Go back just a couple of months to the beginning of the NBA season, when Michael Jordan and Doug Collins agreed that Jordan wouldn't be a starter. That Jordan would come off the bench in an attempt to curtail his minutes -- to preserve him, keep him rested and healthy for the whole season (and the playoffs, be still my heart).
That was the plan. It was devised as an antidote for what happened last season when Jordan got hurt around the time of the All-Star Game. In retrospect, the thinking was Jordan logged so many minutes in the first half of the season, he'd worn his body down to the fail-safe point. Jordan and Collins didn't want that to happen again. So they came up with a number to shoot for: 30 minutes a game.
Eventually everybody (including Jordan) signed up for the idea that Jordan would come off the bench for his own protection -- like Jordan was a kind of scarce natural resource that had to be safeguarded, like the Chesapeake Bay.
But that's long gone now. Now Jordan is playing as if 30 minutes is just when he's getting warmed up. After 30, the fun starts. Jordan played 53 the other night! If you can bring yourself to think of Jordan like a keg, it's like there's beer shooting out everywhere. Grab a glass and get some.
In the first 14 games of the season Jordan averaged a little more than 28 minutes. He never played more than 34; he only reached that number twice. The Wizards were 6-8, which wasn't terrible. Jordan was averaging 16.4 points, which wasn't terrible, either.
But then, for reasons known only to him, Jordan let it slip that this was "definitely" his last season. And within 24 hours his game plan changed. Jordan came off the bench once more, then declared himself a starter. His days of being an endangered species were over. (As they say: "Better to be a starter than a snail darter.")
Since then Jordan has averaged more than 37 minutes per game. Six times he's played 40 minutes or more -- including that 53 in last Saturday's double-overtime win against Indiana. Nobody on either team played as many minutes as the 39-year-old Jordan. And Jordan was by far the best player on the court; 41 points and 12 rebounds against a big-time team stuffed with great young talent. Does the phrase 'statement game' mean anything to you?
Afterward Collins joked that if he'd taken Jordan out to rest him, "I probably would have been fired." It's a cute line, and it underscores Jordan's special status on this team. Jordan is beyond everyone's reach. It's his team. He hired Collins. He has the juice. If he and Collins butt heads over playing time, who do you think is going to win the fight?
It's Jordan's world we live in, his last hurrah. We're only there to supply the echo.
It appears Jordan has decided to throw caution aside. These are his last games, and he's going to play them with all the rage he can muster. (Forget that stuff about being here to make the young kids better. That's nice, but that's not why he's here this year.) He's going to be a whirling dervish. If he gets hurt, so be it. He doesn't appear to be saving himself for anything, even the playoffs. So the minutes pile up, and not coincidentally so do the victories.
In the 19 games Jordan has started, the Wizards are 11-8 -- a playoff pace. They have beaten some good teams: Detroit, San Antonio, Indiana and Boston. Jordan had a few monster games as well: He had back-to-back games of 30 and 33 against Atlanta and Memphis. Then came the 41 and 12 against Indiana. Of course, he used to do that every night.
The truth is Jordan is more likely to get 14 points than he is to get 40. (When he got 30 and 33, it was no coincidence those games directly followed a game against Toronto in which Jordan scored only two points in 40 minutes. Much was made of the fact that the Wizards beat Toronto, which Jordan said gratified him, and proved he didn't have to score to win. And Collins took pains to point out that Jordan had eight rebounds and nine assists. But come on! Two points? If Jordan was so gratified, how come he went and dropped 30 and 33?)
Players always say they'll be the first to know when it's over. But then we see them get 10 points or so, and we figure they're just fooling themselves -- because we see them out there hanging on and struggling. But they do know first. They know years before we do. They're not trying to fool themselves; they're trying to fool us.
Down deep Jordan knows he can't get 41 any time he wants to anymore. He knows younger, quicker players can score off him. And on defense they can hound him into making mistakes he never used to make. As we've seen lately Jordan can still be brilliant out there. But we can't take his brilliance for granted. Now he's out there like a workingman, squeezing every drop of what's left to him, leaving nothing in the tank. And if you were a worrier, your worry would be that Jordan poops out by, say, March 15. He's on a wicked run now (60 points and 23 rebounds in his last two games), and he says he's feeling the best he has all season. But as that poet laureate Shaquille O'Neal once said, "Thirty-nine ain't 29, bro."
Years ago Jordan said that his one true sanctuary was the basketball court. Every place else he felt confined. Only on the court did he feel free. The first time he retired, he tried baseball. Later he said coming back to basketball was the best thing he ever did. Now he has come back again, this time for the last time.
His life off the court lately has been turmoil. A year or so ago there was an announcement of an impending divorce, then an announcement of a reconciliation. Now there is a suit and a countersuit involving a woman, Karla Knafel, about sex, hush money and extortion that could smear Jordan's well-built public image. It's hard enough to face the fact that your great talent is eroding in public view. Now add on the possibility that your private life will be played out in public view.
Maybe that's why Jordan is playing as hard and as fast as he can. On the court is the one place he finds peace and finds freedom and finds himself in full. Maybe he knows we'll think he's still Michael Jordan -- if every once in a while on that court he still is.