Jordan has Garden flashback

SHANDON ANDERSON didn't ask to become the motivational pigeon. He was handpicked, primed and plucked.

HARVEY ARATON

The cynical view has been that Michael Jordan's return last season was about ego and endorsements. And while there is undoubtedly some truth to that, it is also indisputable that he was willing to return with diminished athleticism, within range of critics rooted in the belief that he was tarnishing memories. — Pic. REUTERS-

SHANDON ANDERSON didn't ask to become the motivational pigeon. He was handpicked, primed and plucked.

For that little something extra, we understand that many athletes consume medicinal supplements. Michael Jordan, as far as we can see, has always preferred to take a prisoner, a disinclined defender sucked into the vortex of Jordan's demonic psyche.

It was early in the second quarter of what felt like an uneventful Jordan farewell to Madison Square Garden when he began talking to Anderson, and when Anderson made the big mistake of barking back.

"He was deep in it then," Latrell Sprewell said of his Knicks teammate. "Deep in it."

Immediately, Jordan began raining jump shots on Anderson and the Knicks, continuing the rant as Anderson realised that even against the ancient Wizard, he was still the runt in the ring. "You can't hold me, Shandon," Jordan shouted at Anderson as they retreated to their benches for time out.

In Jordan's mind, it was June 1998, Chicago in Utah, Anderson, the former Jazz swingman, trying to guard him again in the NBA finals. Around the Garden, it was flashback to one of those hot 1990s playoff nights as Jordan strung together a vintage 19-point quarter. Patrick Ewing got a Hummer at his retirement party. Jordan, as always, got the Garden's best buzz.

At 40, he scored 39, though at the end the Knicks won, 97-96. A victory preserved in part by an Anderson defensive gem, a strip of Jordan. Great as he was in the second quarter, Jordan faded, as mortal in the second half as his teammates were feeble.

"It's very disappointing when a 40-year-old man shows more desire than guys 25, 23," he said. The Wizards, with a brutal road schedule ahead, are not likely to make the playoffs. They aren't particularly good when Jordan isn't great. As organisational architect, he did not surround himself with enough playoff-tested talent. Beneath his thick, competitive skin, he must know that he set himself up to fail, if making the playoffs was really the end-game goal.

The cynical view has been that Jordan's return last season was about ego and endorsements. And while there is undoubtedly some truth to that, it is also indisputable that he was willing to return with diminished athleticism, within range of critics rooted in the belief that he was tarnishing memories.

Intentional or not, he has sent a message that it is all right to play just because you love to. He has let his career scoring average drift under 30, allowed the young highfliers to wave to him from above. Since he turned 40, Jordan has been on a scoring tear, but for every night that he has risen to the fourth-quarter occasion, there has been another when he has fumbled and failed, the inevitability of being the go-to guy on a sub-.500 team.

"He doesn't miss the last shot and go into depression," said John Bach, a 78-year-old Wizards assistant. "Gary Payton blocked his shot the other night at the end of a 3-point game but Michael just said, `Tomorrow's another night.' He has come down from the mountain but, you know, idolatry is really not good for anyone, not even the idols."

I was of the opinion that Jordan was too often immortalised, and to absurd extremes. Now I wonder if people realise how good he still is. Compare him statistically to Sprewell, the Knicks' best player, who is eight years younger. Jordan this season has averaged more points (19.4 to 17.4) on a higher shooting percentage, more rebounds, more steals and fewer turnovers.

The beauty of watching him for much of these two seasons has been the opportunity to understand the fundamental purity that separated him from the likes of fellow dunkaholics like Dominque Wilkins. The positioning, the ability to create space, the exquisite timing of his jump shot — all what is in too many places lacking in the American game.

On a better team, Jordan's still-formidable skills would have been put to better use. Instead, he winds down on his last-look tour.

"I can't speak for Michael, but I know him well enough to know that he satisfies himself with his performance," Bach said. "This has all been about him fulfilling his competitive needs. He still needed basketball. It's an elixir for him, a tonic."

He turned those needs on Anderson and briefly became Michael Jordan in Madison Square Garden one last time.

Next year, if he is finally done, Jordan will have to invent other motivations for himself. He will have to face what he put on hold, the search for a tonic that makes life challenging and exciting without the last shot.

Off court, he has never been what his mythmakers made him out to be. On court, all the way to 40, he has always been a sight to behold, with a ball in his hands and a pigeon in his sights.

New York Times News Service