When he "temporarily" left the game before the 1993-94 season, Michael Jordan was coming off his third straight NBA championship with the Chicago Bulls, had the best scoring average in NBA playoff history, as well as during a finals series.
One of Jordan's reasons for stepping away at the time: no more challenges. Now Jordan's back and in the unfamiliar role of an underdog, and facing one of the biggest challenges of his NBA career.
The spotlight will be on Jordan and the Bulls, when they face the Charlotte Hornets at the Charlotte Coliseum tomorrow night. Jordan is not the only attraction. The playoffs get under way tonight with four first-round series: The defending Eastern Conference champion New York Knicks will play host to the Cleveland Cavaliers; the Indiana Pacers will be home against the Atlanta Hawks; the defending champion Houston Rockets will be on the road against the Utah Jazz; and the Los Angeles Lakers will be in Seattle against the SuperSonics.
The race is wide-open. There are four, maybe five, teams out West with a legitimate shot at reaching the NBA Finals. By the end of the season there were four contenders in the East if you counted the Bulls who, barely a .500 team before Jordan's return, ended the season by winning 13 of their final 17 games.
"I wouldn't have come back," Jordan said, "if I didn't think we were capable of winning."
With the Orlando Magic slumping toward the end of the season, the Bulls finished as the conference's hottest team. Jordan has shot just 41.1 percent from the field since his return, but he always has lifted his level of play during the playoffs. His 34.7 points per-game average in the playoffs is the best in history; he averaged a record 41.0 points during the 1993 NBA Finals; and his 63 points during a playoff game against the Boston Celtics in 1986 is still a single-game record.
"Michael Jordan is God," former NBA coach Chuck Daly said of Jordan during a teleconference call on Monday.
Now it's up to Charlotte's coaching staff to keep the Hornets from getting caught up in the Jordan hype. When Jordan returned against the Pacers on March 19, Charlotte players rushed to the locker room after their game that afternoon and excitedly watched the end of the Bulls game.
"We had one game with Chicago," Charlotte coach Allan Bristow said of the game against the Bulls last weekend. "It was good to get that gamebehind us because some of our players have never played against Michael Jordan. Right now, I don't see the players getting caught up."
In fact the players may have the best person to help prepare against playing Jordan: assistant coach Johnny Bach. A former assistant in Chicago, Bach was the Bulls' defensive coach and spent practices simulating defenses designed to stop Jordan. Hersey Hawkins will be matched up against Jordan to start the game. But expect the Hornets to rotate different players -- even Larry Johnson -- against Jordan at times.
"Michael can't score all the points by himself," Hornets center Alonzo Mourning said. "We've beaten Chicago several times, several times with Michael. We're certainly capable of doing it again."
Are the Rockets capable of repeating as NBA champions? It seems unlikely. The Rockets finished sixth in the Western Conference and open at Utah tonight.
"The team that wins the championship is the team that has to be beat and, unfortunately, we're playing that team right now," Utah coach Jerry Sloan said. "Playing Houston is a tough matchup, with the fact they won the championship last year. They have tremendous talent."
But after trading Otis Thorpe, the Rockets have no power forward to match up against the game's best at that position, Karl Malone.
As far as the top seeds, the Magic -- despite struggling late in the season -- doesn't figure to have much trouble with the Celtics in the first round. But the San Antonio Spurs, with the league's best record (62-20) faces a tough first-round task against a Denver team that got into the playoffs on the final day of the season.
Depth will be a factor for San Antonio, but a trip to the finals for the Spurs will depend on the leadership of David Robinson.
"I think he likes this team and as a result he's taking charge and [his teammates] have received him well," San Antonio coach Bob Hill said. "He's showing more emotion on the floor and he's really stepped up to become a more vocal leader of this team."
As the best team in the league, the Spurs will have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs -- just as long as they keep winning.
"I don't know if we're the team to beat," Spurs forward Sean Elliott said. "But it's going to be tough to beat us since teams will have to come into our place and win in San Antonio."
There will be no such luxury for the Bulls. In winning three NBA titles the Bulls had home-court advantage in all but one series. This year it's unlikely the Bulls will have home-court advantage in any series.
Which makes it a challenge -- just what Jordan was seeking when he stepped away. Just how he responds is about to unfold.
"I think I'm probably a little hungrier than the other players right now," Jordan said. "Because I have something to prove to myself, and for the team and the city."