Originally created 04/23/98

As playoffs start, a question tugs at Jordan



CHICAGO -- His body, exquisitely sculpted but still 35 years old, has been pounded repeatedly during a season that started in October and could yet last until June. Planes and practices, jump shots and jostling.

But it is one question that wearies Michael Jordan more than anything else. At every stop, before and after every game, it is always the same: What's next?

Jordan has said he will not play next year if Bulls coach Phil Jackson is not back. General manager Jerry Krause has said it is time for Jackson to leave, and the ex-hippie, Zen-practicing coach is ready to take a year off.

So that ought to be it. Right?

Who knows? Jordan has at times appeared to hedge. And he's changed his mind before. And almost no one wants to believe basketball's greatest player, a man whose salary alone has totaled $63 million the last two years, is going to hang up his flying shoes.

So the question keeps coming, over and over and over again.

"It's a lot of the same old questions I had to deal with city-to-city," Jordan said. It gets monotonous, although I may have the same answers. It's taken too much time to talk about something that really hasn't been decided."

He's been on top of the NBA as its best player for years, even after taking a nearly two-year respite from the game when he experimented with baseball.

Comebacks from retirement often produce players who are just a shadow of what they once were. Jordan, who altered his game the second time around and has made great use of a fallaway jumper that is unblockable, has won two championships since coming back. This season, he captured his 10th scoring title.

What's it like to guard him?

"Hell," says Nick Anderson, the Orlando Magic guard. "You ever been to hell before? You don't want to go."

Now Jordan's favorite time has arrived -- the playoffs. Knowing the Bulls need 15 more wins for their sixth title of the decade, he'll be revitalized for the postseason, which begins Friday against the New Jersey Nets.

The playoffs, Jordan says, start "with your own willingness to push yourself." And no one has done that better.

His career playoff average of 33.6 is the best in NBA history. He has made game-winning shots in the postseason an art form.

"Having him means you've got the mental edge over every team you play, because he's the best," teammate Steve Kerr said. "Even if you lose a game or are down in a game, you've got him on your side. You're always in the game. Until we lose or get knocked off, we will always have that."

That this might indeed be what Jackson calls the Bulls' "last dance" will make Jordan even more passionate in his quest for another title.

"I think the last championship is always the hardest and probably the most gratifying because of the expectations you deal with over the whole course of the season," Jordan said.

"My first (championship) year maybe there weren't expectations there are now. Now we've won five and everybody expects a sixth because of the way we've played.

"That makes it even harder to maintain the level of being on top of the world for so long."

So, what if this the end?

"I think it would be a terrible loss for the game," said Chuck Daly, the Orlando coach whose champion Detroit Pistons teams of the last '80s often frustrated Jordan with their rough defense and great play, for years denying him a shot at a title.

"I think he is probably at the prime of his game," Daly said. "He knows exactly how to generate his energy, where it is at all times. He has complete control of his body. I think he is probably playing the best basketball he's ever played in his life. I think it would be unfortunate if he left the game."

Pacers coach Larry Bird, Jordan's fast-food commercial sidekick and Olympic teammate, said Jordan could play at his current level for "at least three or four more years." And he's pretty sure of one thing -- Jordan won't follow him into coaching.

When he turned 35 this season, Jordan said he didn't feel his age and just wanted to make sure he didn't play like it.

Jordan's end-of-the-season fatigue can also be traced to the beginning of the year. He had to carry the Bulls more than ever with an unhappy Scottie Pippen sidelined by foot surgery for two months.

At times his jumper can be unstoppable, at others it is erratic and flat. Jordan's 46 percent shooting this year is his lowest for a full season.

"I don't like to see his talent eroded because he's tired," Jackson said. "He's really slowed down here at the end."

Jordan, with one game of 4-for-10 from the foul line in which he shot a left-handed airball, made a career-low 78 percent of his free throws this season.

No question, he'll be spending extra time at the line this week during practice. There has perhaps never been a prouder athlete, not only in the way he approaches his game but in the manner he carries himself.

"I want to leave at the top of my game," he said this month. "That's something I've always said about when it's time for me to walk away. I know people wouldn't expect it because I'm still playing at a high level. But that's the appropriate time to leave, I think."