Aging Jordan Still Had Game
The man regarded by many as the greatest to ever play basketball had just played a game that could easily be described as the worst he'd ever played. Michael Jordan scored six points on 2 of 10 shooting in a blowout loss in Indiana in December 2001 and gave his critics and cynics more reason to second-guess his decision to leave behind his role as part owner and team president of the Washington Wizards to come back out of retirement for the second time -- as a creaky-kneed, 38-year-old man with nothing more to prove, on a team that had no chance of continuing his championship legacy.
Jordan had to take that long, rhythmic, pigeon-toed stroll to the Wizards' team bus, a superhero humbled by the performance resembling a mere human. He grabbed a seat next to his handpicked coach, Doug Collins, and Collins recalls Jordan looking him in the eye and asking, "Do you think I can still play?"
"Absolutely, Michael," Collins remembers telling Jordan.
Collins said he wasn't surprised by Jordan's question because he believed that the inquiry had less to do with Jordan's self doubt and more to do with his need for a loyal ally. "I know Michael's big thing. If you're with him, you better believe that you can win every night and you'd better believe in him," said Collins, who coached Jordan for five seasons, including three in Chicago. "I was around him for a long, long time. I know what burns inside him."
Collins assured Jordan that he had confidence in him and wouldn't have come back to coach the Wizards if he didn't believe in what Jordan was trying to accomplish --- leading a once proud franchise back into the playoffs. He also explained to Jordan that he didn't play him the entire fourth quarter of a 108-81 loss because he didn't feel it was necessary. Jordan, whose streak of 866 consecutive games scoring in double figures had ended, told Collins that he agreed with him, adding, "I just wanted to know if you think I can still play."
At the time, Collins and Jordan both lived at the Ritz-Carlton condos in Northwest Washington and Collins estimates that they arrived back home around 3 a.m. Collins said that his wife, Kathy, went to the Washington branch of Sports Club/L.A. about five hours later and spotted Jordan already lifting weights with his personal trainer, Tim Grover.
"That tells you right there and sums up his competitive drive," Collins said. "If you're going to play with Michael, if you're going to coach Michael, you're going to have to bring it every night, cause he's going to bring an incredible intensity and competitive spirit, because he thinks he can win every night. Sometimes that can be overwhelming, especially to young people who have not been around that kind of competitor."
What followed over the next three games with likely stand out as the most memorable period of Jordan's time in Washington. He scored 51 points against the Charlotte Hornets, becoming the oldest player in NBA history -- by three years -- to score 50 or more, and set a then-franchise record 34 points in the first half. He followed that up with 45 points the next game against New Jersey. Then, he scored 29 points against his former team, Chicago, to reach 30,000 and showed that there was still some air in the man called Air.
After having his shot blocked by Ron Artest, Jordan sprinted down court to catch Ron Mercer attempting a layup. Jordan leapt, pinned the ball against the backboard with two hands and pulled it down in one motion.
"My favorite memory was when he caught Ron Mercer's shot," said center Brendan Haywood, the last of Jordan's former teammates remaining in Washington. "He came out of nowhere. We didn't even know he had that in the tank."
The Wizards would eventually enter the all-star break with a 26-21 record and the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but the season faltered in the second half, as Jordan's right knee began to deteriorate and he eventually was forced to have surgery. Collins adds that Jordan's injury, combined with injuries to Hamilton and Haywood derailed what would've been a playoff team. "If he hadn't gotten hurt our first year and Rip Hamilton had not got hurt," Collins said. "We would've probably won 42, 43, 44 games and made the playoffs."
Would Jordan's time with the Wizards be looked upon differently if the team had made the playoffs?
Jordan will enter the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame on Friday because of the six NBA championships, five MVP awards and 10 scoring titles that he won in Chicago. His two seasons in Washington are mostly remembered for what he wasn't able to accomplish -- leading the Wizards to the playoffs, building a quality team, getting his job back after he finished playing. Looking back, both Jordan and the Wizards would like to ignore his time here. On most nights he was an old Jordan instead of the Jordan of old, but for an aging perimeter player, he was relatively successful in the District.
It's easy to dismiss the Washington model because it didn't compare with the Chicago model, but not many NBA players can suit up at age 38, 39 or 40. And those that do are usually big men and they rarely produce at the level that Jordan did.
When he came back to play for the Wizards, Jordan was way, way past his prime and weakened by right knee tendinitis, which shortened his first season (in his final game of the season, Jordan had just two points off the bench against the Los Angeles Lakers). But despite missing three full seasons, Jordan still averaged more than 25 points a game at the all-star break and finished averaging 22.9 points, which ranks as the second-highest scoring average for any player during the season that they turned 39 (Kareem Abdur-Jabbar was tops at 23.4).
The next season, Jordan played all 82 games and averaged 20 points per game -- at age 40. Those seasons dropped his scoring average from 31.5 points to 30.12, but his effectiveness at a late stage in life isn't lost on Haywood.
"Some people didn't view [what Jordan did in Washington] in a positive light because he wasn't as dominant as he was before and how things went down with him and team and they view it real negative," Haywood said. "For me, he wasn't the same 30-plus per game scorer, but he was still one of the top 15 players in the league at like 40 years old. I view it as a great time because it was a testament to where his skill level was. I think what he did out there was phenomenal."
Haywood added that he believes that Jordan, now part owner and managing member of basketball operations for the Charlotte Bobcats, could still play right now. "Honestly, he could outplay probably about 50 percent of the NBA right now," Haywood said. "Give him a month to get in shape."
Even at 46?
"At 46, if you give Michael Jordan a month, two months to go over there with Tim Grover and get in shape, he could beat 50 percent of the league," Haywood said. "He wouldn't be at a LeBron James level, but he could compete because of his knowledge. He knew the game so well, as far as scouting reports and where he needed to get to on the court that he was always going to be effective. He couldn't jump quite as high, wasn't quite as fast and he still averaged 20 in the greatest league on earth because he was that talented."
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