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A Little Rusty, Jordan Returns to Court

By David Aldridge
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 20, 1995

INDIANAPOLIS, MARCH 19 -- With Michael Jordan back in the red road uniform of the Chicago Bulls today, the NBA felt like the NBA again. Is it asking a lot to assign that burden to Jordan, who ended a 17-month sabbatical here by scoring 19 points in a 103-96 overtime loss to the Indiana Pacers? Absolutely. But Jordan accepted long ago that his place is a special one in this league's lore, and after thinking about it for a couple of weeks, he jumped back into the fishbowl.

A sporting world that has been besieged over the past two years by Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, and the O.J. Simpson trial, and the baseball strike, and the hockey lockout, was grateful.

"I tried to stay away as much as I could," Jordan said to a packed gathering of national and international media after the game. "When I was in baseball {playing in the minor leagues for Class AA Birmingham}, I was a far distance away from the game. But when you love something for so long, to try to walk away . . . at the time I walked away from it {in October 1993}, I probably needed {to leave} it. But I really missed the game. I missed my friends."

With the 32-year-old Jordan back playing, ticket scalpers asked for big bucks. With Jordan back, the Pacers' besieged public relations department processed approximately 350 media requests -- roughly, the kind of contingent that covers an NBA Finals game -- in 24 hours. With Jordan back, NBC made a regional telecast covering half the country into a national one covering 99 percent of the country.

With Jordan back, Market Square Arena crackled. A game between rivals was played with postseason intensity -- "this was as close to a Finals game as you can get," said the Pacers' all-star guard, Reggie Miller. Even though this is one of the few arenas in the league where Jordan is frequently booed, he received a standing ovation when he was announced as a starter today, in the number 45 he'd worn through junior high school as opposed to his well-known 23.

As far as his play went, Jordan was subpar. He made 7 of 28 shots, including missing several wide-open jumpers that he's made effortlessly his past few seasons. And his conditioning is not yet up to speed; he suffered cramps late in the fourth quarter and overtime on the way to playing 43 minutes, which used to be a regular night at the office.

A lot of things, though, were still there. He had six assists and six rebounds. And he was on the floor -- playing the kind of gambling, swarming defense that made him a first-team NBA defensive selection six years in a row -- when the Bulls went to full-court pressure and erased a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit in eight minutes. And once he gets his timing and conditioning back to where it was, Chicago may be able to produce offense and fast-break chances in prodigious amounts.

"Michael showed his brilliance in many ways," Bulls Coach Phil Jackson said. "The shot was long all day, but he played very good basketball all day and gave us an impetus . . . most of these guys haven't played with him before {there are just three Bulls remaining from 1993, the last year of Chicago's three consecutive championship teams} and it was an experience for them, too, and a good one, I think."

But this wasn't about one game, and certainly not one Jordan played 636 days after the last time he stepped on a court for a real game. This was about the mantle of leadership and on-court excellence that was the hallmark of the 1980s in this league, with Jordan taking his place alongside Larry Bird and Magic Johnson as the game's ambassadors off the floor and its dominant personalities on it.

There aren't many ambassadors around anymore. Jordan, though, is willing to get back to the life that gave him his greatest riches, but also produced his biggest headaches and controversies.

"It's been bestowed upon me, I really didn't ask for it," he said. "I have to deal with it at some point in time, but it's not going to affect my decisions on what I truly want to do. I hope people understand that . . . it's been a little embarrassing, what's happened the last week. I'm human like everyone else, and people were treating me like a god."

Jordan said today that he planned to play with the Bulls through the end of his contract ("I didn't make this as a cameo"), which has a year to run at $4 million annually, and then see how things are in basketball's labor situation. The NBA and its players association are operating without a collective bargaining agreement and a work stoppage following the season is not outside the realm of possibility.

He didn't say exactly when he decided he'd return, only that once he made official his retirement from minor league baseball earlier this month, he wanted to make sure that he really wanted to go back to basketball. He said he made no demands of Bulls management that the contracts of teammates Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong or Jackson be extended. (He couldn't do that, anyway, with a moratorium having been placed on renegotiating contracts this season in the absence of the agreement between players and management.)

"I asked, certainly," about the team's future, he said. "I asked for my own knowledge. But I didn't request {anything} at all."

He said he wasn't nervous when he went on the floor today. But he certainly wasn't himself. He missed his first six shots before squaring up to hit a jumper with 4:04 left in the first half, and throughout the second half, the swoops and drives to the basket that usually end with the spectacular only culminated in clanks and clunks.

Yet it didn't matter, because it was the first stroke on a canvas that should ultimately glow and pulsate. Today, Miller was strong, with 28 points before being hobbled with a thigh bruise in a last-second collision with Jordan at the end of regulation. Pippen, who's having another most valuable player-caliber season, was brilliant today with a game-high 31 points in 48 minutes. But everyone understood what the story was.

"You guys made my day," Pacers Coach Larry Brown said to the handful of media that saw him after the game. "The Beatles and Elvis are back, and you came to talk to me."

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© 1995 The Washington Post Company