Three and a half years after calling it quits, Michael Jordan returned to the court in a Washington Wizards jersey. The ex-Bull retired at the capable age of 35 and had shaken off rumors of a comeback for three years. Jordan consistently noted that the odds of him staying retired were at 99.9 percent, and answered questions on coming back every single day.
Jordan enhanced speculation of a return in 1999, when he negotiated with George Shinn to become part-owner of the Charlotte Hornets. The North Carolina graduate would have controlled 50% of the organization, including everything basketball-related, and would've (allegedly) returned to the court with the intention to instate Dean Smith as head coach. Though the two failed to consummate their plans, it was clear that Jordan was not ready to leave basketball behind. (Incidentally, had that deal gone through, New Orleans and Oklahoma City might not have NBA teams today.)
In 2000, Jordan became the president of the Wizards and assumed control of their day-to-day operations. "It is a new challenge. I don't get to play. I don't get to wear a Wizards' uniform," Jordan said in a news conference. "But I will have influence with the players who wear the uniform... I'm going to try to have my imprint and footprints all over this place."
The following year, the Wizards hired Doug Collins -- who coached Jordan in Chicago before Phil Jackson -- to coach the team. Reports surfaced that Jordan was working out, playing pickup games, and was trying to lose weight. Pittsburgh Penguins star Mario Lemieux, who had jumped out of the owners' box to make a comeback of his own, anticipated a re-entrance, saying, "I'm very excited about it." His comeback was all but assured, and sure enough he announced his return to the league on September 25th, 2001.
Jordan's immense popularity should have gravitated word of his return to a national scale, like it had when he first came back in 1995. But the country was concentrated on the recent attacks of the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and his comeback flew under the radar. Making matters worse, Jordan's debut game on October 30th had to compete with game 3 of the World Series, which had been pushed back due to the attacks.
So while George W. Bush prepared to deliver the first pitch in Yankee Stadium, Jordan was lacing it up in Madison Square Garden, where many of his finest moments had occurred. A packed house watched as 38 year-old Michael Jordan went 7-21, scoring 19 points in a 93-91 loss to the Knicks. He missed a crucial three with 18 seconds left that would've tied the game and redeemed what was an overall lackluster debut.
''I guess the biggest difference is I'm a little bit older than I was the last time I shot the ball,'' Jordan said with a smile. ''My game's a little bit different. My teammates are a little bit different. Obviously, the outcome tonight was a little different than I wanted.''
Jordan spent two whole seasons on the Wizards roster and, by many accounts, tarnished the legacy that he had built in Chicago. However, there was just as much good as there was bad.
He turned the Wizards, who won only 19 games in 2001, into a 37-win team in 2002 and 2003. He breathed life into a bottom-dwelling franchise that had been irrelevant since the late 70's. The Wizards sold out every home game and led the NBA in attendance in his two years with the team.
In his first year, Jordan had the team above .500 midway through the season and was considered a serious MVP candidate. Then injuries took over and he was forced to end his season early. The "air" part of Jordan's game had left him and he was reduced to a jump shooter, albeit a great one for someone his age.
In the 02-03 season, Jordan surrounded himself with a rather odd cast of characters. Bryon Russell, who was forever posterized by Jordan in the '98 Finals, joined the team and played 70 games. Charles Oakley, who was MJ's teammate all the way back in 1985, added his name to the roster. Also joining the team was Jerry Stackhouse, who once bragged about besting Jordan in practices and was then schooled by Jordan when they next played each other.
Jordan turned 40 that year and became the first ever to score 40 or 50 in a game at that age. He became just the third player in NBA history to reach 30,000 career points and averaged over 20 points per game in both seasons in Washington.
However, many of his moves in the front office had adverse results. His decision to draft Kwame Brown with the number one pick is considered one of the worst selections in league history. In acquiring Stackhouse, Michael traded Richard Hamilton, who went on to become a star with the Detroit Pistons.
His comeback also took a bite out of many of his statistical accomplishments. In his thirteen years with the Chicago Bulls, Jordan scored less than ten points in a game just once and scored in double-digits in 842 consecutive games. In Washington, Jordan scored in single-digits a dozen times and lowered his career low from eight points to two. Taking a huge hit was his regular season scoring average. After his years with the Bulls, Jordan's career scoring average was 31.5, a solid gap over Wilt Chamberlain's 30.1 PPG. Yet, Jordan's twenty-point pace with the Wizards nearly cost him the record, as it dipped all the way down to 30.12 a game.
The biggest dent that the comeback took out of his legacy was the way it ended. Jordan had finished his storybook career on a game-winning shot over Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the Finals. It was the perfect ending, and his stint with the Wizards replaced it with a weaker (but still affectionate) one in Philadelphia. In a 107-87 loss to the Sixers, the crowd chanted "We want Mike! We want Mike!" in the 4th quarter, with Jordan resting on the bench. Collins pleaded with him to go in and he eventually did, much to the approval of the fans. Eric Snow immediately fouled Jordan, as requested by 76ers coach Larry Brown. Jordan's final, final, final shot was a made free throw.
At the end of the day, I disagree with most sportswriters that his comeback was a bust. He played better at 40 than anyone else in history and had the Wizards on national television every other week. His legacy remains the same because he didn't do anything to ruin his image. Isiah Thomas on the other hand, now there's someone who has tarnished his image.
In the offseason, Abe Pollin abruptly fired a stunned Jordan, who assumed he would maintain control of the team. Jordan has since became part-owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, and is still searching for the success he achieved on the court to translate to the front office.