Hoop Dreams

Article excerpt

UP IN THE RAFTERS OF CHICAGO'S AIRY NEW United Center arena, giant sheets of steel arc out over the audience, put there to bang the noise from the crowd back to the floor. Even so, this is an antiseptic hall, oddly lacking in intimacy. Above it, over the polished hardwood floor where Michael Jordan has never played a game, hangs a banner that quietly intones his absence: MICHAEL JORDAN, 1984-1993. Since it went up, as Jordan tried his hand at minor-league baseball, this banner has marked the greatest hole in professional sports. But as the Bulls took the floor last Friday night, to a roar of palpable anticipation, another placard raised its voice in hopeful challenge. Furiously waved, bluntly handwritten, it screamed its entreaty for every soul present: COME HOME M.J.!

It was the punctuation mark to a week of eager speculation, and of a ravenous hope best described in terms of collective appetite. Eighteen months after he left basketball at the top of his game, Jordan spent three days last week working out with the Bulls in their practice facility in suburban Deerfield, Ill., and stayed to study game films. Then on Friday morning, as scrubs from the Chicago White Sox farm system headed to West Palm Beach, Fla., for a game against Braves replacements, Jordan announced through his agent that he wouldn't be making that trip: he was retiring from baseball. At the United Center arena Saturday night, where fans scrambled for last-minute tickets just in case, these events could mean only one thing, and that was the only thing. "The crowd obviously isn't cheering for us," said Bulls guard Steve Kerr, in an electrified locker room at the Center. "They're cheering in anticipation of somebody else."

Jordan was the greatest player in the game, and after he retired he vowed, "I'm never coming back to play basketball. Not in this lifetime. Never. Unless I change my mind." Sometime in the last two weeks, Jordan appears to have done just that. Last Thursday, according to a team insider, Jordan met with a Bulls official to discuss a possible return--a formal sequel to very casual talks he'd had with Bulls coach Phil Jackson last September and October. His retirement from baseball the following day, says the source, was "a message to Bulls management. Michael is saying, 'I have no baseball entanglement, and the players know I can still play. So come and get me'." No NBA regulation prevents Jordan from returning to the Bulls, where he is still under contract through next season (Bulls general manager Jerry Krause denies reports that Jordan is still drawing his estimated $4 million-a-year salary). At the end of the week, all that stood between Jordan and the game he helped redefine was an agreement with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. But as much as fans want it, even Bulls insiders admit this may be a big obstacle. Reinsdorf, who also owns the Chicago White Sox, is a notorious hard-liner; he's considered one of the hardest heads in the baseball strike. "I don't know if this is going to happen," says one source close to the situation. "If I were going to play the odds, I'd bet he's coming back."

If there is one NBA owner who would walk away from a chance to have Michael Jordan, it is Jerry M. Reinsdorf. If there is one player who'd give up a chance to reign over all others, it is Michael Jordan. Locked in a farcical symmetry (a 59-year-old, cigar-chomping bundle of truculence from Brooklyn looking in a fun-house mirror to see the most graceful athlete ever to wear big shorts), both are proud, tough-minded, mercurial, unpredictable and utterly uncompromising. Both have been called worse--though Jordan, at least, has also been called better. The last time they had business with each other, their dealings--described as amicable--may have been what pushed Jordan into retirement. "Reinsdorf probably could have held onto Jordan," says a source with ties to both men, "if he'd said, 'Let's tear up your contract' ... There's no question Jordan deserved to be the highest-paid player in the game. …