Asked for the millionth time about a comeback, a sly smile played on Michael Jordan's lips.
A moment later, he looked up and said, ''I'm doing it for the love of the game. Nothing else. For the love of the game.''
In a half-hour conversation on a curb outside his restaurant Monday afternoon, Jordan did everything but connect the final dot. So I'll do it for him.
Michael Jordan is coming back.
The comeback with the Washington Wizards that the 38-year-old Jordan began outlining five months ago is all but complete. He's worked out religiously. He's tested himself and his game repeatedly against top-caliber NBA players, with league referees officiating. And he's found the only question remaining is whether the tendinitis in his right knee would limit his effectiveness.
During the informal talk, which included reporters from the Chicago Sun-Times and cnnsi.com, he confirmed that a news conference has been planned for Washington, D.C., in the next 10 days to announce his decision.
When contacted by The Washington Post later Monday and asked for comment on the story, Jordan said, ''I didn't say that. I have not said it.''
But earlier, Jordan dropped the conditional tense when talking about his basketball future for the first time since acknowledging in April that he was serious about coming back. He didn't put a limit on how long that might last.
''I want to play for years,'' he said.
A half-mile to the west, a bronze statue of Jordan stood guard outside the United Center, an arena he practically built for Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and where his jersey hangs in the rafters alongside the six championship banners he brought to Chicago. A hundred yards to the east was Hoops the Gym, where pickup games this summer against the likes of Penny Hardaway, Michael Finley, Antoine Walker, Juwan Howard and Charles Oakley convinced Jordan that he could still compete at the highest level.
As some of those players filed out of the gym following the afternoon scrimmages, Jordan leaned back and took in the Chicago skyline.
''I know there are a lot of naysayers out there,'' he said.
But Jordan made clear he wasn't coming back to fulfill any expectations but his own. ''Winning isn't always championships. What's wrong with helping kids find their way, teaching them the game.''
During the next few minutes, the man who defined the term ''champion'' in the last decade admitted that he missed the game too much to stay away. The ''competition problem'' that his father, the late James Jordan always talked about, has him in its grip once again.
When Jordan walked away from the Bulls for the second time in January 1999, it wasn't on his own terms. He saw the blueprints for a rebuilding in place and ducked out. Now Jordan wants back in. He said he would have considered returning with the Bulls' front office -- as he ultimately did with the Wizards -- but that Reinsdorf never called. Jordan also revealed that Milwaukee owner Sen. Herb Kohl came to his house and pitched the possibility of working for the Bucks.
''We were close,'' Jordan said.
But that was before the Washington deal brokered by Ted Leonsis fell into his lap. When Jordan agreed to become the Wizards' director of basketball operations, he thought it might bring him close enough to the game to satisfy his competitive desires. What he found is that the closer he got to the court, the greater the temptation became to return.
When his good friend Mario Lemieux stepped out of the owner's box and returned to play hockey for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jordan, who turns 39 next February, decided to find out whether he could put himself through the same challenge.
Jordan talked about how close he came to being ready before two cracked ribs set his training regimen back by several weeks, and how tendinitis flared up in his knee and slowed him down. He drew his legs up close to his chest and talked about how it aches at times, if he sits too long.
But after a brief stretch where he lost more -- many more -- pickup games than he thought, Jordan pronounced the knee sound. If it remains that way over the next few days, he said, ''I'll be ready to go.''
The NBA will be ready as well. Already, a dozen of the league's young guns, from the Lakers' Kobe Bryant to the Bucks' Ray Allen, have gone public with their plans to find out how much the old man has left. The NBA's television partners have announced contingency plans to show as many Wizards games as the deal allows. The advertisers he made rich are plotting the next wave of commercials.
Asked whether NBA commissioner David Stern was as enthusiastic about his return, Jordan paused, then said: ''I think he's 50-50.''
Jordan understands the reluctance.
''He thinks he's got a good product,'' Jordan said, noting that last summer's NBA Finals between the Lakers and 76ers proved the league has a generation of younger stars it plans to promote.
''And,'' Jordan added, ''he doesn't want to be dependent on Michael Jordan.''
Unlike the first time he returned to the NBA, Jordan says he has no plans to school the youngsters who inherited the game. He thinks they might learn from his example, see the hard work that went into this comeback, and learn to cherish it the way he did. Some of them may even watch him struggle, look down the road and understand how much they will miss it when it's gone.
But that's not the plan. For now.
Now it's about Jordan getting back what he misses most -- the challenge in front of him, the action on every side of him, 20,000 pairs of eyes on his back, wondering what he is going to do next.
There is still weeks of hard work, but that night will arrive soon enough. The Wizards play the Knicks in Madison Square Garden on Oct. 30, the season opener.
''I always loved it there,'' Jordan said.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap. org
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