Michael Jordan will be 39 in a few months and already every night is a struggle.
The losses come in waves. His team stinks -- he said so himself -- and Jordan can't find time to teach, not when every game wears down his knees and his nerves. He's shooting 10 percentage points below his career numbers and all those young dogs who want a piece of him are still out there and then ...
Then Jordan and the Wizards play like they did Wednesday night.
And maybe you reconsider.
''All you guys are idiots to me,'' Philadelphia coach Larry Brown told a crowd of reporters a few minutes after his 76ers -- who went to the NBA Finals last season -- were beaten by Washington.
''Here's a guy that hadn't played in three years, and I hear people in the stands calling him a punk and saying he shouldn't have come back, being critical. He completely controlled the game.''
One month into the Third Coming, Jordan hasn't been spectacular and the Wizards aren't much better, but guess what?
Brown is right. He might be old school and the North Carolina tie-in to Jordan might make him more sympathetic than some. But Brown has a team and a scatter-shooting superstar of his own to figure out, and if he says Jordan controlled the game, it's worth a listen.
Jordan lost the mano-a-mano scoring duel with Allen Iverson, 40 points to 30. But he finished with more of everything else that mattered: six rebounds, seven assists, five steals and just one turnover to Iverson's nine. Jordan didn't win the game, either, at least not in the obvious sense. Teammate Richard Hamilton did, scoring 13 of his 28 points and collecting four of his nine rebounds in the third quarter as Washington took over.
What impressed Brown wasn't the way Jordan passed out of the double teams early, the wide-open looks he created for Hamilton or the way he defended Aaron McKie, all things the coach mentioned in his postgame remarks. What did impress him was the way Jordan, for at least one night, forced everybody alongside him to play better.
''You have to trust your teammates,'' Brown said. ''Unfortunately, it doesn't happen overnight.''
Back in April, when Jordan first admitted he was serious about another comeback, someone asked him how he was going to hold his own against all those younger, fresher legs.
''I'm smarter,'' he said, and cracked a mischievous grin.
He looked like anything but on Tuesday night, when the Wizards he assembled and was supposed to lead got ripped by Cleveland. Whether it was frustration, or more likely one of those motivational games Jordan loves so much, he tore into his teammates. Whether it was smart remains to be seen.
''I don't see anyone covering my back as everyone probably expected me to cover theirs,'' Jordan said. ''That's something I'm not going to live too much with. These guys are young enough to step forward and make an effort.''
He largely exempted himself from the tirade, but Jordan got the point across. On Wednesday, the Wizards didn't just throw him the ball, plant their hands on their hips and watch. They ran, got back on defense and covered his back. Hamilton made big shots, Chris Whitney ran the offense with poise when it was his turn and Brendan Haywood pitched in with some workmanlike minutes around the basket. And the Wizards won.
We've come to expect so much from Jordan that when he turns in a line as he did Wednesday night -- even shooting 11 of 27 from the floor -- it's easy to forget what this comeback business was supposed to be about.
He wasn't going to get better -- how could he? Jordan was supposed to make the Wizards better, and despite all the signs even that modest task might be beyond his considerable reach, he hasn't given up.
''The thing I don't like is, when we have one win we tend to relax. It doesn't matter if it's Philly or Cleveland,'' he said. ''The way we're going to turn this around is if every night we go out and give effort. Some nights things aren't going to go your way, but the effort should be there.''
Jordan used the word ''effort'' five times in the span of eight sentences. His patience is nearly shot. Wednesday night was the second game for Washington in a stretch of four in five nights. Anybody still wearing a Wizards jersey who hasn't got the message by now will be lucky to still have it by the end of the trip.
Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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