I n these past few days a prairie fire has roared through sports sections and radio and TV talk shows as people struggle to say something profound about Michael Jordan's sudden, almost throwaway announcement he would retire at the end of this season. A debate centers on whether Jordan's rather mortal comeback for the Washington Wizards has, ahem, "tarnished his legacy."

Write this down.

That is crapola.

There's no worthy debate here. Only an imbecile would embrace the position that Jordan has done something wrong by continuing to play basketball. (Come on, if there was such a thing as The Art Channel, do you think anybody would take the position that, "Claude Monet should have quit painting when he was 60 and gone out on top. By painting into his seventies and eighties, Monet made a tragic mistake. Ruined his legacy. Turned himself into a plumber." Oh, please.)

This is not Willie Mays stumbling at home plate with the Mets. And even with that footage, does anybody in his right mind think Willie Mays wasn't one of the greatest baseball players of all time? Right now, at almost 40 -- even with his legacy allegedly teetering on the brink of history's cliff -- Jordan is one of the best 25 players in the NBA. How many players would die for that? Does anyone out there seriously think Jordan couldn't get 40 points in his next game if he wanted to? Would any coach honestly not want Jordan on his team right now? Are you people nuts? Most of the steps Jordan has lost, nobody else ever had!

So shut up with this.

When you think of Johnny Unitas, you might remember he ended his career ignominiously with San Diego. But that in no way "tarnishes Unitas's legacy." If Unitas isn't the greatest quarterback of all time, he's in the top two or three. Jets fans remember Joe Namath finished up with the Rams. But it doesn't stop them from swearing by him still. We all agree that Jordan isn't as good as he once was -- even Jordan agrees. So what should we do about it, stick him out on an ice floe?

Most of this "legacy" garbage pours from a few dopes in Chicago, which is understandable, and a few mopes in New York, which is incomprehensible -- how is their territory being poached? Everybody here understands Jordan's not a Wizard, he's a Bull. He's not ours, he's Chicago's. Most of us are happy he felt that famous "itch," and decided to scratch it here. Jordan's never going to be the greatest Bullet/Wizard ever; ownership shouldn't even retire his uniform -- that 23 belongs to Chicago. They should just place a plaque somewhere near the court commemorating the path Jordan walked, from the home dressing room for two seasons.

Jordan's legacy was carved in marble long before he got to Washington. It cheapens his accomplishments to think anything he did here could erode it. In terms of any "legacy" here, it's far more important what Jordan has done, and will do, as a Wizards executive. Two years of sellouts is great for the wallet, but what's to prevent this newfound glamour from being temporary?

So far the best move Jordan made (besides playing) was hiring the team's best coach in the last 20 years, Doug Collins. As for the team itself, it was terrible when Jordan got here. It has improved since -- but how much? Folks talk about the playoffs. But so far it's just wind. At the moment the Wizards are running 10th in the weaker Eastern Conference.

Jordan rid the team of some crippling contracts, which gives Washington the opportunity to compete for better players. (Getting rid of Juwan Howard was a masterstroke. When it happened everyone here thought Jordan had fleeced Mark Cuban. But then Cuban turned around and traded Howard to Denver for Raef LaFrentz and Nick Van Exel! So you'd have to think the NBA fleece chart runs pretty deep.) But what's Jerry Stackhouse's future here? Is he one-and-done? Will Larry Hughes play better after Jordan leaves? Juan Dixon looks like he can play already; he came to the NBA fully formed after four years in college. A younger guy like Jared Jeffries can look promising one game and invisible the next. Kwame Brown, who's even younger than Jeffries, seems to have regressed after his turbo start this season. Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas aren't dependable big men yet. Last week, when Jordan declared he wanted more minutes, it was because he was tired of yielding those minutes to players he thought weren't using them profitably.

So the jury is still out on what Jordan can do to build a team from the executive suite. That, understandably, takes time. (Excuse me, but it's not like the Wizards consistently won 50 to 55 games every year in the '90s, and fans have grown impatient. The difference between, say, the Lakers and the Wizards would have been that when it was pointed out that the Lakers were successful because they were run by Jerry West, in response the Wizards would have tried to hire Adam West.) Jordan's effect as an executive still waits to be measured.

But there's no debate whether Jordan coming back to play was a mistake. It wasn't. Michael Jordan isn't the Fat Elvis waddling around in a jumpsuit and a WBC belt. He can still play -- on guile alone if he has to -- and down the road nobody is going to remember him as anything less than the best basketball player of all time. So if you've got tickets to a Jordan game, and you don't want them for "legacy reasons," fine. Give 'em to me.

Michael Jordan may not be the player he was, but his presence has changed the face of the Wizards, including the hiring of Doug Collins.