Those closest to Michael Jordan these days look up and see him balanced on a high wire. Although they enjoy watching his exploits there, they fear the consequences a slip could bring.
"You see him out there doing these amazing things and you're very happy to see them," Chicago Bulls Coach Stan Albeck said. "But geez . . . if something happened to him it would be an awful, awful thing. Nobody wants to be associated with the ending of Michael Jordan's career."
The only person not concerned about Michael Jordan's balancing act is Michael Jordan.
A little less than a month ago, the second-year guard decided to defy Bulls management, a multitude of doctors and even his own representatives and return to competition after missing 64 of the team's first 67 games with a broken navicular bone in his left foot.
Since resuming play March 15, Jordan has averaged 21 points a game, but his athletic feats have been lost in what seemed to be a flurry of epithets directed at the Bulls' front office, with Jordan berating team officials for monitoring his minutes played in a system that initially allowed him on the court for just six minutes per half. When his frustration over the situation grew, he lashed out again, insinuating there were ulterior motives behind the limits, namely to avoid making the postseason playoffs and thus gain a spot in the seven-team NBA draft lottery.
"I still feel very strongly about everything I said. I stick with it," Jordan said today, although it is obvious that much of the anger has dissipated. One reason is that when the Bulls face the Washington Bullets Friday night at Chicago Stadium, Jordan is expected to be on the court for 36 of the 48 minutes. Another is that the Bulls have moved into the forefront in the competition for the eighth and last Eastern Conference playoff berth.
Perhaps most importantly, Jordan is playing a major role in the team's push. The Bulls have won five of their last eight games, with Jordan averaging 23 points in that span.
"You have to work with him every day to see just how much he detests losing," said Albeck. "I think it was one thing for him to sit in the stands and see it, or read about it in the box scores, but for him to be there in uniform and playing and seeing us continue to lose, he couldn't take it."
Jordan's aggrieved state couldn't have been helped by the herky-jerky nature of his first days back. In his first game March 15 against Milwaukee, Jordan helped bring the Bulls back, sending the game into overtime. But he then had to watch helplessly, his allotted minutes already exhausted, as the Bulls lost in the extra five minutes.
Even more frustrating was an April 2 game against Indiana. In that one, Jordan hit 12 of 19 shots from the floor, scoring 26 points, but had to leave with 31 seconds to play because his time was up. The fact the Bulls eventually came away with a one-point victory on a shot with seven seconds to play was little mollification for Jordan.
All the while, there were no limits placed on Jordan in practices. Conceivably, he could go all out for two hours in practice one day, then be forced to sit for all but 15 minutes of the next game.
"They [the doctors] said that my foot wasn't ready for a full game, but I practice the same way that I play," said Jordan. "I mean, here I was, busting my tail for 90 minutes, two hours, but then I had to beg to play in the games. I thought I was being misled."
That gradually has changed, he said, mainly as a result of talks with Bulls management, particularly with Jerry Reinsdorf, the team president.
"I found out that it wasn't really their choice. It was the doctors who were really telling them not to play me," Jordan said.
Jordan's almost manic desire to return is one of the two things that Albeck says amazes him most about the player. "How many superstars want to come back, beg to come back, with a broken foot?" he said. "There are a lot who get hangnails and beg to sit out."
The other thing, Albeck said, is that the force of Jordan's personality was such that he was able to convince the Bulls, a cadre of doctors, and his management group, ProServ, that he was capable of coming back this season.
"I think people were just being conservative," said Jordan. "The doctors say that the bone hasn't completely healed, but to wait for that would mean a year, maybe a year and a half.
"I would have listened to the doctors. I would have sat out if -- and only if -- they could have showed me a player with an injury comparable to mine, if there had been a player with my injury who came back and reinjured the same area.
"They couldn't do it. That showed me right there that they didn't really know when the right time to come back would have been -- is it now or is it later? I had to go with how I was feeling. They were only speculating."
Albeck, too, is only speculating, but he gets no argument when he says, "There's no way we would be in the position [in the standings] we're in if he didn't come back. It's not only his scoring, it's his presence. He makes everyone play harder, he gets the crowd -- everyone -- involved."