Love of game brings Jordan back again

Posted: Friday, September 27, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Michael Jordan plans to play another season with the Washington Wizards, confident his 39-year-old knees are healthy enough to allow him to finish his contract with the team.

''My love for the game of basketball continues to drive my decision,'' Jordan said Thursday in a statement released by the Wizards. ''Physically I am feeling very strong, and feel that the steps I took in the offseason have allowed me to return to the game in great condition.''

The statement lacked the drama of Jordan's announcement a year ago, when he ended a 3 1/2-year retirement by resigning from the Wizards' front office so he could resume his playing career.

Although Jordan has come out of retirement twice before, he has indicated that this would be his last season. At the All-Star game in Philadelphia this year, he answered with a definite ''no'' when asked if would play more than two seasons with the Wizards.

Jordan is returning as a projected backup. Coach Doug Collins said he has spoken to Jordan about using him as a sixth man at shooting guard, and he's said he doesn't want to use Jordan at small forward because of the physical demands of playing against better defenders.

With Jordan, however, such plans are never a certainty. Last season, whenever Collins, trainers or even Jordan himself tried to limit his playing time, his competitiveness would get the better of him. He exceeded his projected minutes almost every night.

Jordan will turn 40 in February, though, and the Wizards have added some talent since the end of last season. They acquired point guard Larry Hughes, shooting guard Jerry Stackhouse and small forward Bryon Russell to start on the perimeter.

''No decisions have been made as to my exact role on the team,'' Jordan said in the statement, ''but I expect that coach Collins will make those assessments next week in training camp.''

Jordan signed a two-year contract when he unretired for a second time last year, but he'd worked so hard getting back in shape that his knees weren't ready for the rigors of a full NBA season.

He played 60 of 82 games and started 53, while trying to hide the pain and discomfort he felt in both knees. His right knee had to be drained of fluid several times, and he had surgery on the knee in February.

A month later, Jordan said he planned to play the 2002-03 season, but he set the stage for some mild summer suspense by adding he wouldn't play if he felt he'd have the same knee problems.

Meanwhile, the Wizards marketed season tickets as if Jordan would be playing again. Jordan's summer routine was less strenuous than last year's, but players who worked out with him said he looked as if he were getting ready to play another season.

Earlier this month, however, Jordan had to be fitted with a shoe insert to help relieve a new pain he felt on the outside of his right knee. That caused further debate about his decision.

Jordan led the Wizards in scoring (22.9), assists (5.2) and steals (1.4) last season, but he also led them in turnovers (2.7), and his shooting percentage (41.6) was nearly 9 percentage points off his career average.

The Jordan of old resurfaced occasionally, such as when he scored 51 and 45 points in consecutive games in late December. But he also had five games in which he failed to score in double digits, something that had only happened once in 13 seasons with the Chicago Bulls.

In his final game last season, he scored a career-low 2 points in 12 minutes in a loss to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Wizards will again have to deal with Jordan's awkward dual role within the organization. His title was president of basketball operations when he joined the team in January 1999. He still ran the team -- without the title -- after coming back as a player, and that sometimes caused strained relations in the locker room as he tried to be a teammate to players he signed or drafted.

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