Game 1. Mike isn't playing. It's 2 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 28, at Hoops the Gym in Chicago. He looks mighty fine, though. Shaved noggin, silver hoop in the left ear, the latest white Air Jordans on his dogs. His cut-sleeve jersey is pure robin's egg, Carolina blue, and his white trunks, longer and baggier than any you've seen, are trimmed sweetly at the bottoms with stitched piping that perfectly matches his jersey.
Three NBA refs are here in their work clothes, including longtimer Danny Crawford, to judge delicately these pickup games, one ref at a time, just to be sure nobody gets mugged, low-bridged or talked out of the ball. There are no other people here except the 15 or so invitation-only players and their core posses; master trainer Tim Grover, whose fitness area is upstairs; Hoops president Gary Cowen; George Kohler, Jordan's longtime driver and buddy; Lou Canellis, a pal and local radio personality; and two off-duty cops, also Jordan employees.
There are people in the street, kids on bikes, autograph hounds. Media types try to sneak in. TV crews stake out the parking lot. Reporters ambush players who dodge them on the sidewalks. But nobody gets in the two-story building with the double doors, buzzer and cops unless Mike says so.
Game 2. Despite the endless speculation on whether and why Michael Jordan might be coming back to the NBA, nobody has seen him play. Well, some players have, and the anointed few acquaintances, but that's it. The radio talk goes on and on. Meanwhile, advertisers are lined up, ready to pounce on Jordan the Endorser. Already Jordan and Mini-Me are doing MCI stuff, and Jordan is again hawking his Hanes underwear. The Chicago ad firm of Foote, Cone & Belding worked up a new Gatorade spot in June that's ready to launch the instant Jordan announces he's coming back for sure. NBC and TNT slobber at the prospect of prime-time MJ. Once he backed off the "99.9% retired" stuff, Jordan has repeatedly said, "I'll decide by mid-September." Until then, everyone continues to speculate.
But now Jordan's team is up. The five of Rico Hill, Shawn Mason, Mike King, Juwan Howard and MJ is not as strong as the Penny Hardaway, Michael Finley, Tyson Chandler, A.J. Guyton, Kevin Edwards team, winner of Game 1. But in pickup, you never know. It's first to 10, straight-up, no free throws, no threes, winners play on.
Jordan, guarded by Finley, handles the ball a good bit. He's lean and muscular, but there's a white wrap on his left elbow and a rubber sleeve on and below his left knee for the tendinitis that's flared up. As MJ slashes through defenders, you can just barely detect a slight limp in his gait. He makes his team's second basket on a baseline fallaway, then hits the third bucket on a turnaround at the foul line. He feeds sweetly to Howard in the middle, but the Bulls' new teenager, Chandler, deflects the shot. Guyton and Edwards are smokin' hot, draining three long jumpers each, and soon Jordan's team has lost, 10-6.
Game 3. Reshuffle the deck. Now, it's Jordan, his own draft choice, Bobby Simmons out of DePaul, Shelley Clark from Illinois, recent Wiz acquisition Courtney Alexander and Antoine Walker. Finley is again on MJ, but part way into the game, Hardaway moves onto Mike. In games back in June and July, before Jordan had two ribs broken by Ron Artest, and before he took 2 1/2 weeks off to work his camps in Chicago, Santa Barbara and Vegas, he'd been untouchable. Playing at Hoops with Guyton, Marcus Fizer, George McCloud, Dickey Simpkins and yes, the Round Mound of Sound, Charles Barkley, the fire was there. The confidence. The touch. The springs.
But now defense is Jordan's problem, or rather his team's D is. Nobody checks Chandler, who dunks with ease. Hardaway makes three jumpers, and Jordan looks mortal on his vertical. On the other end, Jordan plays point guard, and it's clear he doesn't want to lose. When he throws a nice assist to Alexander on a fast-break jam, the score is tied at 8.
Chandler grabs a rebound and dunks so hard that Jordan, who is underneath, flinches, covers his head and backs away: 9-8, dark shirts. Michael limps noticeably now, but he wants this. He takes a shot, misses, rebounds, taps, misses. The old Mike would have finished it, but today it takes Walker to tip in the third rebound and tie the game. Next shot wins.
The ball comes to Penny. He dribbles, fakes, rises up and hits an 18-footer over Jordan. Ball game. Mike is breathing hard. Mike is beat.
Game 4. Two weeks ago, Grover said he didn't think Jordan would be coming back. "If you'd asked me before he had the setback with the ribs, I would have probably said yes," he told the Chicago Sun-Times. "But taking four weeks off to heal, that was crucial. That's why I say no."
But Grover doesn't know. He admits it. I ask him all the time what Jordan is going to do, and all he can do is shrug. I ask Jordan himself, and he says, "Give me a couple weeks. I honestly don't know."
