Wizard Jordan shows he can still make magic

This time around, Michael Jordan is human.

He falls into prolonged slumps, when his shots arch too low and skid off the front of the rim. Sometimes when he drives the lane, he can't elevate enough, and a quicker, younger opponent rises to swat the ball away.

On defense, he occasionally looks sluggish, with sweat pouring from his brow early in the game and his feet heavy and slow.

He is, after all, going on 39, and the hardwood floors have taken a toll on the greatest basketball player who ever lived.

But there are also times when he is marvelous. Like the Dec. 29 game against the Charlotte Hornets, when he stepped into a time warp and scored 51 points, including 24 in the first quarter, which set a Wizards record.

Or the game last week against his former team, the Chicago Bulls, when at the end of regulation he soared above the rim - and practically walked on air - to simultaneously block and rebound a shot, securing a hard-fought win in dramatic fashion.

Most incredibly of all, though, Jordan, in his miraculous comeback, has taken the once lowly Washington Wizards, a team with frighteningly sparse talent, and transformed it into a winner.

The Wizards have an 18-14 record going into tonight's game against the Milwaukee Bucks and are on an early course to make the playoffs, even though two of their best players, Richard Hamilton and Christian Laettner, are injured. With more than half the season remaining, they are within one game of last year's win total.

To the doubters, to the ones who said Jordan would embarrass himself by returning to the court, the numbers speak for themselves.

Sometimes he does it by scoring (24.6 points per game, eighth in the league), sometimes he does it by passing (5.4 assists per game). Always, however, he does it by leading. He is an on-the-floor coach, a mentor, and an object of awe to his teammates, who in moments of weakness are guilty of slowing down their own play to watch the man many of them idolized as kids.

"Michael is a player who brings out the best in everyone," says his coach, Doug Collins. "The rest is falling into place."

But more than anything, the new Jordan beats you with his brains, not just his legs. He's a perfectionist with flawless mechanics and a bulletproof work ethic. He's a professor emeritus of confidence.

"I always felt this could be a playoff team," Jordan says. "And I just think the other players are starting to believe that. The overall morale of this team, and I hope the organization, is very positive. That's all I ever ask for."

Last year, when Jordan was in the Wizards' front office as the head of basketball operations, just the opposite was true. The Wizards were a team of overpaid underachievers, whose specialty was blowing leads late in the game.

At times, Jordan was visibly frustrated as he stewed in the owner's box, and critics questioned some of his personnel decisions.

"The thing that I didn't like was the attitude that the players had, which was an attitude not to lose instead of going out and winning the ballgame," Jordan says about last year's Wizards.

Now, after a rocky start to the season, the new-look Wizards are gaining confidence and open shots.

In crunch time, they know they can put the ball in the hands of the game's greatest closer. That helps.

Meanwhile, they get open looks at the basket because opponents almost always double-team Jordan.

"Michael is there for us every night, but we need to help Michael, too," teammate Hubert Davis says. "We can't expect him to score 50 every night. Trying to help Michael makes us more aggressive."

Oftentimes, weak teams with one great player tend to be dysfunctional - with a splintered locker room and teammates more concerned about statistics than winning. So far, that has not happened with Jordan, who can often be seen jawing to teammates as they run down the court.

"He doesn't really yell at you," says rookie center Brendan Haywood. "He just tells you what you need to do to be successful."

The Jordan effect is also felt off the court. He helps sell out the Wizards' MCI Center for every home game, and on the road he plays to nothing but full houses - at a time when the NBA's popularity is sagging.

He packs the Wizards' locker room with reporters after each game and gets his now-famous teammates on national television almost every time they play. The Washington Post even assigned a reporter to cover him.

The only question remaining: How long can he last?

Will he retire for the third time after this season, in which the Wizards can expect to make the playoffs but not compete for an outright championship? Can he even finish out this season, which has yet to even reach its dog days?

If history is an indicator, Jordan will do what he set out to do: make it through this season, take his team to the playoffs, then think about the future.

"We have bonded well enough and gotten through injuries to the point where we've put ourselves in a real good situation," Jordan says, keeping the focus on the team rather than himself.

"I don't want to jump ahead of ourselves, I don't want us to get full of ourselves, but I think we are playing well. We can be a playoff team."

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