WASHINGTON - Michael Jordan says he knows you didn't believe he could return at close to his previous form, and it's OK. He did enough believing for everyone.
Jordan heard the whispers that, at 38 and with three years between retirements, he might not have enough in his tank to make either the Washington Wizards relevant or to boost a comeback to some status beyond ego indulgence.
But with the Wizards poised to make a playoff chase and with numbers that put him in the thick of a run for a record-tying sixth Most Valuable Player trophy, Jordan's reply to the whispers is a loud, "I told you so."
"I think the expectations tend to supersede what I'm really trying to do in this organization," said Jordan on Wednesday after Washington's final practice before the All-Star break.
"But I knew there were going to be situations where I showed some resemblance to '98 [his last season with the Chicago Bulls]. I never doubted myself from the beginning, other than when I went through that stretch of injuries.
"There were a series of doubts, but I started doing things the right way, and I was just hoping I could overcome the tendinitis, and if I could overcome the tendinitis, I knew I could play."
Minus a couple of subpar games and the broken ribs last summer that slowed his training regimen and the recurring flare-ups of his knee, Jordan appears to have regained the form that got him to 12 All-Star Games, including Sunday's in Philadelphia.
On the whole, Jordan, who entered last night's game with Sacramento averaging 25.1 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.2 assists, would rather not be in Philadelphia this weekend, preferring to have the time to rest.
"If the fans wouldn't have voted me in, I think I could have persuaded the coaches to bypass me," said Jordan, the NBA's all-time leading All-Star scorer.
"But being that the fans voted, there's a sense of respect that I must pay to them."
Jordan's focus has been about putting the previously moribund Wizards franchise, which has had two winning seasons and one playoff appearance in the past 13 seasons, back on a firm foundation.
He tried first as Washington's president of basketball operations, a role he served in from January 2000, when owner Abe Pollin sold 44 percent of the team to a holding company of which Jordan was a partner.
And he acknowledged he made some initial missteps, including hiring former University of Miami coach Leonard Hamilton to run the team last season.
Injuries and dysfunction, particularly from the team's three stars - forward Juwan Howard and guards Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond - careened the team to a 19-63 record, and Hamilton was forced to resign at the end of the season.
So, Jordan remade the Wizards, starting at last February's trading deadline, when he dealt Howard and his mammoth salary to the Dallas Mavericks for a package of players, including veterans Christian Laettner and Hubert Davis and youngsters Courtney Alexander and Etan Thomas.
All four have played significant minutes this season, and appear to be important to the team's future.
Next, Jordan dumped Strickland and Richmond, giving both buyouts that will free up salary cap room for an expected run next summer at free agents.
He drafted Kwame Brown with the first pick and traded for former Los Angeles Lakers backup point guard Tyronn Lue for depth. Next, Jordan hired Doug Collins, his former Chicago coach, to teach and manage the blend.
"We've got a great mix in the locker room," said Jordan. "[A priority was] to eliminate all the distractions. We went through some changes in the personnel, brought in a coach that's a little more responsible and more focused with peace and harmony amongst players."
The final piece to the puzzle was Jordan himself, who initially said he was "99 percent certain" he would not return from three years away from the game, then slowly worked himself back into playing shape, announcing his comeback in September.
Jordan said his presence with the mostly youthful Wizards isn't just about making them better on the court, but also about getting them to be professional. As the team has already surpassed last season's win total with slightly less than half a season to go, his plan seems to be working.
"With me being in the locker room, I could curtail a lot of those little issues, because I've been in situations where things have been successful," said Jordan, who won six titles in Chicago.
"I could more or less set guidelines by example, but at the same time, by expecting more from leaders on this ballclub - being on time, dressing properly, practicing hard every single day, not getting complacent with the little success that we've gotten.
"I felt with me being in the locker room and Doug being the coach, we can get this franchise on the right track. So far, we've done a good job of that. We have very little situations in the locker room where we don't mesh, where we don't have continuity. ...
"You set standards, so that when younger players or the next generation comes in, they see the standards are all set. So there's no cutting corners. You go the necessary route because guys have gone there, and we've proven to be successful in going that route."