The Forgotten Jordan Years

When Michael Jordan turned 50 a few weeks ago, discussion rarely touched his two years with the Washington Wizards. Jordan had his worst statistical seasons, missed the playoffs both times, and was seemingly out of the league just as quickly as he came back into it. His Wizards career was ultimately a flash in the pan in the narrative of MJ, a part that most people pretend to forget about. His reputation was one of a conqueror, a mystical figure who jumped every hurdle in front of him on the way to becoming the greatest of all time. But his time in Washington allowed all who idolized him to see his flaws. Not even the greatest could last forever.

Despite his decline and relative lack of success with the Wizards, there are positives to take from Jordan’s second return to the NBA.  It was a chance for the fans that had cheered him on for so many years to get one last look at their favorite player. It was a chance for preteen kids like me to get some glimpse into his greatness. And it was a chance for a league full of players he influenced, a league that he changed, to say goodbye.

It was 1997 when the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Mario Lemieux, one of the best players to ever skate, retired from professional hockey after 14 years of playing. “Super Mario” was second only to Wayne Gretzky in the 80s/90s era of the NHL. But years of back injuries and a bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer, took its toll on Lemieux. He retired with the league in a much better state than it was when he came in, and was immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Photo: Mario-Lemieux.com

Due to the financial problems of the Penguins – the team had declared bankruptcy and could not repay its creditors – Lemieux eventually became the owner of the franchise. He was the first former NHL player in history to own a majority share in a team, and he was able to quickly solve the teams’ monetary issues. But being an owner was not enough for Lemieux.

Before the 2000-01 NHL season, Lemieux announced his return to the league. He instantly made an impact with the Penguins, leading them to the Eastern Conference Finals in his first year back.

It was with those thoughts that Michael Jordan began working out in the Summer of 2001. Jordan reportedly called Lemieux several times during that 2001 hockey season, trying to get an idea of the training and preparation that would be necessary in order to return to game shape. The two developed a friendship, and Lemieux let several hints slip to the media that an MJ comeback was imminent.

“When he comes back,” Lemieux said, “he’s going to be one of the best in the game.”

Several players attended his invite-only training camps, including Penny Hardaway, Michael Finley, and Charles Oakley. Jordan had lost none of his competitive fire, and was visibly angered after losing several pick-up games in a row. It seemed as if nothing had changed, and His Airness was ready to get back to work.

Despite the large amount of evidence that Jordan was indeed returning, he did not announce his comeback until September 25, 2001. Two weeks beforehand, the terrorist attacks on September 11th had left the nation shocked and fragile. But the nation had bonded together over what could have torn it apart.

“Michael has always brought joy to basketball fans around the world,” said NBA commissioner David Stern, “and in these difficult times we can all use a little more joy in our lives.”

With the nation in his thoughts (he intended to donate his salary to a 9/11 relief effort) and a focus on proving he could still be one of the best in the NBA, Jordan played his first game with the Washington Wizards on October 30, 2001. He displayed some rust in his first game back, shooting 7/21 from the field, but his statline of 19 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and 4 steals was respectable for a man three years removed from his last game.

While his 2001-02 season was mired by the inconsistency of old age, Jordan was able to show that he could still play like one of the best in the league on several occasions.

Nine games into the season, Jordan faced a familiar, bitter foe – the Utah Jazz and Byron Russell. It was over Russell that MJ hit his final shot as a Bull, the shot that gave him his sixth and final NBA championship. Jordan, surely energized by a familiar foe’s presence, went off for 44 points on 51% shooting. The Jazz seemed hopeless to stop even a 38 year old Jordan, who displayed some of his old form. He looked phenomenal in the post, backing in with Russell behind him and draining several signature fadeaways. But the Wizards lost by 9, 101-92.

On December 22, Jordan once again faced an old enemy. While the New York Knicks had changed since Jordan battled them in the nineties, the location was the same. Inspired by the bright and lights and big stage at Madison Square Garden, he added another chapter to his already long book of clutch moments. Down by 10 points late, he put the team on his back like he had done so many times before. And with time running out, the Wizards were down just one point.

Latrell Sprewell, frustrated by Jordan on both ends of the court all game (Spre shot 3-16 with just 6 points) could do nothing as Jordan pulled up for a jumper with just four seconds left on the clock. Predictably, it went in. At age 38, Mike was still a killer.

On December 27, Michael had one of his worst games of his career against Indiana. He shot 2/10 from the field and scored only 6 points. This performance must have been weighing on his mind two days later win the Wizards hosted the Charlotte Hornets. He scored 24 points in the first quarter alone, unfazed by any Hornets defender, and finished with 51 points. At 38, Jordan became the oldest player in NBA history to score over 50 points in a game.  “I don’t think I can do (50 points) every night, but I think I can be a threat and a force out there for 38 minutes,” he said afterwards.

But two days after annihilating the Hornets, he put up an incredible 45 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists in 39 minutes to lead the Wizards to a win against the Nets. It would be a remarkable performance for anyone. But for Jordan, nearing age 39, the two signature performances of his season were Herculean efforts, a reminder of the true importance of will power, hard work and intelligence. At age 38 in a game changing around him, after three years out of the league, those types of games should not have been possible. But they were.

It’s a shame that Jordan’s first season with the Wizards ended in early April with the Wizards at 30-30 and an outside shot at a playoffs spot. He went down after just twelve minutes in a game against the Lakers. He had torn cartilage in his right knee, and was not able to play for the rest of the season. The Wizards finished 35-47 – 5-17 without their best player, Jordan – and missed the playoffs.

Jordan came back healthy and ready for 2002-03, a season that would be his last. Jordan’s swan song was a huge boost for the NBA. Even away from Washington’s MCI Center, Jordan’s presence routinely caused sell outs. Fans wanted to see him play one last time – for them, it was more than a game. It was chance to be part of something  bigger, the history of a league where superstars of the past became true legends. Throughout the year, Jordan received standing ovations, tributes, and cheers from fans of every team. This would be the end of his career, and it was time to say goodbye.

MJ turned 40 in February 2003. Others would have eased into smaller roles long ago. But Jordan was still playing 37 minutes per game. Four days after beginning his fourth decade, he suited up to play the Nets in Washington. He had shot under 34% for the past five games, and it looked like age was finally catching up to him. But above nearly everything else, he enjoyed proving the doubters wrong.

He scored 43 points against the Nets, and remains the only player over 40 to reach that mark. He also added 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and 4 steals. The Wizards won by 3 points against a far superior New Jersey team led by one of the league’s most dynamic point guards, Jason Kidd. He hit the go ahead bucket with just 34 seconds left in the game, a drive to the basket that cut through several Nets defenders. At age 40, MJ could still fly.

Michael Jordan played his last NBA game April 16, 2003 in Philadelphia. With the Wizards down by over 20 points and the playoffs out of reach, Washington coach Doug Collins subbed him out of the game to the applause of fans, teammates, and opponents alike. It marked the end of a phenomenal 15 year career, a remarkable journey that saw Jordan become not only the greatest of all time but a true national icon. Jordan was a huge part of the evolution of the league, and it is tough to imagine how things would have turned out without him.

Some may think of Jordan’s Wizards years as a negative mark on a career so full of success, a time rather forgotten. His numbers went down in most categories, he missed the playoffs twice. But those two years served as a reminder of his greatness and the dedication to which he played the game. It was an opportunity for another generation of NBA fans to see something that they had missed out on previously. But most of all, Jordan’s second comeback gave the world another glimpse into the intense, competitive nature of Mike.

“I’m not coming back for money, I’m not coming back for the glory. I think I left the game with that, but the challenge is what I truly love.”

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