Back to the land of dreams

The homecoming of a national hero strikes a blow in the battle for the sporting soul of America
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IF THERE is one person who has lost out over the return of a basketball legend, it is Pete Myers. When Myers was a struggling rookie eight years ago, Michael Jordan took him under his wing, would pick him up every day and drive him to the Chicago Bulls' training camp in Deerfield, 35 miles outside the city and, because Jordan always arrived early for training, Myers had the privilege of many hours of one-on-one with the man fast becoming the best player in the world. Myers eventually became the Bulls' shooting guard - until last Sunday, that is, when Jordan's second coming cost him his starting spot and thus time on the court. And how happy was Myers about that? "No one likes losing those two things, but I wanted him to come back nevertheless," Myers said, forgetting something else he had lost to Jordan.

Back at Deerfield, before training 10 days ago, Jordan challenged Myers to another one-on-one. Myers had taken Jordan's locker and Jordan wanted it back. "How did you do?" the other players asked on arrival. Myers was clearing out his locker. "He killed me," he said.

In October 1993, Jordan had cleared out his belongings himself. He had led the Bulls to three consecutive NBA championships, had established himself as the best player in the NBA, possibly the best player ever, and in the process had tired of the game. "What more do I have to prove?" he would ask. So he turned instead to baseball, but failed to prove himself there.

When he won his locker back 10 days ago, Jordan had still not confirmed his return to the NBA. All his Chicago team-mates were sure about was that Jordan had lost little in his time away. The previous week, after studying Bulls' game videos, Jordan had his first practice back at Deerfield. Myers was one of only four of the team who had played with Jordan and witnessed his phenomenal work-rate in practice - the others had only heard about it. When they later emerged to an attendant media, they were shaking their heads in amazement. Everything they had heard was true, they said, down to the idiosyncratic flashes of his tongue in moments of brilliance. "I've not played in games as exhausting as that," said Ron Harper, the young guard.

Chicago feasted on rumours of the return. That Saturday, Chicago were at home to Cleveland and there was a last-minute scramble for tickets - just in case. "The crowd obviously isn't cheering for us," said Steve Kerr, the Bulls' point. "They're cheering in anticipation of somebody else." Meanwhile, share prices in Jordan-endorsed products swelled and media speculation raged. "Jordan: Wait Continues" read the Herald Tribune headline, followed consecutively by "Jordan: Saga Still On Hold" and "Jordan: Another Practice, No Word".

"It's crazy," Horace Grant, a former Bull, said with a warning to the players. "Get ready to be lost in the crowd." But those new to Jordan have been in awe, "like fans, wide-eyed kids at the circus," said one observer. "He'll vocally push you," said BJ Armstrong, one of Jordan's four ex-colleagues. "And he won't tolerate any of his team-mates not working hard. But the biggest thing is to put your ego aside. Playing with a superstar is different."

The superstar finally played last Sunday in a game at Indiana, where he caused so much damage in the past that they used to boo him. He started slowly, missed his first six shots, but was cheered wildly through his every touch. Then, with nine minutes of the third quarter remaining, he stole the ball from under his own basket, drove the length of the court, took off from 15 feet out and soared high over two defenders before dropping the ball into the hoop. "Classic Michael," roared the commentator.

The Bulls lost 103-96 and Jordan finished with 19 points, a poor showing for a man who averages 32. But he said he was encouraged, and then settled down to more serious matters. "I want to give something back. A lot of negative things have been happening to the game," he said, recalling the health in which Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, also recent greats, had left it. "The young guys have not been taking care of their part of the responsibility. Don't treat it like dirt."

Jordan was referring to a band of players known as "Generation X" - young prima donnas who, he says, are "threatening the integrity of the game". Among them are Derrick Coleman, the New Jersey Nets' forward, and Minnesota's Isaiah Rider, a man with an assault charge to his name. In December, when told by his coach to "grow up", Rider called a press conference solely to respond: "What does growing up have to do with basketball?" Coleman often courts trouble, and when threatened with a fine, presented his coach with a blank cheque.

The obvious time for the NBA to smarten its image was in February in Phoenix where the top players gathered for the annual All-Star game, a showcase of the very best in the league. However, as the players arrived, the news broke from Portland that Vernon "Mad Max" Maxwell, the Houston Rockets guard, had run a dozen rows into a stand to punch a heckler. Generation X were back in trouble.

If anyone was challenging Maxwell for the attention in Phoenix it was Shaquille O'Neal, the 7ft 1in 22 stone colossus from Orlando Magic. "Shaq" is 23, a cartoons and rap music addict, referred to by those close to him as "a big goofball". O'Neal is also a hugely powerful centre, and, as he has become the biggest name in the game since Jordan left, is closely tied to the "integrity of the game".

When O'Neal arrived for a press conference in Phoenix, he greeted his audience with an impatient "How long does this last?" Many did not hear this, for O'Neal, who has made films, adverts and records, apparently cannot project his voice.

How should players behave, Shaq? "Be yourself, stay out of trouble, have fun." How do you handle all the pressure, Shaq? "Stay out of trouble, have fun. Just be Shaq."

However, no one can accuse him of not sticking to his script. At the MTV party in Phoenix, performing his latest rap number, his message came through again in a short, central couplet: "Be young, have fun/Shoot, pass, run." He may have been suspended recently for punching an opponent, but while he trots out such sagacity, he is a cut above Generation X. And as he is now the game's "marquee player", the man everyone wants to see, the NBA chiefs are mightily relieved.

O'Neal has become the face of basketball, through which the game is marketed and promoted. The baseball strike has assisted the sport's expansion; Jordan's return can only accelerate the process.

On Friday night, Shaq and Jordan were face to face. Orlando Magic were in Chicago, the big goofball versus the man they call "His Airness", the best the present generation can throw up against the best ever. And it was no small night for Jordan: his first night back in front of his home fans, his first time ever playing in the United Centre, the Bulls' new stadium, outside which stands his own statue.

Chicago rose to the occasion. The restaurant Jordan owns in town was packed solid; tickets for the stadium itself, valued at $25, were going for $3,000. The United Centre enjoyed Jordan's entrance. Flash-bulbs popped in a darkened arena, a sound-and-light show followed and a packed 24,000 crowd drowned out the announcement of his name. Again he started slowly, again the commentator hyped his every touch: "His first point", "His first jump shot", "His first dunk - and there's the tongue".

But after Jordan had scored, Magic threw out a long pass, Jordan leapt to intercept but clutched at air. As he turned, there was O'Neal, rising to execute his hallmark shot, the powerful slam-dunk, followed by a swing on the basket and a roar of triumph.

And the game turned Orlando's way. Jordan rattled off seven points at the end of the first quarter, but again he tired and his shooting was no better than it had been in Indiana. In the last 17 months, while the Bulls have become an ordinary outfit, O'Neal has had an effect on Orlando that Jordan once had on Chicago. The difference became clear in the fourth quarter and Orlando's lead became uncatchable. Orlando won 106-99, O'Neal scored 24 points to Jordan's 21. Not the dream homecoming.

There were encouraging signs for the Bulls, though. In Indiana, Jordan's team-mates had not played well, they had watched in awe, given the ball to the master, expected him to do it all and forgotten to play themselves. In Chicago, they too were playing again, but the thrill of Jordan's return had by no means evaporated. "I came to Chicago to play with Michael," said Steve Kerr who had signed in the summer of 1993. "I couldn't believe it when he retired. Thank God he's back."

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