The Third Coming of Jordan the everlasting

Basketball: American icon continues to captivate nation despite being 38 and making another NBA comeback
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The Independent Online

The moment Jeff van Gundy, coach of the New York Knicks, saw the new season schedule last summer, he knew it. Michael Jordan was back. The Washington Wizards at New York on opening night? That wasn't a computer accident. That was the very human hand of a hustling National Basketball Association ratings man – or equally likely, the hand of God. For the comeback to end all comebacks, what better setting than the most legend-encrusted arena in all US sport? Van Gundy was spot-on. A few weeks later Jordan announced what for months had grown steadily more likely. He was selling his financial stake in the Wizards, giving up his executive post with the team and returning to the game for a second time. And so it will be that tomorrow night America and the world will witness the Third Coming of MJ, on the hallowed old boards of Madison Square Garden.

But to students of human behaviour, even more fascinating than the who, the when or the where, is the why. What has possessed arguably the greatest basketball player of all time to want to spoil the perfect ending? Three years ago, Jordan made the last shot in the last seconds to win a third straight championship with the Chicago Bulls. Now there's no Scottie Pippen, no Dennis Rodman, no Tony Kukic alongside him: just some young kids no-one has ever heard of, on one of the least wizard-like teams in the whole NBA.

Those same amateur psycho-logists put the often sad comebacks of superstars down to one of three things: an unquenchable lust for glory, nostalgia for what Americans call the 'locker room,' just being around the sport, its rituals, and old colleagues. Or lastly and most likely in the case of Jordan, sheer old-fashioned competitiveness, the desire to prove that he's still the best.

The good city of Washington, however, couldn't care less with such pseudo-science. To put it politely, this is not one of the great sports metropolis of America. Today, it simply can't believe its good luck, at a moment it's rarely needed that commodity more.

True, the football Redskins did win a Superbowl as recently as 1991, but now they've moved to Maryland and are currently appalling. The Capitals hockey team have rarely been more than workmanlike, while back when Washington did have a major league baseball team before the Senators decamped in 1971 for Texas, the old joke about the city ran, ''First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League''. Now, astonishingly, Washington is the place. The Caps are paying $10m a year for the services of Jaromir Jagr, arguably the world's best ice hockey player. But even better there's MJ, next to Tiger Woods still the coolest, most famous sports figure in America – and whose return provides the one reliable conversational antidote these days to anthrax.

He may not have played a game in earnest since June 1998. His veterans' minimum salary of $1m (which he's donating to post-11 September charities) may be peanuts compared to the $33m Jordan earned from the Bulls. But the skill and the passion are still there.

A spartan training regime has helped shed 20 lbs. Against the New Jersey Nets a few days ago, he ambled onto court and proceeded to score 41 points – 16 of them in an electrifying five-minute stretch in the third quarter. There were back-to-back three-pointers, fade-away jump shots, steals, dunks, those sly sideways grins as he wheels away from the basket; the full Jordan repertoire.

Small wonder then that every pre-season warm-up has been a sell-out, Nike are rushing out new $200 Jordan trainers and that the local DC sports cable channel is tripling ad rates for Wizards games. But the old Chicago Bulls, these Wizards ain't.

Fabulous as Jordan was against the Nets, he couldn't inspire his young and inexperienced colleagues to finish the job. The Wizards lost 102-95. "I'm feeling good, that's the good sign," Jordan said, with the unnerving certainty that sets him apart. "The bad sign is that the team's going to have to elevate to stay in tune with what's happening with me." Around his team-mates, MJ acts like one of the gang, cracking jokes and playing cards on the bus. But the players inevitably are in awe of him. In the Nets game, no other Wizard got into double figures. When Jordan's on court, they stand around watching him. When he's not, alas, they do exactly the same thing.

What they lack, and what Jordan wants to instil in them is his philosophy. As he put it in his first packed training camp news conference: "Winning means coming back and doing it the next night. That's the trait I can pass on to the young kids. It's about how to take a winning attitude to the extreme of cockiness – not overboard – to the brink of cockiness, so that you seem so confident about each other as a unit, to where it translates into wins." The coming months will show the extent of Jordan's commitment. With attendances and TV ratings declining, the NBA needs a new dollop of glamour.

Mouth-watering moments abound: three games against the Bulls, the Celtics in Boston in January, then the match-ups with the young pretenders to his crown, like Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers (now coached by Phil Jackson, Jordan's old mentor at the Bulls) Vince Carter of the Toronto Raptors, and Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers.

For all the alarms about tendinitis, cracked ribs, and the sundry other strains which burden a 38-year-old body, no-one doubts Jordan clearly still has what it takes. But after winning six NBA titles with the Bulls, now the grind of an 82-game season with chronic also-rans. "What about his vanity," an old colleague muses. "Can he handle losing?" Jordan is used to playing in June in the NBA Finals. But forget about trophies: how will he cope when he knows the best reward for his efforts with the hapless Wizards – who finished 19-63 in a thoroughly typical 2000/2001 season – would be a break-even record, just maybe a spot in the play-offs? But some speak of a different Jordan, one who knows that nothing can erase the glory that was. Maybe after years of perfection, imperfection is more interesting. Maybe he should be taken at face value. Maybe there's a fourth reason for his comeback, the one MJ proffered at the time: a simple love of the game and the conviction he still had much to offer.

Phil Jackson – cigar smoker, master of Zen meditation and world authority on the Jordan psyche – agrees. "Michael's not going to embarrass himself.

''He'll know what he can't do. The last time he came back better than ever. Not that he could jump better, or hang more. He just knew how to play better."

But for America in general, and for Washington DC in particular, none of that really matters. He's back. He's in town. Someone should re-script the old joke. Washington may not be too hot at war and peace right now. But thanks to MJ, even before the first three-pointer drops in tomorrow night at the Garden, it's first in the NBA.