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Unsentimental Value

Jordan's final trip around the NBA, which stops in L.A. tonight, is no emotional farewell tour; in fact, it's been more like a workman clocking out for the last time

March 28, 2003|J.A. Adande | Times Staff Writer

It's not just the first step that makes Michael Jordan so effective, it's his ability to see the double-team coming and escape it. This applies off the court too. Especially off the court.

What Jordan has always done better than most famous persons is move through a crowd, somehow sliding from Point A to Point B without getting bogged down. He can acknowledge you and vacate you at the same time. He looks at you and reaches out to shake your hand, but by the time he does he's already past you, simultaneously granting an audience while moving on to the next subject. Too smooth to get surrounded.

He's in that same mode in the final 11 regular-season games of his playing career, which comes here one last time for a game against the Lakers tonight.

He strides through NBA arenas as if they're hotel lobbies. A wave, a few jumpers, then he's done. It's about the destination, not the journey. His eyes are already on his next stop, when he hangs up his Washington Wizard jersey and returns to their front office.

"There's no sentimental things for me right now," Jordan said this week. "I'm going to have memories no matter how you look at it. I can't think about all the memories while I'm trying to play and trying to do my job."

There are no ceremonies and no speeches. Usually there's a video tribute on an arena's giant screens, and a long standing ovation when he is introduced in the starting lineup before a game.

He can still draw fans, from the guy who said he spent his "life savings" ($750) on a ticket to the Warrior-Wizard game to billionaires such as filmmaker George Lucas.

The creator of "Star Wars" sat courtside when the Wizards played at Golden State on Sunday. He took his 10-year-old son, who is just getting into basketball. Although Lucas does not attend many games, he went down from Skywalker Ranch to see Jordan because "he's amazing. Absolutely amazing."

It didn't take long for the conversation to turn to "Star Wars," and Lucas said that while adults might cherish the original trilogy, kids prefer the new "Star Wars" movies. It's hard to believe that anyone could choose the antics of young Anakin and Jar-Jar Binks over the heroics of Luke, Han and Leia, but perhaps this realization can help prepare us for the not-too-distant day when a Kobe Bryant or a Tracy McGrady is emblematic of the NBA, and Jordan is just a guy who used to play.

There's already a drop-off from the heyday of Michaelmania, which peaked with the Chicago Bulls' second three-peat run, from 1995-96 to 1997-98. That's when throngs of fans ringed their hotels in every city, and camera flashes exploded like a fireworks display every time Jordan shot a free throw.

The difference is, no one asked him to come back for a third go-round. When he first called it quits at age 30 after his third championship in 1993, we felt cheated, denied an opportunity to watch one of the all-time greats in his prime. When he returned in 1995 it was actually heralded with trumpet fanfare on "SportsCenter."

This time his return announcement was delayed, then tempered by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. His last regular-season game, in Philadelphia on April 16, will probably be overshadowed by the war in Iraq.

No doubt, Jordan's still in demand. Fans hanging over the service tunnel at the Arena in Oakland roared when he walked into sight after the game. More fans waited in the rain in Portland, Ore., hoping to catch a glimpse of him and maybe even an autograph as he walked from the hotel to the team bus. It's just not as intense as before. If those Bulls were the Beatles, this is a Paul McCartney solo tour.

Jordan's backup band is of greater interest to him than to his fans. There's old buddy Charles Oakley, a teammate from his rookie year, back to provide a little toughness when his aging body allows him to take the floor. Jordan called John Bach, an assistant coach under Phil Jackson in Chicago, out of retirement to join Doug Collins' staff in Washington. Bach was at an art workshop, sketching away in Rockport, Maine, when Jordan called. Bach sounded as if he had no choice.

"When you're summoned by the archangel, you show up," he said.

Jordan brought in Patrick Ewing, whom he tormented for so long when Ewing was a New York Knick, as another assistant coach.

"For years I've been fighting against him," Ewing said. "Now I'm fighting with him."

It's almost as if Jordan needs the companionship of friends more than he needs the adulation of fans. If the sun is setting on his career, he's going to sit on the stoop with the fellas and watch it go down.

That was the scene after the team worked out at the Warrior practice facility in Oakland on Monday. For close to an hour after the balls stopped bouncing and the younger players cleared out of the gym, Jordan sat with his personal trainer, Tim Grover, and Warrior consultant Chris Mullin (who played on the 1984 and 1992 Olympic teams with Jordan) and talked ball.

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