The Los Angeles Lakers won their second straight National Basketball Association Championship in 2001, but the biggest story in the sport was NBA legend Michael Jordan's return to the court as a player for the Washington Wizards.
Michael Jordan was arguably the greatest player ever to compete in the National Basketball Association when he retired in 1998, and certainly had nothing left to prove in his sport. He led the league in scoring an unprecedented 10 times, carried the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships during the 1990's, and won too many awards to mention. He had done it all.
But rumors started circulating in the first half of 2001 that the 38-year-old Jordan was considering returning to the courts. He started seriously training in private sessions in a gym in Chicago, inviting NBA players and top college prospects to scrimmage in pick-up games.
After a huge amount of "will he or won't he?" hype, the official news that Michael Jordan would be returning to the NBA as a player came in a low-key statement released by the Washington Wizards on September 25.
Jordan and the Wizards took the low-key approach to the announcement in the aftermath of the terrorist bombings in New York and Washington on September 11.
Michael Jordan did not meet the media until almost one week after the press release, when he held a news conference at the Wizards' home at the MCI Center in Washington on October first. Jordan had been a part owner of the NBA franchise in the nation's capital but had to give up his stake in the team to return to the court.
He did not seem to mind. "I'm just going to play the game of basketball that I love. I'm not about the money. I'm going to play the game of basketball because I love it. My opportunity is to try to go out and make this a winning franchise. But I'm gonna be happy when I step on that court because I'm playing basketball. And you (the media) say, well the young dogs (NBA star players) are gonna chase me around. Well, I'm not going to bark too far away from them either," he said. "You know, I'm not running from nobody (anybody)."
Jordan told the media that he had long discussions with his family about returning to the league, and explained why he had to give it another try. "It's an itch that still needs to be scratched here, and I want to make sure that this scratch does not bother me for the rest of my life," he said. "Get that last scratch in, so that when I walk away from this I don't have to worry about that itch any more. And my family understands that."
But some, including former NBA standout Magic Johnson, were concerned about Jordan's return. Like many fans, Johnson was worried that Jordan could tarnish his legacy by returning to the NBA at the age of 38. "Do I want him to do it? No. Because I would never want him to mess with the legacy, the thing that made him be the best that ever played. I would never want anything to go wrong," he said.
But Jordan also addressed that concern. "Physically, I know that I'm not 25 years old," he said. "But I feel like I can play the game of basketball at the highest level. I'm not afraid to take on a challenge, I'm not afraid to take a step. And if I fall, I'll pick myself up and I'll move on."
The terms of Jordan's two-year contract were not disclosed, but Jordan will donate this season's salary to help the victims and families of the September 11 terrorist attacks. So how has he done on the court? Jordan is in the top-10 in scoring so far this season, and after a slow start, the Wizards ran off a nine-game winning streak that put them into third place in their division (Atlantic).
Another NBA player making a comeback is Alonzo Mourning of the Miami Heat. He returned to the court in late March after being sidelined most of the last season by a kidney ailment (focal glomerulosclerosis) that could have ended his career.
The six-time All-Star says he came back to help his team. "That's the purpose of me coming back, to win," he said. "Not just to prove that I can come back from this disease. My purpose of being out here is to help this team win and that's the bottom line."
But so far this season, both Mourning and the Heat are struggling. Miami is buried in last place in its division with one of the worst records in the NBA.
Mourning is averaging eight rebounds and just under 14 points in about 31 minutes per game. That is considerably under his career averages of almost 21 points and 10 rebounds in over 35 minutes per game.
It's highly unlikely either Miami or Washington will be able to challenge the Los Angeles Lakers as they attempt to win a third straight NBA Title. The Lakers locked up their second consecutive championship in June as they defeated the Philadelphia 76ers four games to one in the best-of-seven NBA Finals.
The Lakers set a league record for playoff dominance, sweeping Western Conference opponents Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio on the way to a 15-1 post-season record. And at the victory parade in Los Angeles, massive Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal said the team is not through yet. "I got up here last year and said we were going to do it again," he said. "I'm saying it again: We are going to three-peat. Can you dig it?"
But the Lakers were not the only championship basketball team in Los Angeles. The L.A. Sparks captured their first WNBA title by beating the Charlotte Sting in two straight games in the best-of-three series.
In College Basketball, the Duke Blue Devils captured the coveted men's national championship by defeating the Arizona Wildcats, 82-72, in Minneapolis (Minnesota).
Mike Dunleavy led Duke with 21 points. He scored 18 in the second half, including three-straight three-point shots in a span of 46 seconds to help his team open up an 11-point lead.
The victory was the third national championship for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who praised both Arizona and his team. "We beat a great team in Arizona, and it was truly a great team effort, and I love the fact that these kids won. They are certainly deserving of a national championship," he said.
Duke had to battle past Monmouth, Missouri, UCLA, USC, and Maryland to make it into the finals of the 64-team tournament. One day earlier, Notre Dame won the women's national championship for the first time ever, as Ruth Riley sank a pair of free-throws to give the Irish a 68-66 victory over Purdue.
Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001