Michael Jordan, who won 10 scoring titles and six National Basketball Association championships with the Chicago Bulls, yesterday announced he is ending his three-year retirement and will play for the Washington Wizards after months of speculation and two postponed announcements.
"I feel there is no better way of teaching young players than to be on the court with them as a fellow player, not just in practice, but in NBA games," Jordan said in a statement. "While nothing can take away from the past, I am firmly focused on the future and the competitive challenge ahead of me."
That challenge includes not only returning to the court at age 38, when most NBA players are considered well past their prime, but also joining a franchise that has made the playoffs once in the past 14 years. He has not played since his last-minute shot gave the Chicago Bulls the 1997-98 NBA title.
To return, Jordan agreed to step down as the Wizards' president of basketball operations and sell his 10 percent stake in the team to Ted Leonsis, who heads the Wizards' minority ownership group. Leonsis worked out the original deal that brought Jordan to Washington on Jan. 19, 2000, and, as owner of the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals, was responsible for the team acquiring seven-time all-star Jaromir Jagr of the Pittsburgh Penguins in July.
"Rare is the city that can have the two best players in their respective sports -- Michael Jordan for the Wizards and Jaromir Jagr for the Capitals -- playing in the same arena on successive nights," Leonsis said. "I can't wait."
A multimillionaire from lucrative endorsement and player contracts, Jordan ranks 12th among 16 Wizards under contract after signing a two-year contract with a starting salary of $1 million. Jordan said he will donate his first year's salary to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. His statement said he would grant no interviews yesterday out of deference to the victims.
Jordan, who once said he was 99.9 percent certain he would never play again, will make his first public appearance at the team's Oct. 1 media day.
"It's a happy day for those of us who've been involved with the Wizards, as I have, for 37 years," said majority owner Abe Pollin. "To have the greatest basketball player that ever played playing on my team. With all the tragedies that have befallen our country the last couple weeks and the mood being what it is, a little good news like this is really a good thing. It's good news for the fans of Washington and good news for fans of the NBA around the country."
The NBA has suffered from declining TV ratings in recent years but yesterday NBC and TNT, the national networks that show the games, said they would redo their schedules to televise more Wizards games. The Wizards were not on national TV the past two seasons.
Jordan's return has already led to a surge in season ticket sales. With 12,400 sold, the team, which has not made the playoffs since the 1996-97 season, when they were eliminated by Jordan's Bulls, no longer has seats available in MCI Center's lower bowl.
There is a mixed opinion on how Jordan will fare.
"Michael Jordan will be one of the top 10 players in the league," said Coach Doug Collins, who coached Jordan from 1986 to 1989 in Chicago and was hired Feb. 19 to take over the Wizards. "My biggest thing is I hope and pray he can stay healthy."
There are those who doubt that Jordan, with diminished skills, can keep up with the new class of younger, faster NBA stars, such as Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady.
"All that stuff about him jumping from the foul line is over," said former Georgetown coach John Thompson, an NBA commentator for TNT. "His game is going to be on the floor now. We're going to start calling him Floor Jordan," instead of Air Jordan.
Jordan planned to announce his comeback Sept. 20, but he canceled a news conference after the terrorist attacks. He planned to release a statement regarding his comeback on Monday but he and his lawyers had to work out a licensing problem with the league and EA Sports, which makes video games, before he signed a player contract.
Collins said he was not certain until the past few days that Jordan would come back and try to resuscitate a team that finished with a franchise-worst 19-63 record last season. Since Jordan came into the NBA in 1984, Washington has played a total of 15 playoff games. In that span, Jordan has played in 179.
"I am convinced we have the foundation on which to build a playoff-contention team," Jordan said in the statement.
The NBA, which had no bylaws regarding an executive playing until now, ruled that Jordan could not hold executive positions because of the potential conflict of interest of a player being involved in management.
There is no agreement for Jordan to purchase back his shares once he stops playing.
"We're in a three-step action: Divest, play and talk when the playing ends," Leonsis said.
Jordan also sold his stock in the Capitals back to Leonsis's Lincoln Holdings Group.
Commissioner David Stern said he was sorry to lose Jordan the executive, but is keenly aware having him back as a player will be a boon to his league.
"I am happy to welcome Michael Jordan, the player, back to the NBA, although . . . I'm sorry to lose him in the boardroom. 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."
The Wizards will not hire anyone new or restructure their front office. General Manager Wes Unseld, assistant general manager Rod Higgins and salary cap manager Fred Whitfield will handle basketball operations. Jordan could still be consulted about personnel issues.
This is the second time Jordan has come out of retirement. Jordan left the Bulls in 1993, after nine seasons and three titles, to pursue a minor league baseball career. He returned to the NBA late in the 1994 season but Chicago failed to get to the finals. The Bulls won the next three championships.
Jordan began the initial stages of his return late last winter when he went through a battery of workouts as well as daily pickup games to trim down from 240 pounds to his playing weight of 212 pounds.
Over the next few months, he suffered knee tendinitis, back spasms and two broken ribs. The final gauge as to whether he felt he could compete through an 82-game season and eight-game preseason came over the past five weeks when he competed against NBA players at a private gym in Chicago. Reviews of how Jordan performed were mainly positive but there were some reports that he was not the dominant player he was in his prime.
MCI Center most likely will be sold out for all 41 regular season home games and one preseason game. Attendance around the league also is expected to spike when Jordan and the Wizards come to town, as it did when he played for the Bulls.
The restaurants around MCI Center are anticipating a surge in business from fans who will attend Wizards games -- especially at a time when sales have dropped because of the slowing economy. "I think it's going to generate a lot of revenue for the whole neighborhood," said Young O., the manager of Ruby Tuesday restaurant on 7th Street across from the arena.
Young estimated that the restaurant could generate an additional $20,000 to $30,000 a month in food and drink sales. "We're looking forward to the increase. The Caps are already really strong. It's just like the addition of Jamir Jagr. You can only imagine the impact that Michael Jordan will bring."
Last season, Rock's Cafe and Sports Bar on 6th Street had as few as 20 patrons on Wizards game nights, said manager Cheryl Lewis. She expects the number to at least double not only from fans attending the games, but from those who can't get tickets and want to watch the restaurant's big screen televisions.
"We'll do very well," said Lewis with a wide grin.
In downtown Chicago yesterday, Bulls fans expressed disappointment that their franchise's icon had joined the Wizards, although all said they had become resigned to the fact in recent weeks.
"I feel happy that he's coming back, but at the same time I wish he'd have stayed in Chicago," said Donte Willis, a 22-year-old singer who lives on the West Side. "He said he wasn't ever going to play for any other team. But I wish the best for him."
Deli worker Nicky Hazziez, 21, said he would watch as many Wizards games as he could this season.
"It isn't going to be the same," said Hazziez, who lives in Maywood, Ill. "Michael Jordan is the Chicago Bulls -- I know I'm disappointed that he's not going to be in red, black and white anymore."
Jordan and the Wizards will play in Chicago on Jan. 19.
Staff writers Rachel Alexander Nichols, Judith Evans and George Solomon, and special correspondent Ross Siler in Chicago contributed to this report.