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Can Jordan Rule Again?

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By Mark Vancil

Michael Jordan's long frame was draped down and over the folding chair, his suit crisply pressed, the colored tie knotted perfectly. Like the eye of a deadly storm, Jordan's calm belied the madness around him.

On this night, less than an hour after a sometimes brilliant though often bizarre comeback from professional basketball ended in a playoff defeat, something he hadn't experienced since 1990, Jordan seemed as intrigued by the questions as by his own answers. Within 24 hours, Jordan would start running a trail he had traveled a decade earlier and then forgotten. But first, he had to walk.

"I did question myself," Jordan says now. "And that was something new for me, something I hadn't experienced in the game of basketball in a long time. I found out being in baseball shape wasn't the same as being in basketball shape. And I found out being away from the game for 18 months is a long time. Even though I had some success and I felt confident about what I was able to do and how I could help the team, I did have questions."

For nearly two hours, long after Chicago's United Center had emptied and the Orlando Magic had turned their attention toward the next round of the 1995 NBA Playoffs, Michael Jordan sat amid a swirl of notebooks, microphones and minicams. There had been a 55 point eruption against the Knicks in Madison Square Garden, a last-second, end-to-end dash and buzzer-beating jumper to dump the Hawks in Atlanta and the vintage, 48-point performance in a playoff-opening overtime victory over Charlotte.

But the rust born during months away from the game showed through as well. And when it did, Jordan, for the first time in his professional basketball career, found himself confounded by his own skills, something only opponents had experienced previously. Though questionable passes and poor shooting were explained away by the layoff, there were other elements of Jordan's performance that not even he could explain.

Momentary mental lapses produced sometimes embarrassing moments, including one last-minute turnover that led directly to defeat against Orlando. Even more troubling, however, were the physical changes many noticed but most tried to ignore. For the first time since he picked up a basket ball, Jordan's ability to rise up and soar over opposing defenders was largely absent. One of professional basketball's greatest finishers, Jordan's lightning drives to the hole rarely ended with the attendant thunder.

That he adjusted only underscored Jordan's rare physical and mental gifts. That he had to adjust from quarter to quarter only illuminated the depth of the challenge he had undertaken. In the end, the only constant seemed to be Jordan's inconsistency.

"I had been gone 18 months, and I got a taste of what it was like to struggle last year," Jordan reflected. "I wasn't really physically prepared from a basketball standpoint. But I knew what I had to do."

For Jordan, the answers were where they had always been. From the time he was old enough to go off on his own, trials and tribulations has been dealt with on a basketball court. Playing the game, whether back in North Carolina as a child or in an impassioned pick-up game as an adult, Jordan found calm amid the chaos of competition. By the time he walked out of the United Center last June and drove past the statue of himself outside the main gate, Michael Jordan had decided to rebuild--immediately.

Tim Grover, Jordan's personal fitness trainer for seven years, would be the architect.

"I've never seen him work harder than he did last summer," said Grover. "The very next day after the Bulls were eliminated, Michael started working out. It was the earliest I have ever seen him start. I used to have to schedule his workouts during spare time away from a golf game. But for the first time, golf took a set back."

As did just about everything else. Though Jordan's summer schedule remained packed with commercial shoots, one of which included two days in the desert, and charity work, basketball, for the first time since the summer before his rookie season in 1984, became the top priority.

On the Warner Brothers lot in California, where Jordan spent much of the summer on the set of Space Jam, his first feature-length motion picture, the studio built an enclosed gymnasium it dubbed the "Jordan Dome." The "bubble" as it was affectionately known, included a full-length basketball court that Jordan and a few of his NBA friends nearly wore out.

For weeks, he stuck to a grueling schedule that started early in the morning and ended late at night. Around work on the film, there were highly charged evening pick-up basketball games featuring NBA stars such as Patrick Ewing, Larry Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, Dennis Rodman, Reggie Miller, Juwan Howard and Glen Rice to name only a few.

"A typical day for Michael would start with about 30 or 40 minutes of conditioning in the bubble," said Grover. "This would include stretching, running, and various basketball stuff, nothing long distance, to get his wind up. Then he'd go to the movie set for some shooting. At lunch time, he'd work out with weights for about an hour and a half. Then he'd go back to the set from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. From 7:30 p.m. to about 10 p.m., he'd play basketball in the bubble. One night there were 22 top NBA players on different teams playing games."

