Overjoyed as many folks are to see Michael Jordan back in basketball, they still can't get past this one question: Why bother? When you're rich beyond fantasy, when the world's doors are open to you, when you can literally do anything you want to do for the rest of your life, why make yourself crazy trying to do something as difficult as fix a broken basketball team? Larry Bird knows why. He was fishing and playing golf in Florida after he retired. The Celtics hired him as a consultant. After a couple of years of that, and barely 40 years old, Bird had had enough. "Too much free time," Bird said last night before his Indiana Pacers met the Wizards at MCI Center. "I've done that. There's only so much working out, golf and fishing you can do. You're moving at a fast pace, and then it all comes to a stop. And then you miss the competition. Michael's a competitive person."
The way Bird tells it, the lack of competition, more than anything, drives the best of the best back. Look at the most recent generation of players. Four men were clearly dominant: Jordan, Bird, Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas. None of the four has been content to be retired early. Johnson, the first to retire, owns a small percentage of the Los Angeles Lakers after a brief stint as the team's coach. His vision of a national chain of movie theaters in urban areas has become a reality. His new Web site portal, Urban Magic, is due to be launched soon. Thomas already has bought and sold a portion of the Toronto Raptors, already rolled up his sleeves and dealt with the day-to-day decisions of running a team. And now, still only 38, Thomas owns an entire league, the CBA. Bird says this is most likely his final season as coach of the Pacers, but he said last night there is the possibility he could soon be in the same position as Jordan, an executive responsible for running a team every day. "I would do it," he said, "but only under the right circumstances."
So what advice would Bird give Jordan?
"For one, he's got to go and see these college kids for himself," Bird said. "You can't take someone else's word for it. You've got to go and see if he's as tall as they say he is. You think he's 6-9, then he comes in at 6-6. You've got to go see--that's what I did."
Bird rattled off some of the places he had gone to scout even when he was a freshly retired consultant. It's hard to scout while people are gawking at you or pestering you for autographs. "It's difficult," Bird said. "It'll be very difficult for Mike. I'm on a small [celebrity] scale compared to him."
But, Bird said, that see-for-yourself approach is a must. "You've got to see their reaction when they're taken out of a game, whether he's hollerin' back at his coach. You can't see those things on TV."
Gone is the day basketball players have to sell cars in the offseason or have to get summer jobs to maintain their in-season lifestyles. The wealthiest and most influential of them don't have to pound the pavement as a scout or work their way up a club's corporate ladder. They come into the firm as a senior partner. "M.J. should have to coach three years before he's able to move upstairs," Bird said in mock jealousy. What in the world are they searching for? The next big challenge, the thrill of victory, the exhilaration of trying.
Last summer when Jordan was entertaining the possibility of acquiring part or all of the Charlotte Hornets, I asked him why in the world he wanted to leave unlimited free time for the frustrations that come with running a professional sports franchise. "I'm 36," he said that day. "I need to do something meaningful professionally. There are challenges that stimulate me beyond playing basketball."
Anybody who has been close to Jordan in recent weeks got to see that. He doesn't just look at games on the satellite dish, he devours them. The telephone has to be surgically removed from his ear. Bird said last night, "I know he's got his feelers out." Once again, he's part of the action. The pace is back where he wants it, needs it. Same for Bird, same for Thomas, same for Magic. For 15 years or more, they've been on top of the world, giants in their industry. But because of the nature of what they did, they had to leave before it was really time. Just when their minds began to conquer the game, time was up. Their physical capacity might have diminished, but not the almost insatiable drive to compete which is really what pushed them to the top.
So here they are, consumed with salary caps and three-way deals and figuring out how to push which buttons while wearing a suit instead of a uniform. Bird said last night that controlling what happened on the court "was easy" compared with controlling things as a coach or executive. "The ball's not in his hands anymore," Bird said. "As a player, I could make a play--he could make a play."
Inside the Pacers' locker room there are several players for whom basketball probably will be a lifetime profession, notably Mark Jackson. Playing for Bird excited Jackson, as does keeping tabs on peers such as Jordan and Doc Rivers, who working with General Manager John Gabriel set down the blueprint for how to dump the dead weight in Orlando and start over in a hurry. "This isn't going to be a quick-hitter," Jackson said of the job before Jordan. "But I think he'll make it better before long. I hear so many people saying, 'Salary cap, salary cap, salary cap.' But it can be done. The guys who begin preparing for this kind of career in their playing days are the guys who will do it successfully."
When someone asked Bird if he thinks Jordan has the patience to see this Wizards thing through, Bird said, "Yeah. He was in the league for seven years before he won a championship."
Then Bird continued, "Look, he picked the right spot. If he turns this around, he'll look like a genius. Right spot, right time."