. He loves Chicago. He belongs in Chicago. I'll bet he's back there, running the Bulls, within two years. And that's OK. We can console ourselves by remembering he picked us to sing his last songs to. It's right out of "Casablanca." We'll always have Jordan. Here's looking at you, kid.

Having Jordan here was--and is--a joy. Even in his descent he's a greater player and by far a greater figure than this basketball team has seen since the glory days of Wes Unseld, now almost 25 years gone. Having Jordan here is like holding a seashell in your hand, and you cup it to your ear and hear the echo of small triumphs and hearty laughter. Even years from now you'll hear, "Number 23 for your Washington Wizards, Michael Jordan" ambling through your head like in a dream. And even though he always looked better in red and black, you'll smile at the time he passed through our town and took us with him dancing in the dark.

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