When Michael Jordan announced that he was coming out of retirement to play for the Washington Wizards, I was conflicted. On the one hand, it really intrigued me that I would get to see the greatest basketball player in history (my all-time favorite)back in uniform. On the other hand, the year was 2001 and I knew that Mike would be turning 39 years old in a few months, which was ancient for a sports star.
During his historic career with the Chicago Bulls, I had learned to never count MJ out. The smart money was always on him, and he cultivated that reputation for a long time. But being that old, with that amount of mileage on his legs, and a long three and a half years of de-conditioning, it was a big ask.
This is not even considering the young and super magnificent stars playing in the league at the time. At Michael’s position alone were Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Kobe Bryant, Paul Pierce, and even the diminutive Allen Iverson. Granted, those players were either guards or small forwards, but MJ would see time at each of those positions. That meant that he would be matched up with these young studs.
That concerned me.
The Young Stars Didn’t Intimidate Jordan
I am guilty of focusing so much on what they brought to the table in terms of youth, boundless energy, and enthusiasm. I disregarded what Jordan brought; ruthless competitiveness, veteran savvy, and more big-game experience than all of those players combined. Not to mention the fact that he was still young enough to retain much of his skills and guile.
He even said as much on media day. “I’m not gon’ bark too far away from them either,” said MJ while referring to “the young dogs.” Indeed, he had lost much of his world-class athleticism, and finishing at the rim was difficult on occasion, which never happened during his prime years.
But his sheer force of will made him a marvel at that point in his career. He wasn’t a top 5 player anymore, but just being Michael Jordan carried tons of intangibles, most of which rendered his ranking in the league irrelevant.
Flashes of His Heyday
He had many games during his two-season run in D.C. where he went on magical scoring sprees. He would score on players 15–20 years younger than him with ease, and even had flashes on defense when his keen anticipation and instincts allowed him to disrupt the opponent’s offense. I am particularly fond of the closing days of 2001 during which Michael scored 51 and 45 points in back-to-back games. It was awe-inspiring.
He had a few games during which he nailed the winning shot, as had become commonplace during his Bulls tenure. The one that stands out to me is in January 2002, when he hit a jumper at the buzzer in Cleveland’s Gund Arena to defeat the pre-LeBron Cavs. Ironically, prep star James was in the crowd that evening watching with a few of his friends.
Classic Showdowns With Mirror Image Bryant
It was frustrating that Jordan had recurring knee problems during that season of 2001–02 and ended up missing 22 games. When he returned for his final season that fall, he was scheduled to come off the bench.
That experiment lasted for the first month of the campaign, then he jumped back into the starting lineup as the team struggled. One of my favorite moments was during the November 8, 2002 game vs the three-time defending champion Lakers of Shaq and Kobe.
Bryant, just 24 at the time was full of energy, stamina, fire, and all-out rage on the court. He was an MJ facsimile in many ways and that season of 2002–03 was in a sense, his true transformation to megastar player. While Kobe was flying high with his youth and skills, Jordan was at the opposite end of the spectrum.
He had to have felt that he was looking into a mirror watching Bryant flourish as a fearless elite athlete. Jordan went at Kobe with verve, drilling fadeaway jumpers over him while still carrying his signature aura and confidence. The Wizards shockingly won the game by a single point against the far superior Lakers, and Michael had made my day.
Kobe got his revenge nearly five months later in Los Angeles when he netted 42 of his 55 points in the first half. Nonetheless, Jordan had by then become the oldest player to ever score 40 points in a game, and by the time the season ended, he averaged an even 20 points per game while playing all 82 contests.
At age 40!
Yes, Washington missed the playoffs both seasons. But what Michael did under the circumstances only looks like a failure because of the lofty standards that he set long before that as a Chicago Bull. We were just too spoiled by him to appreciate him as a Wizard.