WASHINGTON — Admit it. You'll watch.
That's what it all comes down to with Michael Jordan. The greatest ever, No. 23, is coming back as a player in the National Basketball Association with the lowly Washington Wizards, who this week confirmed months of speculation.
There are plenty of skeptics. They say he's too old, too proud, and too concerned with building his financial empire. They say he can't rise as he once could, that the youngsters like Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, and Vince Carter will be too much for him to handle.
His hops are gone. He's chubby.
Oh yeah? The truth is, no one knows what Jordan is capable of, even at age 38. And that's the beauty of his comeback.
We watch sports because they're unscripted. The unthinkable can happen any night. Barry Bonds (see story, page 1) can almost surely become the greatest single-season home-run hitter ever late in his career. Two sisters can play each other in the finals of the US Open tennis championship, while dad refuses to watch. America can beat the presumably unbeatable Soviet Union in Olympic ice hockey.
So what can Michael Jordan do?
He probably won't dominate, as he did for more than 12 years with the Chicago Bulls, when he won 10 scoring titles.
But already, he's brought basketball excitement back to Washington, a town stewing in a 14-year hoops slump. Furthermore, he's likely to boost ratings for the entire league, which recently has been worth watching only for the playoffs, and barely then. Even sworn rivals are dusting off their buckets and scrambling to catch the Jordan windfall.
"Sold out," says Jeffrey Twiss, the spokesman for the Boston Celtics, about the previously insignificant games when the Wizards visit the Fleet Center Nov. 7 and March 10. "There's a general curiosity factor," Twiss says. "How will he do? How many minutes will he play? Will he be as good?"
Other great athletes have attempted comebacks with graying hair (though, for the record, we have no idea what the the hair color is on Michael's shaven head). Mario Lemieux, once hockey's best, came back after three years off and has been splendid since.
Roger Clemens, who is one year older than Jordan, never retired, but appears to be near his career-best this season, with a 21-2 record and the American League Cy Young award all but locked up.
OK, you say, basketball is different. The 82-game regular season, played on hard wooden floors, can be downright crippling. And, whereas big men have been able to play into their 40s, Jordan is projected as a small forward, someone who needs speed, jumping ability, and toughness to get off a shot.
Sure, but Jordan's role this year will be different. He doesn't have to score 50 points to win respect, or play every game. He just has to be competitive, give us a glimpse of his fade-away jumper, slashing finishes, and killer instinct.
He'll have to temporarily relinquish his roles as part owner and director of basketball operations for the Wizards. But he certainly has a desire to put fans in the seats of the MCI Center. As of press time, Wizards season tickets were close to selling out, and local businesses were bracing for an influx of customers.
Jordan will be playing with a bunch of inexperienced but talented kids, including top draft pick Kwame Brown, who entered the NBA right out of high school. Jordan is Brown's mentor, and perhaps the greatest help he can give Brown is to shoulder the attention and pressure.
"I feel there is no better way of teaching young players than to be on the court with them as a fellow player, not just in practice, but in actual NBA games," Jordan said in the statement announcing his return.
Jordan is expected to school the Wizards in winning, even if the goal is modest. A 40-win season or a playoff berth would be nothing short of miraculous. No basketball player has been as competitive as Jordan, and that fire does not burn out easily.
"His greatest contribution has been to set a high standard for himself and the game," says Janet Lowe, who wrote a biography of Jordan called "Michael Jordan Speaks: Lessons from the World's Greatest Champion."
"What he might be able to continue to do is what he learned while he played for the Bulls: leadership, cohesion among the players, and inspiring the team," Lowe says.
Most important, though, is Jordan the man, and what he wants. Since retiring (for the second time) after winning a sixth NBA championship in Chicago in 1998, he has been a lost soul. Golf, front-office management - they're nothing compared to the rush of playing the world's best in front of a screaming crowd, or seeing a revival of your Nike silhouette.
So, if it makes him happy, why shouldn't he do it? If it makes us happy to watch, why shouldn't we gobble up tickets?
Jordan summed it up best himself, during a Sept. 10 brush with reporters after an NBA-caliber pickup game in Chicago.
"I'm doing it for the love of the game," he said of his comeback. "Nothing else. For the love of the game."