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If Michael Jordan's early years were about his mixing athletic ability with creativity, the first set of NBA championships about his adjusting that creativity to a team concept, and the second set about getting back on top and establishing his legacy once and for all, with teammates more specialized and complementary in their roles than ever before, then his latest comeback is about almost nothing but determination. He isn't as creative as he used to be because his body no longer lets him do all the things his mind imagines. His legacy is fixed, though if anything it's been heightened by the early success of this latest comeback--much to the chagrin of those who were eager to bury him if it failed. Jordan seems determined to play a team game--that is, as much of a team game as he has ever played--yet not even he can consider his Washington Wizards serious title contenders (though he must be glad they're winning; I never took seriously his statement that he didn't care if the team won or lost so long as he taught his players the finer points of the game). No, what shines through in this presumably last segment of his career, is his determination. It was always there, but once it was veiled by the incredible grace and beauty of his play.

Jordan is not only older now, about to turn 39, and slower, but also bigger and stronger. When he made the decision to come back--it was about a year ago that he started working out again in earnest--he knew he'd have to switch from shooting guard to small forward. So he built his body up. He rarely creates his own shots now, no longer having the same lift on his stop-and-pop jumper, so he now gets his shot the way most stars do, with the help of teammates setting screens. Why has he done all this, altering his body and his style of play to return to a sport he long ago defined, and at the immediate cost of his marriage? Who can say? Probably not even Jordan himself. Yet the impression he makes on a fan--and no doubt on teammates and opponents--is one of utter concentration. Slower but harder, that famous shaved head of his now revealing more bumps, veins, and musculature when he works the jaw full of Doublemint gum, Jordan continues to teach us new things about himself, and new lessons about what it means to be an athlete. That's the most amazing thing of all about his comeback.

After a difficult start, both his own and his team's--"We stink," he said at one point, with none of the irony he and Scottie Pippen had once employed in calling each other "Doo-Doo" and "Shit"--he has willed the Wizards into winning. Since early December Washington has been the hottest team in the Eastern Conference, and it entered the week at 18-16, which at this point would earn it the conference's sixth seed in the playoffs. Depending on what happens this week, when the Wizards play in Chicago this Saturday they'll be trying to meet or top last year's full-season allotment of 19 wins. Compare that to the Bulls' 7-29 record after winning just 15 games last season.

Despite a slow start, Jordan entered the week in the top ten in the league in scoring at 24.6 points a game, and his 6.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists a game compared nicely with any segment of his career. And two weeks ago he did a number on the Bulls in Washington, making them the victims of his 30,000th NBA point, humiliating them in the first half and sealing the win with a new trick that was vintage Jordan.

Jordan welcomed the Bulls to Washington for his first game against them with all the menace of a hurricane. Only three games before, his double-digit scoring streak, which had extended back to his rookie season, ended with one of the worst performances of his career: he scored six points. Yet the Jordan legend is built on coming back from humiliation, as Jordan himself once pointed out in a Nike ad; he scored 51 points his next game and followed that with 45. He would have been a Category 5 storm waiting for the Bulls if he hadn't caught a cold. But even this gave small solace to the Bulls, as Jordan has had some of his biggest games after climbing out of sickbeds--including, of course, the fifth game of the 1997 NBA finals he played against the Jazz with stomach flu. The Bulls in general, and Ron Artest in particular, had to be expecting a Jordan whirlwind.

That's exactly what he gave them, but not in the flashy way fans would have expected from the old Jordan. He came out playing well within himself; one could imagine him repeating the old saw about letting the game come to him. Distributing the ball around the court, he led the Wizards to a ten-point lead before the Bulls even scored. Clearly still ailing a bit, Jordan even sat himself down before his usual rotation in the first quarter, then took another breather at his usual time right before the end of the period. By then the Wizards led 32-18, and Jordan had six points--right on his game average.

He came off the bench early in the second quarter and right away popped to make it 36-22. As Artest scrambled around flat-footed after him, Jordan suddenly looked years younger, cutting off screens and hitting open shots. There was the familiar loose-limbed way he prowled the defensive perimeter, elbows almost flapping at his sides, and the mincing stride as he walked to the bench after hitting a couple of free throws, one of which gave him that 30,000th point. Then he got serious and started raining points on the Bulls, and when they switched defenses to attack him--by that time he had 21 points--he passed inside for easy baskets. Then he knifed down the baseline for a classic reverse lay-in, making it look easy to the point of nonchalance. Just before the half he rattled in his 25th point, a long jumper that hit the back rim, the front rim, and the backboard before dropping through the hoop, sending the Wizards into the intermission with a comfortable 57-37 lead. What was most impressive about Jordan was the lack of spectacle: no shoulder-shrugging threes or shift-of-hands layups, just precise team basketball in which time after time one team found new ways to free up the man the other team was concentrating on.

In the second half, however, Jordan clearly lacked stamina, while the Bulls were proving they're a different team under new coach Bill Cartwright, Jordan's teammate on his first three championship squads. There would be no quitting on this night, the way the Bulls occasionally quit under Tim Floyd. They just kept coming, led by Ron Mercer, who would wind up with 25 points, and Marcus Fizer, who'd get 13 off the bench. The Bulls made a run in the third, fell back to an 18-point deficit, then charged in the fourth. Jordan had to come off the bench to end his teammates' scoring drought--the ultimate ignominy for the scrubeenies back in his days with the Bulls--but though he got himself to 29 points he couldn't put the Bulls away. He missed a pair of free throws that would have halted a Bulls run, and at another point threw up an air ball. It came down to the final minute, the last 20 seconds, with the Wizards up six and Jordan trying to stick the dagger. Unbelievably, his shot was blocked, and the Bulls were fast-breaking the other way.

That's when fate and ability aligned the way they seem to only for Jordan. Mercer had the ball on the run, and with 15 seconds to play should have pulled up and tried a three. Yet he continued on for the layup, and Jordan came out of nowhere to go up and over him and spear the shot with two hands out of the air. There was no in-your-face swatting of the ball into the cheap seats, a rejection that would have given the ball back to the Bulls. It was rather as if Jordan had said, almost disdainfully, "If you don't know enough to pull up and shoot the three your team needs, you don't deserve to even try a layup, so I'm taking the ball away." Jordan sealed the Wizards' 89-83 victory in a way only he could.

When he returns to town Saturday he won't have anything to prove. It's the Bulls who will, resurgent under their new coach and coming off their United Center upset of the NBA-champion Los Angeles Lakers last Saturday. The Lakers lost interest in that game, building a 17-point lead in the first quarter and squandering it by halftime, which found the score tied at 50. They hung with the Lakers until bums Brad Miller and Charles Oakley hounded Shaquille O'Neal into throwing a punch in the fourth quarter. The referees handed out a disproportionate amount of punishment to the Lakers, and when the final free throws had been taken and the dust had settled the Lakers' 87-84 lead was only 88-87. The Bulls also got the ball, even though a flagrant foul against O'Neal had started it all. A Mercer three with nine seconds to play tied the game at 94 and sent it into overtime. Kobe Bryant went cold, and teenage rookie Tyson Chandler gave the Bulls their final lead by converting an Artest miss into a rim-rattling dunk. It was 106-104 Bulls in the end, a win that upstaged old coach Phil Jackson.

Now the Bulls hope to do the same in Jordan's homecoming. Given his past, the way he manhandled the Bulls in Washington, and his flair for the dramatic--don't expect him to buckle under the added pressure of his recently announced split up--they'd better be planning how to get him thrown out of the game if they want to have any hope of winning it.


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