By the start of training camp, Jordan's 6-6 frame had been reduced to 216 pounds of muscle with just 4 percent body fat. The fire that had always boiled just below his smooth exterior returned. So, too, did Jordan's ability to dominate games. Coach Phil Jackson reminded skeptics just how easy it remains for Jordan to string together 30-point nights. Others, including Denver's Bernie Bickerstaff and Indiana's Larry Brown, predicted a season in which the new Michael Jordan would look a lot like to old one.

"He's put in a lot of preparation," said teammate Scottie Pippen. "He really worked hard getting himself ready and trying to get back to the top of his game. I think we're going to see an entirely different player."

Even Jordan, who had any lingering questions answered during those private yet fiercely competitive all-star pick-up games, knows how far he has come from that late night question-and-answer session early in June. By the time Chicago opened the regular season, with defending rebounding champion Dennis Rodman now a part of the Bulls' show, the questions suddenly had a familiar ring. Can the Bulls win another championship? Will Jordan, who won seven straight scoring titles before departing after the 1993 season, add another?

"Physically, I feel stronger," said Jordan. "I feel that I can do basically the same things, but I'm more knowledgeable about myself and about the game. I feel better about myself than I did last year. Last year, I came back not knowing exactly how I would fit in and if I could live up to the standards that I have set for myself. Now I think I can.

"I think I will be able to play the same way I have always played. I can certainly score in the 30s. Is that enough to win another scoring championship? I don't know. It depends on what the other players in the league do. I have always tried to be consistent in the way I play the game. And I have the feeling now that I'll be able to play that way again. I want to be productive every night I step onto the court.

"People may look at the statistics and make their decisions or opinions based on numbers. But we have a different team and we may have different requirements for what my production should be. But I don't think what I'm asked to contribute will be much different from what it's been in the past."

Indeed, the results could be quite similar as well. Rules changes implemented during Jordan's absence should more than cover for what time has done to dull his skills. When Philadelphia 76ers coach John Lucas learned of Jordan's return a year ago, he predicted 50-point nights and 20 free-throw attempts every game. Others, including Houston's Clyde Drexler, who has also benefited from the new rules, think any chance of stopping Jordan has disappeared.

With the tighter restrictions on hand checking, Jordan's strength and quickness, even minus a half-step, make him virtually impossible to defend. Add to that the shortening of the three-point arc from 23-9 to 22 feet, a distance much more in line with Jordan's natural range, and Rodman's ability to keep the ball alive, something Chicago hasn't enjoyed Horace Grant departed prior to the 1994-95 season, and it's not hard to imagine a season full of 30- and 40-point nights.

If that's not enough, defenders can no longer use a knee and open hand to move defensive players out of position. After Hakeem Olajuwon, is there anyone more dangerous on the block than Jordan?

All of which had Jackson and everyone else in Chicago thinking about another title. With Jordan back, Rodman on board and Pippen in his prime, the Bulls have three of the greatest defensive players in history at their respective positions. And with Jordan in the starting lineup, Chicago also has one of the league's most versatile, if not best, sixth men in Toni Kukoc.

"We made a surge at the end of last year, and it was not a combination of them starting to play well together and Michael Jordan coming back," said Jordan. "We were in a position where we were comfortable thinking about making a run at the championship. But in the end, we just didn't have enough experience together as a team.

"We had a group together for a couple of years before we ever won a championship. We had to experiment, and we had to adjust. I think we can bring this team through a little quicker than that."

Jordan expects nothing less. Though he plans to play beyond the 1995-96 season --"I don't consider this to be my last season"--time is clearly no longer on his side. Pippen was 30 in September, Jordan will turn 33 in February and Rodman 35 in May.

And that's only the beginning of what could be one of the last runs for these Bulls.

Rodman can become a free agent after the season, and Pippen, who has been at odds with Chicago management in the past, could be the franchise's only real commodity on the open market if the Bulls decide to rebuild.

That leaves Jordan, who is focused on the present and nothing more.

"I have always played because of my love for the game," he said.

"That hasn't changed. That's why I'm back playing. I'm not back because of the business aspect of basketball. That's never been the reason I've played. I play because I love the game. As long as I feel that way, I'll play. Right now, I feel good. I'm in basketball shape, probably the best shape of my life. So we'll se where that takes us."

"I think it's going to be a fun season. So stand back and watch."

For Jordan, now it's time to run.

MARK VANCIL is the author of the Michael Jordan book "Rare Air", as well as a number of other books on athletes and sports.

This article originally appeared in the February 1996 issue of "Hoop".

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