No one understands Michael Jordan.
Fans and media both chastise him for wanting to come back into the NBA at 38, emphasizing that he has nothing left to prove. They argue that Mike left at the pinnacle of his career, and that claiming a return will taint his legacy.
Three years ago in Salt Lake City he hit the game winning shot of the NBA finals and walked off the court swaggering, wearing that smug grin across his face. He knew it. We knew it. The best player ever to lace up his shoes was walking out on top, on his own terms.
They do not understand him now, just like they did not in 1994, when he was snaring flies in the outfield for the Birmingham Barons, waking up at dusk to hit fungoes with a bunch of never-will-be players. Sports Illustrated ran a cover that year saying, “Bag it, Michael,” echoing sentiments shared by all of us who donned Air Jordan sneakers and stuck our tongues out as we played ball in the backyard.
His Airness, a man idolized around the world for his unparalleled skill and grace, was wasting away in Alabama, unable to hit a curveball or maintain a batting average above his weight. We spent our youths, our lives, wanting to be like Mike, and here he was — a chump among a bunch of 20-year-old boys.
It was painstaking to see our hero struggle so much, but that was baseball. To see him fail at basketball would be completely different and exponentially worse. This is where all the legacy talk has come into place, as no one wants their last memory of No. 23 to be him getting schooled by pupils he used to teach.
This is what no one understands: for Mike, it is not about a legacy. It never was. A “legacy” is a term created by those of us who sit in front of the TV on Sundays, recounting the times we saw Jordan hit six threes in the NBA finals, then look at the TV as if to say, “I can’t help but be this good.” Legacies are not real to athletes; they are real to those of us who dream but don’t do.
Jordan has never been a dreamer; he has always been a doer. It’s not the same as Babe Ruth playing as a drunk at 40 years old, dragging his lard up to the plate to bat .181. And it is certainly not Mohammed Ali getting pummeled by unknown Trevor Berbick in his last fight, a champ who had been hit way too many times.
At the same time, even the biggest of Jordan’s fans know Mike cannot be what he once was for a full 82-game season.
“Everybody is so worried about ‘what if he doesn’t win?” said His Airness of his comeback. “Sometimes its not all about that.”
Instead, a week ago Jordan explained his comeback, saying that if (an “if” that shrinks every day) he came back it would be because he’s “. . . doing it for the love of the game. Nothing else. For the love of the game.”
And there it is — playing golf every day and running charity events is not enough to keep Jordan’s fire burning. Neither is spending more time with his kids, nor watching the terrible Wizards lose more games in a month than he lost in a year. The need to compete still consumes him.
When, with a twinkle in his eye, Jordan mentioned that he still loved the game, he seemed to be hinting at a comeback. The next day, Monday, the lowly Wizards ticket office was jammed. The team managed to sell more than $750,000 worth of tickets by Tuesday at 10 a.m., when box offices were forced to close due to the national crisis. Ratings in the NBA have gone down 35 percent since his retirement. They will skyrocket upon his return.
This legacy crap will not stand up. Those who do not want to see Michael play again are being foolish. They are far underestimating Jordan’s competitive fire. He is a man who would probably throw a brushback pitch against one of his kids in a father-son baseball game if he thought one of his sons was crowding home plate on him. He is still Michael Jordan. Maybe he can no longer hang in the air for three minutes, but no one else can either. Jordan still possesses a deadly fade-away and savvy that comes with six MVP trophies, two gold medals, one collegiate National Championship, and six NBA championships.
All of the cynics can throw out their disclaimers on Jordan, why he should not come back, etc., but they will be proven wrong. This is not baseball; Jordan has never been denied what he wants in basketball. He may not come back and be MVP, but he is so good that he can even beat Father Time.