Jordan's Graceful Return

SOMETIMES wondrous things simply occur; the universe, unbidden, shows a reserve of delight and grace. One doesn't ask to witness a double rainbow or a glorious sunset over San Francisco Bay. Natural wonders just happen.

Like Michael Jordan on a basketball court. Coming out of retirement. This season. Before the playoffs.

Who says the baseball strike has to be a drag? Let the players and owners stand off and strike out. All by himself, the greatest basketball player ever, hero to a planetful of kids and adults, has changed the dynamics of sports. Mr. Jordan will not waste his time in a Sargasso season of baseball; he returned to the Chicago Bulls March 19. His next stop: March 22, a final game on the historic parquet here in Boston, before the Garden is torn down; he's a link to Larry and Magic.

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Jordan's shot is rusty. It doesn't matter. His court sense and grace are intact. He's stealing, blocking, passing off, timing the pull-up jumper -- launching himself from the foul line in a patented air assault on the rim.

In some ways Michael has changed little. One minute he's blowing nonchalant bubble-gum spheres; the next he's winding down the court like some exalted panther on the prowl.

But one thing has changed: The negatives that surrounded Jordan before he left seem gone. The talk of gambling debts and late nights out, the questions that drove him away after the tragic death of his father -- are forgotten in the glow of the return.

We hope Jordan stays washed of them. He seems sincere about returning out of love for the game. He wants to offer constructive criticism, which is good, because someone needs to. The game is increasingly pampering a coterie of overpaid young stars whose talent far exceeds their character -- and whose egos are hollowing out the NBA. Michael even sounded like senior NBA statesman Julius Erving in saying after Sunday's game: ''I wanted to instill some positive things back in the game. There's a lot of negative things ... happening. The young guys are not taking care of their responsibility.... It's so business-oriented. The integrity of the game is at stake.''

Because Jordan returns with his powers intact, he can say these things. When he talks, he backs it up.

He is Michael Jordan. He's back. Time to say grace.

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