|MJ's 40,000-mile service|
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist
Over the years, there have been several 40-year-olds active in the NBA: Charley Jones, Herb Williams, Danny Schayes, Moses Malone, Robert Parish, James Edwards, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and John Stockton all come to mind. Of these, only Kareem and Stockton played significant minutes. (And Kareem played into his dotage only because of financial difficulties. Because the referees refused to continue giving him the benefit of "All-Star calls," he was a marginal performer during his farewell tour. Stockton, of course, is still out there banging heads with the young bucks.)
And so, as Michael Jordan rapidly approaches the cusp of his 40th year among us mere mortals, it's time to take a last close look at what's left of MJ's game.
Here's the Wizards' in-house scouting report, courtesy of veteran assistant coach John Bach, who also coached MJ in Chicago: "Michael is mostly an earthbound jump shooter these days. He can't finish with the incredible power and vertical leap that he used to have. He needs more than one step to approach the basket cleanly, and instead of challenging all comers he has to be very tricky. But he can get it done. If he used to deliver in the clutch about 80 percent of the time, now he's down to about 60 percent -- which still isn't bad. His biggest advantage is that, while so many young kids play inside a tunnel, MJ can read the ball and read a defense in much the same way that guys like Bird and Magic could. That's why even though MJ stays away from the boards, he still averages about six rebounds per game."
MJ has dedicated his last NBA season to propelling the center-less and point-guard-less Wizards into the playoffs (something the franchise has accomplished only once -- 1997 -- in the past 14 seasons). To that end, Jordan has had multiple high-scoring performances so far, most of them in lopsided decisions early in the season when his legs were fresh -- 33 in a blowout of Memphis, 30 in a rout of Atlanta.
But for me, the true measure of what Jordan has left in his tank was on display two days later when Washington hosted the Boston Celtics. Would his body recover? How about his concentration and his chops?
Indeed, for most of the game Jordan looks weary. Even in the opening period, he studiously avoids the battle of the boards, and on numerous forays in the offensive zone, Jordan simply spots up somewhere near the 3-point line on the weakside, resting while Jerry Stackhouse gets the go-to touches.
Doug Collins calls MJ to the bench with the score even and less than a minute remaining in the first quarter. And even though MJ has mostly been an interested spectator during his initial rotation, the Wizards offense stalls while he rests -- so with 9:12 remaining in the half, Jordan is sent back into the action.
Here's how Jordan's second rotation goes:
At the half, Jordan slowly walks off the court looking exhausted and all used up. He sees and knows, but can't deliver.
Fresh from his midgame rest, MJ begins the second half ...
Jordan takes a seat with 35 seconds left in the third quarter. Had he been a lesser player with a lesser rep, his rather dismal performance so far wouldn't have earned him any more game time. Even so, he re-enters the fray with 9:30 left:
"Michael has some source of power that's unavailable to the rest of us earthlings," Bach says, "and what energy he does have is never wasted. And if the refs won't let him get away with all of the extracurricular stuff as in times past, he sometimes still gets away with murder. Watch Michael when he's posted up and makes a quick pivot. That off arm swings around like a club. Pow! The same way that Dolph Schayes used to play when he had his right arm in a cast."
In the final minutes, MJ seems to have a second wind.
Doug Collins does all the talking during a brief timeout, and MJ nods in agreement with whatever strategies his coach is devising. Collins and MJ have come a long way in the 14 years since Collins was canned by Jerry Krause. Even though Jordan was out of town when the ax fell, Collins believed that MJ had acquiesced in his dismissal by not voicing any protest. In fact, Jordan's hiring of Collins in Washington was his way of demonstrating that he had nothing to do with Collins' departure from Chicago. And after all these years, the two have developed a workable relationship.
Late in the game, MJ is as bright-eyed as a rookie. "That's his gunfighter's gleam," Bach says. "MJ is as mean as he ever was, and he likes to make everything personal. He goes after guys like Jalen Rose and Antoine Walker like he just caught them trying to steal his wallet. MJ may no longer lead the NBA in scoring, but he's still the league's champion trash-talker. He holds his jersey up to his face to muffle his voice so the refs can't overhear when he's lambasting somebody. His skills are certainly diminished, but his competitive spirit is burning as fiercely as ever."
Then, with only 32.8 seconds on the game clock and his team trailing 95-93, MJ makes three plays to win the game:
Jordan walks slowly off the court, laughing with Hughes.
In the postgame locker room, MJ will light up a Cuban cigar and grab himself a frosty six-pack of beer, the game already forgotten. "Women, food, cars, clothing, jewelry," says Bach. "None of those things mean anything to Michael. The only thing that lights his fire is the sheer joy of competing. I'm 78, but just being around MJ makes me feel like a teenager."
So, let's not be too quick to coronate Kobe or Kidd, T-Mac or Dunkin' Duncan, AI or Shaq, or any other pretender. Because His Airness hasn't quite abdicated just yet.
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."