'Michael's still Michael'


INDIANAPOLIS -- He missed his first six shots. He went scoreless for 16 minutes. And he finished with a shooting percentage that looked good only when compared to his batting average.

No matter.

"Michael's still Michael," Indiana's Reggie Miller said yesterday after a certain Mr. Jordan, playing for the first time in nearly two years, made only seven of 28 shots in the Chicago Bulls' 103-96 overtime loss to the Pacers.

"I guarded him for most of the game, and he's still got all his stuff," Miller said. "I'm sure conditioning is going to be a problem for a game or two. But once he gets into a rhythm, oh my goodness, it's going to be exciting."

Heck, it was pretty exciting yesterday, starting with the most electrifying layup drill in history, with the fans at Market Square Arena standing and cheering for a player they once despised.

Things were back to normal by game's end, after Miller suffered a contusion on his right leg when Jordan fouled him with three seconds left in regulation. The sellout crowd started booing Jordan fervently, as if he never had been gone.

That was as sure a sign as any that Jordan was indeed back. No, he wasn't his old self yesterday. But he played a whopping 43 minutes, finishing with 19 points, six rebounds, six assists and three steals.

Bulls coach Phil Jackson said he "showed his brilliance in many ways." Pacers coach Larry Brown said: "I can't imagine a guy coming off so limited a practice time and doing what he did."

But naturally, Jordan wasn't satisfied.

"It was one of those bad games," he said. "I've got something to build on. If I come in and score 60, it looks boring. I have to work my way up to my old caliber of play."

Jackson figures it will take only seven or eight games for that to happen, which means that Jordan should start peaking at about the time the Bulls enter the NBA playoffs, when his 60 would matter most.

No doubt Jordan will make Chicago (34-32) a more dangerous team, but the Bulls still lack inside strength after losing Horace Grant to the Orlando Magic and Bill Cartwright to the Seattle SuperSonics. The Pacers out-rebounded them yesterday, 46-36.

That's not the only problem Jackson must address. Nine of the 12 Bulls weren't with the team when Jordan announced his retirement in October 1993. Now, the entire team must adjust, with the playoffs only a month away.

In his previous NBA life, Jordan referred to his teammates as his "supporting cast." It's obvious the team's dynamic won't change -- Jordan took more shots yesterday than Scottie Pippen and B. J. Armstrong combined.

Jordan denied after the game that he demanded to skip practice before agreeing to return. "I love practice. I need to practice. How can I skip practice?" he said.

Jackson, asked if Jordan imposed any special conditions, deadpanned, "I know of no Jordan rules at this time."

The question now is if Jordan can return to his previous level of play. Nearly everyone thinks so, even though Jordan lacked his explosive first step yesterday and, at times, seemed slower overall.

"The expectation now is, 'Can he do the same things he did two years ago?' " Jordan said. "That's simple. But once I do those things, what else can I do? That's the tough part."

He said he wasn't looking to shoot early in yesterday's game, but had no choice on several occasions, because the shot clock was about to expire. He never got into a rhythm, but guess who scored the Bulls' only four points in overtime?

Court sense? He's still got it. Jordan committed three turnovers with sloppy ball handling, but also led the Bulls in assists, frequently spotting teammates underneath for easy baskets.

The Bulls never might have reached overtime if Jordan hadn't been alert enough to foul Miller before he could attempt a three-pointer with three seconds left in regulation.

"I heard Michael say, 'We have a foul to give,' " said Miller, who returned only briefly in overtime after injuring his leg, but still led the Pacers with 28 points.

"We were going to take the last shot. I kind of bumped him coming off a screen. I should have taken the shot, because I knew he was going to foul me. It was a good play on his part."

Indeed, some things never change. Jordan still attracts two and three defenders. And who else could leap to strip the ball from 7-foot-4 Rik Smits from behind, then race the length of the court for a finger-roll?

"Hey, he's the best basketball player to ever play the game, and he's only 32," Brown said. "He's not in shape yet, but he is lean and he's got hops. I think any coach in his right mind would take him and take their chances."

Jordan said it was difficult for him to get off the plane in Indianapolis, knowing he was about to start over. He took the floor at the Market Square Arena at 9 a.m., shot for a while by himself, then hid the rest of the morning.

Oddly enough, he first started thinking about a comeback last fall, when he was playing baseball in Arizona. Jordan said he would rent a gym and play pickup games with his Scottsdale Scorpions teammates on Sunday mornings.

Evidently, he grew inspired dunking on players such as Orioles prospect Curtis Goodwin. And now, he wants to restore order to a league overrun by pouty young stars such as the New Jersey Nets' Derrick Coleman.

"Don't take the game for granted and treat it like dirt," Jordan said. "We're professionals. We're treated like lawyers and doctors because of the salaries we make. Let's act like sensible people, and not use it like some sense of power."

Everyone take note.

He's still Michael Jordan.


Michael Jordan's statistics in his first game back:

Min., FGM-A, FTM-A, Reb., Ast., F, Pts.

43, 7-28, 5-6, 6, 6, 3, 19

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