WASHINGTON -- The worst-kept secret in sports is out: Michael Jordan will play again in the NBA -- and not just for one season, but two.
After months of hints, smiles and winks that kept his fans on edge, Jordan finally announced his comeback Tuesday, saying he would play for the Washington Wizards through 2003 and donate his first year's salary -- $1 million -- to victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
''I am returning as a player to the game I love,'' said Jordan, 38 and three years removed from what seemed to be a storybook ending to an unparalleled career. ''I am especially excited about the Washington Wizards, and I'm convinced we have the foundation on which to build a playoff-contention team.
''The opportunity to teach our young players and help them elevate their game to a higher level, and to thank the fans in Washington for their loyalty and support, strongly influenced my decision,'' he said in a statement issued through his management agency.
The five-time league MVP, who retired for a second time in 1999 after leading the Chicago Bulls to their sixth title of the decade, made it official after clearing up a licensing issue with one of his sponsors -- a disagreement that delayed the announcement by a day. NBA rules also required Jordan to sell his ownership stake in the Wizards.
Jordan never completely ruled out a comeback when he retired in January 1999, hedging his bets with the statement that he was ''99.9 percent'' certain he would never play again. Leaving the door open, even by one-tenth of 1 percent, meant Jordan could slip back into a uniform without going back on his word.
Now, he has.
''I am happy to welcome Michael Jordan, the player, back to the NBA, although, as commissioner, I am sorry to lose him in the board room,'' NBA commissioner David Stern said. ''Michael has always brought joy to basketball fans around the world, and, in these difficult times, we can all use a little more joy in our lives.''
Jordan's announcement was sure to hearten a city -- and entire country -- shocked by terrorism. Washington's economy has suffered since the Sept. 11 attacks, with Reagan National Airport remaining closed and hotel bookings far below capacity.
His regular-season debut will be Oct. 30 at Madison Square Garden against the New York Knicks, and his first home game for the Wizards will be Nov. 3 against Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers.
''This is certainly an extremely important moment in the history of our franchise, however our excitement is muted by the world events that surround us,'' Wizards owner Abe Pollin said.
''The greatest player in the history of the game is joining my team, and for that I am extremely honored and pleased.''
Jordan will be in the unusual position of playing for the coach he hired, Doug Collins, who joined the Wizards in April and also coached Jordan for three seasons with the Bulls in the 1980s. Jordan will share the court with players he signed, drafted and traded for, including high school sensation Kwame Brown, selected No. 1 overall by the Wizards in June, and veteran forward Christian Laettner -- a graduate of Duke, the archrival of Jordan's alma mater, North Carolina.
''We'll see how fast the No. 23 Wizards jersey becomes the No. 1 selling jersey in the NBA. That probably will start today,'' Collins said.
NBC said it would change its television schedule to include some Wizards games. Turner Sports will do the same, with TBS in line to air the season-opener.
''It will be fun to watch the greatest player ever match up against the NBA's new generation of stars, such as Allen Iverson, Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, Ray Allen and others,'' NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol said.
Jordan has been in training for about six months, at first saying he was simply trying to lose the extra weight he had gained in retirement. Inspired by his friend Mario Lemieux's successful comeback with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Jordan rigorously worked himself into playing shape during the summer by holding several invitation-only camps of pickup games with other NBA players at a gym in Chicago.
Jordan said he would no further comment on his return until Oct. 1. His first official practice with the Wizards will be the next day, when training camp opens in Wilmington, N.C.
He occasionally worked out with the team last season when he was president of basketball operations, a job he used to almost completely overhaul Washington's roster and put the team into a rebuilding mode.
His supporting cast will include the likes of Jahidi White, Richard Hamilton and Courtney Alexander -- none of whom were in the NBA when Jordan played for the Bulls.
Turning a team that won only 19 games last season into a winner might be an insurmountable challenge -- even for Jordan.
''I think he will return to being one of the top players in our league. His comeback certainly puts the Wizards in a position to make the playoffs this year,'' Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
With his announcement, Jordan immediately overshadowed the arrival in Washington of another winter sports star, Jaromir Jagr. The NHL's leading scorer last season was acquired by the Capitals in the offseason.
Jordan actually owned a piece of the Capitals, buying it when he acquired shares in the Wizards on Jan. 19, 2000.
The paperwork to sell his stake in both teams was completed Friday, and Jordan's lawyers ironed out the last few wrinkles to clear the way for his comeback announcement.
The final holdup involved the video game licensing rights to Jordan's likeness, according to Jeff Brown of EA Sports, a game manufacturer.
Jordan suffered three physical setbacks during the summer, raising doubts about whether his body could endure the rigors of an 82-game schedule. Back spasms and knee tendinitis curtailed his workouts, and two cracked ribs from a collision in a pickup game took him off the court for a month.
Jordan will return without the all-star cast that he hoped would accompany him. Charles Barkley, who spoke of playing with Jordan, abandoned his comeback bid, and the Wizards were unable to sign any marquee players.
But by ridding the Wizards of the high-salaried, long-term contracts of Rod Strickland, Juwan Howard and Mitch Richmond, Jordan has given the Wizards enough salary cap flexibility to restock the roster next summer.
Jordan's first-year salary of $1 million was confirmed by a team source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
When he returns for the 2002-03 season, the Wizards could have a roster that bears little resemblance to the current one.
''Who is to say that great things are not ahead with Michael and the Wizards,'' said Dean Smith, who coached Jordan at Chapel Hill. ''He has made excellent decisions in the past and I know he has given this one a lot of thought.''
Jordan won 10 scoring titles and is the NBA's fourth all-time leading scorer with 29,277 points. He has averaged a league-record 31.5 points per regular season game throughout his career and 33.4 in the playoffs.
Jordan's first retirement came in October 1993, after he led the Bulls to three titles. He played baseball in the Chicago White Sox organization for one season, but he couldn't make it out of the minor leagues and returned to the Bulls in March 1995.
Jordan led the Bulls to three more titles and retired again in January 1999, shortly before the start of the lockout-shortened season. He made his final shot in a Chicago uniform, sinking a jumper over Bryon Russell of Utah in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals -- a play that came to be known as Jordan's ''last shot'' -- to give the Bulls their sixth title of the decade.
''While nothing can take away from the past,'' Jordan said, ''I am firmly focused on the future and the competitive challenge ahead of me.''
Eds: Basketball Writer Chris Sheridan contributed to this story from New York.
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