SBJ/October 8 - 14, 2001/Opinion

It’s child’s play, again, for MJ

Some years ago, I was in Las Vegas covering a boxing match, and staying in a hotel off that city's Strip. The morning before the fight, leaving on my reporting rounds, I passed a tennis court where Sugar Ray Leonard, who'd just retired from boxing and was on hand as a television commentator, was hitting balls. I returned more than five hours later to find him still whacking away.

I recall thinking that Leonard must be seriously bored, so I wasn't surprised when, a month or so later, he said he was returning to the ring. Even a detached retina that threatened the vision in one of his eyes couldn't deter him from going back to the one activity that gave him satisfying occupation.

Now, also seemingly out of boredom and against the dictates of good sense, Michael Jordan has said that he's returning to the National Basketball Association wars at age 38 after a three-year retirement, his second, by the way. The run-up to the announcement was pure Jordan, a will-he-or-won't-he drama whose layers unpeeled onion-like and put him in the spotlight for a good six months. The guy's a better stripper than Blaze Starr in her prime.

If ever there was a good news-bad news situation, this is it. The good news, of course, will come from the pleasure people will get from being able to see basketball's greatest player perform again under any circumstances, the box-office and TV-ratings lifts his presence will bring to his league, and the sales boosts it will afford companies that pay him handsomely to say "cheese" while holding up their products.

The most obvious bad-news potential lies in the diminished skills and increased susceptibility to injury that almost certainly will result from Jordan's advanced years. Idols step from their pedestals at their risk, and at ours.

But worse, I think, is the disappointment one feels at the thought that all that this transcendent athlete can think of doing as middle age envelops him is the same thing he did as a kid. He must know that whatever he accomplishes in his latest comeback isn't likely to top the championship rings, Olympic gold medals and scoring and MVP trophies he's already amassed.

Further, satisfying his antsy nature meant walking out on the challenge he accepted when he became a part owner and basketball honcho of the Washington Wizards, the team he'll now play for. His 20 months in that outfit's front office did little to improve its woebegone status. He hired one coach only to fire him and hire another, and pared veterans from the roster without replacing them in kind. The team could improve with free agents next season, but the league's 1999 labor contract made team-hopping less attractive than it was before, and it remains to be seen if young stars whose present contracts are due to lapse would relish an indefinite term as second banana to MJ with the Wiz.

You can't help but contrast Jordan's post-basketball life with that of Earvin "Magic" Johnson, the ex-Los Angeles Laker great. He left the game in 1991 after being diagnosed as HIV-positive at age 32, yet despite the burden of that condition, and without Jordan's endorsement lode, he's become an imaginative, successful and community-minded businessman. Yes, Johnson did scratch his basketball itch by nipping back into the NBA as both a coach and a player, but those brief hitches served mainly to remind them that he'd been there and done that, and it was time to move on.

Jordan says he's returning "for love of the game," but he could use his wealth and immense celebrity to express that love by being a worldwide ambassador for the sport, or for any other cause he chooses. He might get around to that eventually. First, though, he'll have to bounce a basketball several thousand times more.

Frederick C. Klein is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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