Still Up In The Air!

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It's not that we're 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.

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But we're nice people, we Americans, with 225 years of optimism at our backs. So last Wednesday when M.J., after months of teasing and toying, of shedding 25 lbs. and of endless practices, finished the year's most journalist-packed golf game not involving Tiger Woods and said he had make 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'd like him on the court ASAP. And only 21% thought that if he came back and just completely bombed, it would damage his legend. In fact only 28% think athletes should retire at their peak. It makes you wonder if a lot of the people who answer calls from pollsters are ex-high school jocks in a state of major denial.

Jordan is. Sources close to him--close enough to be afraid of him, so they won't let us use their names--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 only firm 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 us 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 very myth 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 a 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 the 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.

And Jordan isn't returning to lose, to play for the sake of playing, to get schooled by Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady or Allen Iverson. "I'm sure he thinks he can win. Because he walked away healthy. Everybody else limps away," says NBC analyst and NBA Hall of Famer Bill Walton, who played until he was 35. "Basketball is a young man's game and always will be. But when you're really great, you believe you can do anything."

Also when you're really great, everyone around you says you can do anything. Few people are going to tell His Airness that he's lost a step, that he's about to pull a Willie Mays, that athletes do this all the time, joust against age and lose--Jim Palmer, Joe Louis, Johnny Unitas. That even if there's something poetic about competing against your mortality, no one ever wrote a poem called "To an Athlete Going Gray." Even worse than the bray of the acolytes is the example of his golf buddy Mario Lemieux, 36, who also owns a team, and returned this year at the top of his game. Jordan doesn't like to be showed up.

Like Lemieux's move, which turned his struggling franchise into a sold-out event, a Jordan comeback would help his moribund investment in the Wizards. NBA rules would require him to sell his shares in the team, as Magic Johnson did with his brief, inglorious comeback to the Lakers in 1996, but he'd surely buy them back when he hangs his Jordans up again. And meanwhile, the Wizards would draw some free agents and a whole lot of fans. (For the moment, the Wizards aren't budging from their Sept. 4 deadline for season tickets, so if Jordan doesn't return, some fans paying to see him might get stuck with 41 games of Laron Profit.)

One sector eagerly rooting for a comeback: athletic-apparel makers, who dream of a rerun of the mid-'90s Brand Jordan boom. You would too if your marketing fortunes were tethered to lesser hoop gods like Kobe, Shaq and Iverson. Jordan jerseys and T shirts are being ordered, sneakers designed, copy written in anticipation. "Michael Jordan coming back isn't even a national event," gushes an apparel executive. "It's global. He's a huge, free-standing business, and he pulls the rest of us along with him." Of course, if anything is dampening enthusiasm, it's the Wizards dull image. "There are a lot of people out there who didn't even know Washington had a team," says a Sears buyer.

No, Jordan is not coming back as a business move. He's doing it because he misses being Michael Jordan; because he hasn't figured out who else to be; because no one, not even Michael Jordan, can gracefully accept his mortality; because it's just not fair to be a young man of 38 and have your life's work taken from you. And despite reason, despite the counterpull of the immortality of history, it's just hard to stop playing basketball.

Besides, Jordan--despite all his careful brilliance in building the blandly flawless Jordan brand--doesn't care what we think. Friends say that he takes the 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? Because I might get my name on Michael Jordan's refrigerator. He is still Michael Jordan.