Now that Mario Lemieux has blazed a trail for the modern-day owner/player, it is time for Michael Jordan to follow in his path. As an owner, Jordan has the responsibility to do what's best for his team. He must suit up and play for the Washington Wizards.
Let's review some facts. Jordan is 37 years old and, by all accounts, in immaculate physical health. His last three seasons with the Bulls, he played all 82 games. His only major injury occured in his second year (1985-6) when he broke his foot and missed three-quarters of the season. Not counting his predilection for high-stakes gambling, the next greatest threat to his health was his bout with flu in that playoff game against Utah. Given all the fanfare about that, you'd think he'd played the game with one leg.
Mario Lemieux, on the other hand, probably has played games with one leg. His chronic back injuries necessitated two major operations and occasionally made it impossible for him to lace up his own skates. Then there was his little ol' bout with Hodgkin's and the chemo treatments that followed. Finally, there were nagging ailments like the broken hand he suffered at the stick of the Rangers' Adam Graves.
It's possible that some foolish reasons factored into Lemieux's decision—hubris, vanity, boredom, a desire to sell more tickets. But he is one of the greatest hockey players ever, and with NHL refs calling a tighter game and not allowing the goons to dominate, he's not as vulnerable as he used to be. Plus there is this piece of ineluctable logic: The Penguins are a better team with him than without him. There is no doubt that the same can be said for Jordan and the 4-17 Wizards. This is one sadly screwed-up team, this close to becoming the East Coast Clippers, for whom losing, and not giving a crap about it, is the franchise ethic. The most depressing aspect of it is that the Wizards are not without talent; they just can't seem to pay attention. Their point guard Rod Strickland is capable of brilliance. He's also preternaturally careless and spaced out. Forward Juwan Howard might be able to dominate, if only he were able to keep his head in the game for longer than a few minutes at a stretch. With these jokers running the show, there's no hope that promising kids like the massive Jahidi White will ever realize their potential with the Wizards. This team needs a hard kick in the ass, and it's clearly got to come from somewhere closer to the court than the owner's box.
As an owner, Jordan doesn't know how to help the team. He is remote from the media and fans and doesn't seem to show up for a lot of games. He botched the negotiations with St. John's coach Mike Jarvis by refusing to cede control and wound up with the much less experienced Leonard Hamilton. He took a bad team from last season and made no significant off-season acquisitions. And matters are only getting worse.
Jordan can redeem it all by coming back and playing another season or two. He would be the ultimate sixth man, and in a pathetically lean year for the Eastern Conference, there's no telling how far he might take them. Suspend reality for a moment and imagine Jordan versus Kobe and Shaq in the NBA finals—it would be one of the greatest spectacles in professional sports history. (The NBA prohibits owners from playing for their own teams—which safeguards us against indecencies like Mark Cuban suiting up for the Mavericks—but it's a mere technicality that could and should be waived for M.J.) There have been whispers that NBA Commissioner David Stern forced Jordan to retire early because of his gambling problems. It's hard to believe that Michael Jordan would allow himself to be pushed around by the commissioner, no matter how dirty the dirt. It's equally hard to believe Stern would even try. When Jordan finally left the Bulls, people predicted the NBA would be lost without him. The downdraft in TV ratings notwithstanding, that doesn't seem to be the case. But the Wizards absolutely are lost. And since they're his damn team, he's got to do something about that. He risks an inauspicious end to the greatest career ever, but his reputation is huge enough to survive that. He's got no choice but to come back.