Part XIII: Michael Jordan returns to basketball, page 2
Just a few weeks after Michael Jordan's baseball career ended in the spring of 1995, his basketball life was revived as the returned to the NBA on March 19.
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There immediately was a frenzy of anticipation throughout the basketball world. OK, the world. President Bill Clinton said at a press conference he was pleased employment was increasing by one with Jordan perhaps returning to the NBA. There were local and national reports daily of Jordan sightings. Jordan began practicing with the team, but remained coy. Jordan's agent, David Falk, tried to negotiate a new contract for Jordan with the team or the league or NBC. After all, who made everyone so much money? Jordan was still making $4 million annually under his eight-year deal from 1988, but under league rules, Falk couldn't get a change. NBC said they'd throw Jordan some work in the 1996 Olympics as a commentator. Not interested. It was just time to play and that would be dealt with in time.
There has been talk at times during Jordan's basketball career that he didn't do enough for the black community or society in general, that he should have been an advocate or more a major political presence.
I recall some neighborhood activists in Chicago denouncing Jordan back in the late 1980s and saying he was no Ali or Joe Louis or Jackie Robinson. I remember Jim Brown coming to Chicago and saying Jordan needed to do more for black people. Jordan generally stayed away from divisive politics, and I probably didn't help him. One time I was railing against Jesse Helms, the segregationist U.S. Senator from North Carolina, and was going on about how Jordan should support Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt in a run against Helms. Jordan quipped that Republicans buy sneakers, too, and I used the joking reference in one of my books and it's stuck to Jordan.
But I believe Jordan did more, in many respects, for the black community and all of America than many of those sporting pioneers like Robinson, Louis, Ali and Arthur Ashe. I don't think Barack Obama would have been possible without Michael Jordan.
All those men were great figures and made great sacrifices under extreme conditions. But no one really wanted to be like them. I grew up in Brooklyn and we loved Jackie and loved the way he tortured the Giants. We didn't know where St. Louis was, but we hated it for the things they yelled at Jackie. But we wanted to be like the Duke or Gil or even Mickey Mantle.
It wasn't until Jordan that everyone, white or black, wanted to be like Michael Jordan. Kids, adults, men, women. Michael Jordan was a black man whom everyone seemed comfortable with and felt unthreatened by. Not because he wasn't militant or didn't stand for anything. He did. He stood for hard work and effort and reason and reliability, the traits that built the country. He wasn't perfect, but neither were just about all the Founding Fathers. Hamilton had an ugly affair and paid blackmail. Jefferson fathered children with a slave. Adams antagonized seemingly everyone and his selfish alien and sedition acts were a low point in the country's history. Franklin essentially abandoned his family for strangers.
But they transcended their peccadilloes with towering ideas and patriotic commitment.
Jordan, to me, was the first African-American athlete who I felt the white community and America as a whole was not only comfortable with but admired and supported. These things are not supposed to be spoken aloud in our society, but Obama's presidency has allowed us to open the closet door of ugly racism.
Racism has had a nasty history in the U.S. and is hardly defeated. But I never felt America viewed Jordan as a black man, but as a man and a great basketball player. To me, that became something of a historic first and began to create the stage and atmosphere for a black man to be seen as someone who could win over Americans to become the leader of our nation. It came to be Barack Obama, and I personally doubt it would have happened if there was no Michael Jordan.
On March 19, 1995, Michael Jordan returned to basketball.
He was back!
Jordan was just seven-of-28 for 19 points as the Bulls lost in overtime in Indianapolis. But the fun was beginning. The Bulls traveled to Atlanta in Jordan's fourth game back and Jordan swished a 16-footer at the buzzer for the one-point win. Next stop, New York, N.Y. So great they have to say it twice, or so they say.
That would be the famous double nickel when Jordan scored 55 points and assisted on Bill Wennington's winning basket at the buzzer with everyone eying Jordan for the last shot. He wasn't the same Michael Jordan, somewhat less explosive, but smarter and stronger. His shot wasn't as accurate to start.
Jordan changed everyone. He relieved the pressure on Pippen and made everyone feel safe, like the big kid was back and there would be no more bullying. The Bulls finished the season 13-4 with Jordan to end 47-35 with a first round playoff date with the Charlotte Hornets.
After the Bulls took control with an overtime win in Charlotte in Game 1, they closed out the series in four games and headed for Orlando to meet Shaq and Horace and the next team of the 90s, the young Magic.
Game 1 was the shocker with the Bulls on the verge of stealing it and Nick Anderson poking the ball away from Jordan, his eighth turnover of the game, to set up a fast break and the win. Anderson had joked Jordan, now wearing No. 45 upon his return with No. 23 retired, was not like the old No. 23. So Jordan, contrary to league rules, went back to No. 23 for Game 2. Media columns were abusive and Jordan began another media boycott and began collecting league fines.
Jordan often was at odds with Horace Grant, now with the Magic, and Jordan had often said over the years the Bulls would not have won their second trio of championships with Grant because of his difficulties in big games. So Phil Jackson had whoever was guarding Grant drop off to double Shaq. Grant beat the strategy relentlessly with nearly 75 percent shooting and the Magic went on to win the series in the sixth game in Chicago.
So that was it. Jordan was back, and the Bulls had their poorest playoff performance in almost a decade. Jordan said he was glad he'd returned, that he enjoyed the truncated season and that his love for the game was back and remained strong. He knew he wasn't at his best and would learn from it. He admitted to being unsure at times, the first time he felt like that since high school. But Jordan also sent something of a warning to the NBA.
"We're not that far away," he said.
No one had any idea then how close to immortality they were.