BASKETBALL : Jordan bounces back

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The Independent Online
The second coming took place yesterday in the American midwest. Jesus Christ did not alight on the prairie. But in an event of no less consequence for most of the planet, Michael Jordan came to the city of Indianapolis to play basketball again.

Confirmation had come 24 hours earlier, in a statement of just two words, released through his agent: "I'm back." At noon yesterday the two words became flesh, as arguably the greatest player in the sport's history, the Lord of the Leap, the three-time MVP of the National Basketball Association who led the Chicago Bulls to three straight NBA championships between 1991 and 1993, took to the court at the Market Square Arena for the Bulls against the Indiana Pacers.

Thus ends Jordan's quixotic flirtation with baseball which, after his retirement on 20 June, 1993, saw him spend the 1994 season with a farm team of the Chicago White Sox. He hit a meagre .202 for the Birmingham Barons but showed enough improvement to give him an outside chance of his goal - a Major League career with the Sox. But the strike put a stop to that, and on 10 March Jordan made it official; his baseball days were over.

Chicago went wild. The mere news that he had been working out with the Bulls slashed the odds of the team winning the 1995 championship from 30-1 to 3-1 overnight. Stocks in Nike, McDonalds and other companies whose products he had sponsored soared on Wall Street.

For the Chicago press, Jordan sightings relegated such cosmic events as the mayor's election and the O J Simpson trial to obscurity. "Say It's So, Mike," screamed the front page of the Sun-Times. And now, to the collective relief of America's third largest city, he has.

The question remains, of course, is he as good as he was? It will take a week or two for Jordan, 32, to get into his best shape, as was shown yesterday when the Bulls lost 103-96 in overtime. Jordan played for 43 minutes and scored 19 points, but missed 21 of 28 shots.

The extraordinary showman and competitor that is Jordan is unlikely to tolerate mediocrity. He said: "It will take a while to get my reflexes back. It's not going to happen in one game.

"The expectation is that you can do the things you did two years ago. That's the tough part, but I look forward to the challenge. I'm back for the love of the game. I don't want to make this a cameo. I want to be around for a long time."

Great fortunes hinge on that. A resplendent Jordan could send basketball's television ratings soaring again after a flat period for the game without megastars or truly great teams. For the Bulls and Chicago, a windfall beckons.

The great man's own earnings will also change for the better. At the Barons, he made a minor leaguer's standard $12,000 (£7,600) a year. With the Bulls he makes $4m - not to mention endorsements worth $30m annually.