The games already begin for Jordan

Tuesday, October 2, 2001

WASHINGTON -- They won't have to look far to find him.

"The young dogs are going to chase me around," Michael Jordan said. "Well, I'm not going to bark too far away from them, either. I'm not running from nobody."

The NBA season doesn't open officially for four weeks, but the old man is playing mind games already. In his first news conference Monday as a member of the Washington Wizards, Jordan promised everyone lining up for a piece of him their turn. He may have only a vague idea how he measures up against the 35-year-old Chicago Bulls superstar who left the game near the peak of his powers. But Jordan is drawing comfort from the notion that the kids who would swipe his crown have no idea at all.

"If anything, it'll be a great challenge. I'm not saying that I can take Kobe Bryant, that I can take Tracy McGrady. You guys are the only ones saying that they can take me. All good and fine," Jordan told a roomful of reporters.

"I'm pretty sure they're sitting back welcoming the challenge. Guess what -- I'm sitting back welcoming the challenge, too. I'm not walking into the dark. I'm know what I'm capable of doing. I know what's going to be expected of me. I'm know everybody's putting my head on the block. Everybody's motivated to come out and play against me.

"Well," he added, "everybody was motivated to play against me when I left. So things haven't changed."

They have, though, in one undeniably important way. Jordan is three years older than the last time Bryant and McGrady laid eyes on him. They are three years wiser in NBA terms, not to mention stronger, faster and hungrier. And the Bucks' Ray Allen spoke for them all when word went out earlier this summer that Jordan was serious about coming back.

"With Mike, he's dogged all of us for so long. We came in and we were young and he gave it to every single one of us," Allen recalled. "I think with the younger guys being at the top of their games now, it'd be a chance to kind of go and try to get him."

For all the other things this comeback will risk, the hardest thing for Jordan to lay on the line is his pride.

He talked Monday about his legacy being secure -- "nobody can take away my six championships" -- and about being prepared to lose as many games in one season in Washington as he did in his last three at Chicago. But the one thing he will not be able to handle is being embarrassed. Anybody who's spent any time around him knows that.

"People think he's going to come back and be Socrates or something and losing will be OK with him," said Doug Collins, the NBA great who will coach the Wizards and coached Jordan while both were with the Bulls a decade ago. "He wants to teach, but Michael wants to kick your butt while he's teaching."

Those matchups against Bryant, McGrady, Allen & Co. will provide Jordan with his first measure of how the comeback is faring. He can talk about his love of the game, about satisfying an itch that still needed to be scratched and showing the youngsters on the Wizards' roster firsthand the kind of hard work and sacrifice it takes to be a champion. But those larger missions will depend on the success of a thousand smaller ones, those moments when Jordan peels around a screen and finds himself face-to-face with one of the kids he dogged mercilessly -- no matter who has the ball.

Collins can come up with any number of offensive schemes to find the newest Wizard space to operate, and he knows the league's new rules allowing zones gives him a chance to hide Jordan in the back of the defense on occasion. What the coach doesn't know is how much the old man will be willing to go along.

"He would not respect me if I tried to protect him from some matchup," Collins said. "That's not who Michael is."

The kids who would be kings the first time Jordan came back ran smack into a 32-year-old legend with a still-dazzling repertoire. He could drive past them, leap over them, or fake either to step back and unleash an all-but-unblockable fadeaway jump shot. On the defensive end of the court, he remained as fierce as a Doberman.

But Jordan is 38 this time, relying on creaky knees and a head filled with tricks to carry him places he used to fly. This time, the kids won't be bluffed, and they won't back off and give Jordan room until he's given them a reason to.

"I'm not walking into this scenario thinking I'm failing. I'm walking in thinking I'm confident and pretty sure that I can make it work. If I sit here and listened to everyone else tell me that I can't do it," Jordan said, "then obviously I wouldn't be here."

The kids can't say they haven't been warned.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist from The Associated Press.

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