It has been written that Jordan has made his fellow players swear to keep everything inside Hoops secret. But that isn't so. He didn't have to. "We know why we're here. This is like the summer league place," says Howard. "It's like those runs we had in L.A. on his floor in '95 when Mike was making Space Jam. It was awesome." Does it bother Howard that Jordan traded him to the Mavericks? "Nah, it's just business," he says. "I'd have done it too."
On the court, the red light goes on in Jordan's eyes. His new fivesome includes Howard, King, Hill and Mason -- same as in that first loss. But now Jordan asserts himself even more. He takes over the ball once it gets to the frontcourt, handling it like a point guard, or maybe a point forward. Often, he stands at the top of the key and directs like John Stockton, looking for the assist. This is new.
The score is 5-5 and Jordan is sucking wind. During breaks, he bends to grab the edges of those fancy shorts. He's not the superhero of yore. He goes in for a gimme and Edwards, good old, out-of-the-NBA Kevin, gets a hand on it. Hmmm. But Jordan's passes are flawless, and when his team goes up a point on the Hardaway-Finley-Chandler gang, Jordan screams to his 'mates, "8-7! 8-7!" That's the score, and they'd better not forget it. When Jordan hits a fallaway over Penny, his boys win, 10-8. Jordan nods. He's gassed, but this is how it's supposed to be.
Game 5. Jordan checks Alexander, his possible Wizards backcourt mate. Jordan's pretty blue jersey is sweated up nicely, and there's none of that spring in his step, like he had in, say, 1991. Young legs may make random cameos, but when you're 38, they're never going to return for good. Of course, if this guy has a genius, it is the ability to reinvent himself. Oh, and he hates losing more than dying. This game goes fast. Jordan hits Howard for a baby turnaround, and they win, 10-7.
Game 6. A month or so ago, high school junior-to-be LeBron James was playing here with the big boys. The 6'7" kid looked much older than his 16 years and played like the first underclassman high school lottery pick he may turn out to be. Jordan's ribs were cracked and hurting -- "Man, I can't even play golf," he moaned to me in spiritual agony -- but he sat on a folding chair just off center court and enjoyed the show. His two sons, Marcus (10) and Jeffrey (12), not that much younger than James, shot at baskets on the side, and Michael, now clad all in white, looked like a contented emperor surveying his kingdom. He'd talked about the NBA and the impending rules changes and how he thought the semizones might cause scores to drop into the 70s or even 60s. Might be good for an old-timer like him.
"They haven't sent us the new rules yet," says the Wizards exec, as he gets up to take on a starting five that probably could finish in the middle of the NBA pack this season: Hardaway, Finley, Edwards, Walker and Chandler. His ribs are still sore, his leg gimpy. No matter. Jordan, continuing in his point-forward role, is on a roll. Up 9-4, everyone knows what's coming. Everyone. Jordan gets the ball. He backs Penny down. There's some hand-checking, some dribbling, and Jordan rises to bury a 15-foot J. The tongue comes out. He backpedals. Suddenly, there's hope.
Game 7. They've been playing for almost two hours and guys are winded, especially Jordan's team after its three straight wins. Michael's jersey is wringing wet. With each pause in the game and transition between baskets, Jordan limps. But so does Hardaway. So does almost everyone. Except the kids. Because they don't know what it's like.
Jordan gets fouled on a rebound. The ref is silent. Jordan has something to say, but the refs here make almost no calls, and they sure aren't calling T's. This game is ferocious. Jordan goes up for a shot and Penny is all over him, NBA-style, nearly ripping his arm off. Amazingly, the ball goes in, but Jordan throws that evil eye to the ref. The challengers tie the game at 8, and Jordan has the ball again -- until his hand is smacked hard enough that the ball caroms downcourt. As the rest of the players stay at the other end, not sure if there's a foul, Alexander, all alone, half-speed, slams it in. Behind the play comes that familiar head-down, furrowed-forehead stare and machine-gun mouth firing nasty shots at the ref. The game resumes. Howard misses a shot. The other guys bring the ball downcourt. Walker, the smooth, purported point-guard-to-be, buries a long jumper and that's all she wrote. Jordan's boys lose, 10-8. The emperor still fumes, but it's over for today.
Mike has gone 3-3, a .500 record. On the Wizards, that would be cause for optimism. Can he live with that? Will he ever again control a game in the NBA the way he did today's game? He and a few others walk upstairs to Grover's training room, drape themselves over weight machines and rehydrate. Jordan hits the showers and comes out in street clothes, late-model skinny shades covering his eyes. Now he's upbeat again, joshing with the guys, the cops, the deskman, ready to move on. I tell him he smells like cigar smoke, and he snorts. Executives smoke cigars, don't they?
How about some action photos, I ask him. Of the scrimmages. You know, for documentation. "Man, wait until my tendinitis has cleared up. In a week or so," he says. Then it's out the doors and into the real world. And endless speculation.
This article appears in the September 17 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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