Jordan's Return Welcomed

INDIANAPOLIS, Sept. 25 - Though Michael Jordan's return to the playing floor with the Washington Wizards gives the Pacers another team to worry about in the Eastern Conference hierarchy, team president Donnie Walsh welcomed back his franchise's old nemesis.

Jordan finally announced his second comeback to the NBA on Tuesday afternoon.

''If you believe in competition, it's a good thing,'' said Pacers president Donnie Walsh. ''I think he'll be great. I'm not one of these guys saying he's going to be like Willie Mays (in the final days of his career), not at all. I don't think he'll be as athletic. He'll just play differently. He'll post up more, he'll know how to score whenever he wants to, and he'll conserve his energy for the end of the game.

''What I admire about this is he's doing what Reggie (Miller) did last year. He's not hiding behind his legend. He's not going to a team that everybody is saying will win the championship. He's going in to try to help a bunch of young kids play better. And I think that's admirable. That shows me a humility I didn't know that he had.''

In 1998, the final season of Jordan's first reincarnation, the Pacers pushed the heavily favored Bulls to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference finals before falling 88-83. The Bulls went on to beat Utah 4-2 for their sixth title in eight years.

Though Jordan will not be complemented by talents like Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc and Dennis Rodman, Walsh believes he will still have the ability - even at age 38 - to lift the Wizards into contention. Keep in mind, this is a team that has been to the playoff just once in 13 seasons. Last year, the Wizards finished 19-63, 22 games behind the Pacers, who held the eighth and final playoff berth in the East.

Former Pacers GM Donnie Walsh Walsh

''They will be a team that has to be reckoned with,'' Walsh said. ''I absolutely believe that. He'll make everybody better and he will teach the young kids.''

Head coach Isiah Thomas was more reserved.

''I don't know,'' he said. ''I think the season will determine that. I don't think you can say they will be (a contender) or they won't be one. I'm a firm believer that you do it out on the court and you wait and see what happens.''

Thomas was a June participant in Jordan's high profile offseason workouts in Chicago, and came away impressed by his ability. At the time, Thomas felt the only question concerned Jordan's willingness to commit himself to the rigors of a conditioning program that would return him to NBA playing shape. That question has since been answered.

''I support his decision and I'm intrigued to see him come back and play but I don't necessarily have a personal feeling about it,'' Thomas said. ''When we worked out and played over the summer, the thing was, 'Can you train and get back in shape? Do you want to commit to those hours of training?'

''Clearly, he did that. He proved to himself that he could get back in the type of shape that he needs to be in to play and I think he'll come out and play well. I don't think he'll come out and embarrass himself, by no means.''

Though Jordan has been roundly criticized for his inability to turn around the Wizards as the team president (they dropped from 29 to 19 victories in his first full season atop the franchise's basketball operations department), Walsh believes his return to the court makes sense on a managerial level, as well.

''Even as the president of the franchise, it may be a brilliant move,'' Walsh said. ''This team has not made the playoffs in a long time, so in effect by having all these young guys, as the president all you can so is, 'We're going to get real good in the future.'

''But by putting himself in as a player, number one he sells the place out and number two he makes them a lot better. So it might be a smart move as a president.''

Ultimately, Jordan's final comeback will be judged not by how many points he scores, but by how many games the Wizards win. Even the most jaded skeptics don't doubt Jordan's ability to fill up a stat sheet. What remains to be seen for all is whether he will be able to transform the Wizards into winners.

''I think so much of it, for him, at the level and standard that he set, is what does the team do?'' said Thomas. ''It's never been about what Michael Jordan does. It's about what his team does. And the team that you're going to play with is not the team that you left.

''He'll definitely make them better.''