The basketball hero returns humbler, wiser

Their names are a handful. Bradman the cricketer, Pele the master footballer, Jack Nicklaus the nearest thing yet to a perfect golfer, perhaps Muhammad Ali in his prime - all are performers who for a spell have not so much dominated, as transcended their chosen sport. In this list of legend must now be inscribed the name of Michael Jordan.

For the casual watcher, like myself, basketball even at its highest levels can be strangely unsatisfying. The athleticism is unarguable, but scoring is too easy, as many as 100 times in a 60-minute game. The players seem to grow taller every season, apparently bred for no other purpose than to lob a round orange ball through a netted hoop fixed 10 feet above the ground. Reduced to their barest functions, most sports are faintly absurd - how is it that half the male population of the US is obsessed by whacking a small white ball with a piece of metal across otherwise attractive tracts of countryside, before attempting to roll it into a tiny hole? But basketball is more absurd than most. That is, until you witness the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan.

This year's Bulls may be the greatest NBA team ever, basketball's equivalent of the 1970 World Cup-winning Brazilians, or the pulverizing West Indian cricket teams of recent memory. In the regular season they won a phenomenal 72 of 82 games. Screaming Lord Sutch has as good a chance of becoming prime minister as has another team of denying the Bulls the 1996 NBA championship. And in a team of gods, Michael Jordan is Zeus.

This has been his annus mirabilis; a record eighth year as NBA top scorer, a fourth Most Valuable Player Award, a season imprinted with the image of Jordan - leaping, twisting in midair, swooping, soaring, sometimes all of the above at once. Above all, he can raise his game to whatever level the moment requires. Take the second playoff game this week against the Orlando Magic, the Bulls' closest challengers in terms of ability. The first had been a 121-83 Bulls blow-out, basketball's version of a 6-1 victory at football. The second was another story. Orlando led by 18 points at one stage in the second half - at which point Jordan had seen enough. From then on he scored at will, and the Bulls emerged winners by 93 to 88.

Now he is demanding a $36m (pounds 24m) two-year contract to stay in Chicago, and such is the infatuation of the Windy City with Jordan that he almost certainly will get it. Indeed Jordan's colossal commercial pulling power means that even at $18m a year, he is a steal.

Yet money is hardly the issue for Jordan. How many sportsmen voluntarily climb down from Olympus to the mudswamp? Michael Jordan did, in 1994, forswearing the Bulls for an apprentice's job in minor league baseball, on a farm team for the Chicago White Sox. I went to see him once, playing outfield for the Birmingham Barons one steamy mid-summer night in Alabama. The place was packed, of course, with every eye on the loping figure wearing No 42. But the spectacle was dreadful to behold. In the field he dropped a couple of easy fly balls and muffed a simple relay throw. At bat, he flailed in vain. That Jordan has come back to basketball a more human and appealing figure should not surprise. A sport in which even the best hitters fail seven times out of 10 has a way of teaching humility.

In retrospect the decision, astounding at the time, was utterly explicable. Filial guilt undoubtedly played a part. James Jordan, whose ambition always was that his athletic genius of a son should play major league baseball, had been murdered the previous July. Burdened with personal tragedy, hounded by pseudo-scandals, winner of three NBA championships already and three times voted its most valuable player, Michael Jordan was also bored of basketball. Thus the flight of baseball fancy.

He has returned mentally recharged, and a better player than ever. A fraction slower, some say, but wiser and tactically more astute and, when necessary - just like Bradman, Pele, or Nicklaus - still capable of lifting his game to a plateau of sustained excellence no other can reach.