By David Aldridge
Almost a year and a half after he suddenly retired from the sport that he had dominated and reshaped in his image, Michael Jordan yesterday announced his return to the Chicago Bulls of the National Basketball Association, beginning with today's game against the Indiana Pacers in Indianapolis.
The 32-year-old Jordan reached his decision to return after spending two weeks going back and forth on the pros and cons of playing again. Always as amused by the media as irritated, Jordan yesterday had a little fun with the press that has followed his every move over the past decade: The official announcement of his return, in a statement released through the office of his longtime agent, David Falk of Washington, read simply, "I'm back."
Those two words could have multimillion-dollar reverberations for the Bulls, suffering through a lackluster season, and the NBA, which has suffered declining television ratings since Jordan's retirement. Internationally, Jordan's return would reinforce the still-strong sales of his Bulls jerseys. He and Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal still top all sales of the "player-identified merchandise" (jerseys and shorts sold by name and number) that is the real presence of the NBA overseas. And there is some hope that Jordan will come back wearing the No. 45 jersey he wore in minor league baseball, creating a one-two sales punch with his No. 23 jersey.
The comeback is as American as the credit card, and Jordan thus joins a long line of resurrections that stretch from Richard Nixon and Marion Barry to Sugar Ray Leonard and Tina Turner. Jordan may not even be the last pro basketball player to return; there is talk that former Boston Celtics star Dave Cowens, at 46, might come out of retirement to play for the San Antonio Spurs, for whom he is an assistant coach.
But the previous celebrated return in the NBA, former Los Angeles Lakers star Magic Johnson, didn't finish as well. Johnson came back to the Lakers in 1992 after missing the previous season following his disclosure that he had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Johnson played through the 1992 preseason, but after hearing that other players were leery about being on the same court with him, Johnson retired for good.
Jordan, a three-time NBA most valuable player who led Chicago to three consecutive championships in 1991-93, spent most of the last year in Birmingham, playing minor league baseball in the Chicago White Sox organization. He started quickly, then slumped and finished the year with a .202 batting average. But he never once begged out of the life that was light years removed from his former job, and with a couple of exceptions he bought a plush bus that his team used on road trips Jordan seemed content with gradual improvement in his game.
That is, until the baseball strike ended the 1994 season in August and now threatens to disrupt the start of the '95 season next month. Major League Baseball is planning to use replacement players as strikebreakers. But Jordan is a strong union supporter, and once it became apparent that it would be a long time, if ever, before he got a chance to play with the true major leaguers, he got out. He retired from baseball on March 10, a decision that virtually cemented his return to basketball.
Jordan went back and forth over the past two weeks about whether he wanted to return to the league that he overpowered from 1984 through 1993. For nine years, he revolutionized the sport, helping change the notion of basketball as a game ruled by seven-foot players. He stands 6 feet 6, an average height in the NBA, but became the game's unstoppable force.
No one player could keep him from the basket. Even when most teams tried two defenders, Jordan would escape with any one of a hundred different moves, all potent because of his astounding leaping ability and his creativity around the basket. He took the art of the dunk to a new level; once, when the Bulls were playing in Utah against the Jazz, Jordan dunked on an opposing guard that was a couple of inches shorter. From the crowd a voice wailed, "Why don't you pick on someone your own size?"
The next time Chicago got the ball, Jordan rose and dunked on Mel Turpin, a center that stood 6-11 and weighed more than 300 pounds.
"He big enough for you?" Jordan said as he ran back downcourt.
Jordan's regular season average of 32.3 points per game is the best in league history. And Jordan saved his best for the postseason. He holds the league record for scoring in one playoff game, 63 points at Boston in April 1986. He set a record for scoring average in a championship series when he averaged 41 a game in a six-game series against the Phoenix Suns in 1993.
In the meantime, Jordan became a crossover advertising sensation. Beginning with his endorsement of "Air Jordan" sneakers for Nike, Jordan created a commercial empire that included relationships with Gatorade, Hanes underwear, McDonald's and Wheaties cereal and brought Jordan more than $30 million annually.
The announcement of Jordan's comeback immediately sent Chicago into ecstasy.
"I said to myself when I heard he was back, That's another championship, a four-peat.' I know they're going to win now," explained John Haley, 34, as he directed hopeful buyers at the Bulls' offices to the ticket window.
Rose Botta, 33, left her restaurant lunch early to drive over to United Center to buy tickets to see Jordan. "I asked my waitress if she had heard and she said he was back, so we got in the car to come over here right away. It's fantastic. It's the best thing that can happen to this city. I think Michael is more popular than anyone else has ever been right now."
Chicagoans weren't the only people giddy with the inherent potential of Jordan's return. A statement issued by Sen. Robert Dole (R-Kan.) read in part: "I'm happy to see Michael Jordan headed back to the court. But down the road when he finally decides to look for a new job, maybe he should think about the U.S. Senate. The way he drives to the basket, he might be able to get things moving there, too."
Special correspondent Megan Garvey contributed to this report from Chicago.
© Copyright 1995 The Washington Post Company