Nearly 20,000 fans packed the MCI Center basketball arena in Washington, D.C., for a recent National Basketball Association game between the Washington Wizards and the Boston Celtics.
The Wizards have a losing record, and, in fact, are one of the worst teams in the NBA. But they also have Michael Jordan and that explains why they lead the league in attendance both at home and on the road. Twenty-three- year-old Wesley Jones and his girlfriend paid $150 a seat for the Celtics game.
"We drove about four hours to see him. He looks a little older," says one fan. Another says, "I love Michael, I think he's gorgeous."
"He'll get back in shape. By the end of the season, he'll be doing real good. I got hope in him," another fan says.
Jordan's decision to resume a playing career has puzzled a lot of sports analysts - why would a multi-millionaire, who led the Chicago Bulls to six championships in the 1990's, want to play again against younger, stronger players?
At 38, he's got medical problems - Jordan is often seen at practice with ice packs on his knees because of tendonitis. He recently had to consign himself to the bench because of the pain.
"This is the Washington Wizards Radio Network. Jordan shoots a three [point shot], misses. [Wizards teammate] Popeye [Jones] puts it back in. Jordan shoots blocked by Pierce!! Jordan directing traffic [of players on court].
The radio announcer at the at the MCI Center describes what several years ago would have been unfathomable - an opponent blocking Michael Jordan's shot.
Washington Times sportswriter John Mitchell says, to put it bluntly, the Wizards shouldn't expect a lot from Jordan. "I would say he's about 65 percent of the player he once was. At 38, how many of us are what we were at 28? I've never seen anybody take on Father Time and win."
Michael Leahy, who covers sports for the Washington Post newspaper, agrees that Jordan is slowing down.
"He doesn't leap like he once did. Michael will try to get to the rim on a drive and now he's not a foot or 18 inches above the basket able to dunk over as in the old days. The effect has been that sometimes he can't finish, whereas in the old days he would have scored."
But Michael Leahy thinks he knows why Michael Jordan is willing to put up with the physical punishment and demoralizing defeats.
"His own father once said, 'Michael has a competition problem' - by which he meant, he can not pass up on any game. Those who know Michael best will tell you these stories that he can not stand to lose at cards, at ping pong, that if he loses, he demands rematches. He needs to win at everything, and he loves games."
Michael Leahy says Jordan's main role on the Wizards is as a team leader, motivator, and teacher. And he averages a very respectable 24 points a game, seventh in the league, but no comparison to his numbers in the '90's - a league record 31.5 points in the regular season and about 35 points in the playoffs. Michael Jordan had a chance to show signs of his old self in the recent Wizards game against the Celtics. The score was tied in the final seconds and Jordan took a shot - but he bobbled the ball, launched it awkwardly and it nicked the rim. The Wizards were lucky to win 84-82 in overtime.
Coach Doug Collins didn't discuss Jordan's poor shooting that night in his regularly scheduled postgame news conference. "Michael has the heart of a lion. I've never seen a guy with a heart like him," he said. In the Wizards locker room after the game, teammates like rookie player Courtney Alexander defended Jordan's play, "His age has been magnified by you guys [in the media]. I'm sure he made similar mistakes early on his career but now people want to point to his age," he said.
Michael Jordan, himself, told the media he was not happy with his performance.
"I wasn't there tonight, but I don't think this is indicative of where it's going to be as we move further into the season. I have total confidence that I can make big baskets down the stretch. That has not changed by no means," he said.
About a decade ago, the Gatorade sports drink company hired Jordan to do television commercials. The TV slogan said: drink the drink and "be like Mike." After a three-year lay off, Michael Jordan is, in effect, challenging himself to "be like Mike" again, and in some cases, he stumbles like on the dramatic last shot in the Celtics game.
Su Qun a Chinese writer who covers the NBA for the Chinese magazine, Sportsweekly," says many of his readers don't worry if Michael Jordan misses the last second, jump shot that could win the game or that he's doesn't move as smoothly with the ball as he once did. He says they admire him because he is risking his reputation, risking failure and in their eyes he says - that is what makes Jordan a hero.