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Mike's image will take a hit in coming out of retirement Anticipation of Jordan's return fills air


Now that Michael Jordan is heading back into the Air, or so it seems, let's see if we can find any losers in the deal.

Baseball certainly isn't one. The game will survive just fine without one more weak-hitting minor-league outfielder.

The NBA isn't one. In fact, the league is the big winner. In a season made famous mostly by the whining of superstars and stupid comments from Charles Barkley, Jordan's return to the Bulls gives the playoffs a mega-angle. Interest, TV ratings and profits will soar.

The league isn't paying him to come back, but it should.

The mighty nation of couch potatoes isn't a loser. Any sports fan worth a box of cold cheese fries would rather watch Jordan go for 40 in the playoffs than watch him pop up three times in four at-bats and misplay a single into a triple.

Nike certainly isn't a loser. Give me a break.

Maybe the Knicks, Magic and Suns lose a little -- winning a championship will be harder now -- but any player worth his limo and his cell phone wants to beat the best. If the other contenders consider themselves losers in the deal, they're wimps.

L Are there any losers in Jordan's impending career re-switch?

Oh, a couple.

Like, his credibility.

And maybe his legend.

His credibility certainly is going to take the hardest hit of all, as well it should. This is a guy who sneered at people suggesting he would return to basketball, a guy who said a hundred times that he was finished forever, a guy whose ego was fed in huge heaps at a hokey, made-for-TV retirement ceremony last fall.

Does this mean we're going to have to have another one of those in a few years? Shouldn't there be a limit to how many times you have to tell a guy he's swell?

As much as Jordan's return to basketball is an answered prayer for anyone who wants to watch good basketball, it makes the institution of sports appear even more stupid.

The word "retirement" has become the sporting version of "the check is in the mail." Utterly meaningless.

One day last summer Jordan said this to a reporter: "You want me to say I'm never going back to basketball? Never. There, I said it."

Like it mattered what he said.

His jump shot is worth a lot more than his word, it turns out.

Coming soon to a TV commercial near you: Be Like Mike. Say One Thing And Do Another.

Before, he was that rare superstar who went out on top, and that was pretty cool. Now he's just another guy who waffled like an old boxer because he couldn't stand the lack of adulation in his life.

He said when he retired in November 1993 that he wanted to spend more quality time with his family. Eighteen months of that is enough, apparently.

He said in his statement yesterday that the baseball strike was a big part of his decision to give up his spikes. As if the strike had anything to do with him. He was a minor-leaguer all the way. If he had wanted to play in Double-A again instead of in replacement games, the White Sox would have accommodated him. Their alternative was to jack with His Airness, hardly an idea the P.R. boys would endorse.

Of course, the strike is just a smoke screen for the real reason Jordan wants to return to basketball: because success is a whole lot more fun than failure. Because winning MVP awards is a whole lot more fun than going 1-for-4 on a good night.

Oh, maybe he had fun putting on the humble act for a while, but how long could it last?

The sound of cheers is always more pleasing to the ear than the sound of silence (that greets your latest pop-up to the third baseman).

Not that he didn't work hard at baseball, because he did. He wasn't a natural, but I happen to think he might have gotten his cup of coffee in the majors had he stuck with it.

Of course, whether he was truly intent on that dream or just marking time is another matter. Remember, the NBA was investigating him for gambling when he retired. Now, he returns a hero, with the investigation long forgotten. Pretty neat.

Maybe he was serious about baseball all along, but you conspiracy theorists out there feel free to indulge.

There's also the possibility that he is going to "retire" every year and "come back" for the playoffs, cleverly skipping the long, boring regular season. Also pretty neat.

No, he can't get away with that, but you know he wishes he could. Jordan has nothing left to prove to anyone in the regular season. When he retired, he also had nothing to prove to anyone in the playoffs. He had led the Bulls to three straight titles.

He is coming back now, apparently, because he has something to prove again, because it isn't easy to step away from the pinnacle for 18 months, come back and try to keep your place.

He is coming back because someone somewhere has told him he can't do it, which is all he needs to hear.

The guess here is that he'll be plenty good, maybe as good as before, certainly close. The time off actually might have done him good, renewing his legs. His skills will have diminished little, if any.

But the Bulls aren't the same team he left. Horace Grant, John Paxson and Bill Cartwright are gone. Scottie Pippen is scarred and disenchanted. The team is mediocre, living in the past.

The Bulls won't win the championship this year, with or without Michael Jordan. Others teams have more substance, more cohesiveness, more depth, more drive. The NBA's evolutionary wheel leaves teams behind in a hurry, as Bird's Celtics and Magic's Lakers learned. Jordan's Bulls have had their time.

Jordan's legend was pure crystal when he retired, flawless, perfect, ending with a three-peat. Now that he's coming back, things are only going to get less crystalline. Less perfect.

Of course, once you have experienced life as a Birmingham Baron hitting .200, your idea of perfection is forever altered.

So, welcome back, Mike, we'll certainly enjoy watching you play. It's too bad about you not keeping your word just as all those other palookas who un-retired. But, hey, a lot of people don't keep their word these days. You can look it up.

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