It’s not that we are afraid of seeing him stumble, of scribbling a mustache over his career. Sure, the nice part of us wants Mike to know we appreciate him, that he still reigns, at least in our memory. The truth, though, is that we don’t want him to come back because even for Michael Jordan, this would be an act of hubris so monumental as to make his trademark confidence twist into conceit. We don’t want him back on the court because no one likes a show-off. The stumbling? That will be fun.
But we are nice people, we Americans, with 225 years of optimism at our backs. Days ago when M.J. said he had made a decision about returning to the NBA in September, we got excited. He had said the day before, “I look forward to playing, and hopefully I can get to that point where I can make that decision. It’s O.K., to have some doubt, and it’s O.K. to have some nervousness.” A Time/CNN poll last week has Americans, 2 to 1, saying they would like him on the court ASAP. And only 21 percent thought that if he came back and just completely bombed, it would damage his legend. In fact only 28 percent think athletes should retire at their peak.
Sources close to him tell Time that when Jordan first talked about a comeback with the Washington Wizards, the team Jordan co-owns and would play for, some of his trusted advisers privately tried to discourage him. “But they say if they try to stop him, it will onlyfirm up his resolve,” says an NBA source.
The problem with Jordan’s return is not only that he can’t possibly live up to the storybook ending he gave up in 1998 — earning his sixth ring with a last-second championship-winning shot. The problem is that the motives for coming back — needing the attention, needing to play even when his 38-year-old body does not — violate the verymyth of Jordan, the myth of absolute control. Babe Ruth, the 20th century’s first star, was a gust of fat bravado and drunken talent, while Jordan ended the century by proving the elegance of resolve; Babe’s pointing to the bleachers replaced by the charm of a backpedaling shoulder shrug. Jordan symbolized success by not sullying his brand with his politics, his opinion or superstar personality. To be a Jordan fan was to be a fan of classiness and confidence.
To come back when he knows that playing for Wizards won’t get him anywhere near the second round of the play-offs, when he knows that he won’t be the league scoring leader, that’s a loss of control.
Jordan does not care what we think. Friends say that he takes articles that tell him not to come back and tacks them all on his refrigerator as inspiration. So why bother writing something telling him not to come back? He is still Michael Jordan.