Advice for MJ: Stay on the playground

“Do you really think he’s coming back?”

From classrooms to boardrooms, playgrounds to construction grounds, basketball courts to Appeals Courts and just about everywhere in between, everybody is wondering.

Mario Lemieux says yes. So do Phil Jackson and Washington Wizards majority owner Abe Pollin.

Ted Leonsis, another Wizards’ owner, doesn’t think so.

As for The Man himself, well, he’s not sure.

I’m talking, of course, about the much rumored return of Michael Jordan to the NBA.

For the record, Jordan has been pretty firm about his answer.

“I haven’t wavered one bit from what I’ve been saying,” Jordan told The Washington Post for Wednesday’s editions. “If I had to answer today, I’m 99.9 percent sure I won’t play again.”

But that hasn’t stopped the speculation, and Jordan’s actions haven’t exactly done anything to quell discussion, either.

His Airness has admitted that he has been playing recreational ball regularly at a health club in Chicago. What’s more, he suited up, complete with old No. 23, and worked out with the Wizards last week. Jordan’s good friend Charles Barkley has said that he wants to play with Jordan next year in Washington, implying that Jordan and Barkley have discussed the situation.

Frankly, I don’t know what he’s going to do and I’m not even going to try to make a prediction. But if he came to me for advice (as six-time NBA champions often do), I know what I’d tell him.

I’d tell him that if he announced a comeback he’d make the front page of every major newspaper in the Western Hemisphere, the lead story of every channel’s nightly news and the entire substance of every sports radio call-in show this side of Guam. I’d tell him that the NBA’s attendance, TV ratings and merchandise revenue would soar like he used too in All-Star Game dunk contests. I’d tell him that he’d make Lemieux’s comeback seem like an afterthought and that every kid in the country would junk his Allen Iverson jersey in a second for a new Jordan tank-top with a Wizards’ logo.

And then I’d tell him not to come back.

I’d tell him to do what Bobby Jones and Ted Williams did — and not what Willie Mays and Jerry Rice have done.

Like Jordan, Jones rose to the undisputed top of his sport, leaving his competitors scratching their respective heads and fans with their mouths open. From 1923-1929, Jones won an astounding nine major championships — no one has ever won more in such a short span.

Then, in 1930, Jones topped all of that. In a season that hasn’t been equaled in 71 years, Jones won the Grand Slam, triumphing in the British Amateur, British Open, U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur. (The Masters and the PGA Championship replaced the two amateur tournaments as “majors” when Jones founded the Masters a few later.) The easy-going Georgian was so popular that he was accorded a ticket-tape parade in New York — before he won the final two legs of the Slam.

Then, two months after Marine guards had to protect him from the throngs of fans chasing him after he finished the Slam at Merion, he retired, emerging only once a year to play ceremonially in the Masters. He went on to Harvard Law School and became a successful lawyer and a great recreational golfer.

Even though he played competitively for barely more than a decade, Jones’ record of 13 majors stood for 40 more years.

But for Jones, it was never about records. If it had been he would have stayed around for years longer and racked up more majors than Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson or anyone else could dream about. Tiger Woods would have grown up with a poster of the sweater and tie-clad Jones on his wall, rather than the wild blond hair and checkered pants of the Golden Bear.

What Jones did is master something that has been increasingly rare in sports — the subtle art of going out on top.

Coming up with examples of those who have failed to do this is painfully easy. Willie Mays is the quintessential illustration of a player hanging on too long. The same “Say Hey Kid” who made what Sports Illustrated called the most-replayed catch in history — Mays’ amazing, over-the-shoulder basket catch off a Vic Wertz line drive that saved the Giants in the 1954 World Series — also stumbled in the outfield as an out-of-shape, old right fielder for the Mets in 1974. Sure, most people will remember the great Mays that hit 660 home runs and won 11 gold gloves, but those last, embarrassing moments can never be erased.

Let’s get a couple of things straight. Jordan is the best basketball player ever to suit up.

He is the transcendent athlete of his generation — no questions asked, no holds barred, no doubt about it. He very well might be the best athlete ever.

He still has plenty left in his tank, and he knows it.

But he doesn’t have anything left to prove, and, deep down, he knows that too.

Jones could have gone on to win 10 or 20 more majors, but it wouldn’t have made a difference. He would still be the greatest. As the great sports writer Herbert Warren Wind said when Jones retired, “There were no worlds left for him to conquer.”

And thus it is for Jordan. He has nothing to gain, and an awful lot to lose.

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