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Jordan finding his range

He’s getting comfortable with place in NBA history

Celtics guard Ray Allen had a hand for Michael Jordan. Celtics guard Ray Allen had a hand for Michael Jordan. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / September 12, 2009

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SPRINGFIELD - There was youthfulness and enthusiasm in Michael Jordan yesterday not present in April, when he was named to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame and reacted with a tinge of disappointment.

Jordan has spent the past five months coming to terms with his place in the game. An icon slowly fading into reclusiveness, Jordan appeared prepared to hand the reins of the league to the younger guys.

He spoke for 20 minutes about his career, the “next Jordan,’’ his successes, and even his few failures. The interview session got off to an uneasy start when, waiting for David Robinson to finish his Q&A, Jordan leaned against a television display and set off a blaring video trivia game. Jordan, donning a Sean John Hall of Fame coat that replaced his impeccably tailored tan blazer, shrieked and uncomfortably waited until the game ended.

His miscue didn’t last long. He smoothly walked to the stage and handled every question with the same precision of a fadeaway jump shot. Jordan placed his left hand in his pocket, adjusted the blazer, and addressed nearly every stage of his brilliant career.

“If everybody wanted to ‘Be like Mike,’ I’m pretty sure that starts with a haircut, suntan,’’ he said. “I’m just happy to be myself.’’

That was evident. Jordan appeared to have warmed to his Hall of Fame status. Although he has maintained a low post-playing profile, Jordan realizes the NBA, its fans, and even the players are searching for another paragon.

Many have questioned whether the NBA still needs the 46-year-old Jordan’s presence. Jordan told those listening to hold tight, relief is com ing.

“How can you not see a resemblance of yourself in Kobe Bryant and LeBron James,’’ Jordan asked rhetorically. “And yeah, I think they are going to be fine. The game’s going to be fine. Don’t be in a rush to find the next Michael Jordan. There’s not going to be another Michael Jordan.’’

The crowd roared with applause. But arrogance wasn’t the theme of the statement.

“I say that in a way that times are different,’’ he said. “The game is different. Experiences are different. The desire to have that type of player is different. And you guys are constantly trying to find that next Michael Jordan. First of all, you didn’t find me, I just happened to come along. The next thing you know, here I am, so you didn’t have to find me. And you won’t have to find that next person. It’s going to happen and I’m pretty sure you guys are going to recognize him. And in due time, you’ll know. And I think those guys [Bryant and James] have a potential to be better than Michael Jordan down the road. They will create their own name, their own persona, so give it time.’’

Rarely has Jordan offered such reflections on his career. When he retired from the Washington Wizards following the 2002-03 season, he dived right into running the team. After he was fired by owner Abe Pollin in 2005, he soon joined the Charlotte Bobcats, where he has become a borderline recluse, save for a few celebrity golf tournaments.

It hasn’t all been swishes for Jordan. His father, James, was murdered in a robbery in August 1993. It was James who stroked Michael’s back as he grasped his first NBA championship trophy in 1991, weeping uncontrollably.

Jordan said his father would have enjoyed the honor and spoke of him in present tense.

“If I know my father, he’d love to be here answering all your questions,’’ Jordan said. “He loved to speak for me. But I think he understands that I am a grown person now. I’ve learned from him and he taught me well.’’

And we learned that Jordan owns a motorcycle racing team, that he considers his baseball experiment positive, and a pivotal moment in his NBA career was hearing Larry Bird’s compliments following Jordan’s exhilarating 63-point playoff performance at Boston Garden in 1986.

It was the Bulls’ first playoff appearance in the Jordan era and it catapulted Jordan to one of the game’s elite players. “I think he’s God disguised as Michael Jordan,’’ Bird said after Boston’s 135-131 double-overtime win.

“When you look at it up to the point, so many media guys were saying, ‘Yeah, he’s good but he’s not in the same class as Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.’ But that game, I earned Larry Bird’s respect,’’ Jordan said. “To me, that says I was on the right track in terms of becoming a better basketball player. Not the points I scored because at the end of the day, we lost the game. Yeah, it’s a good highlight to watch. But I know I lost the game, so it’s not too much fun to watch a game like that. Yeah, [Bird] gave me the type of confidence that I needed at that level that you’re on the right track, keep working. That to me was the biggest compliment I had at that particular time. And the so-called [All-Star Game] ‘freeze out,’ a lot of competitive jealousies but coming from him that said I was doing the right thing.’’

Jordan is more comfortable with his place in history than he was years ago. He will always have the itch to play, but that idea has faded. He remains perhaps the coolest person on earth. Fans descended on the Hall of Fame donning Jordan jerseys, digital cameras clicking constantly as he strolled about. He acted as if they didn’t exist. He is accustomed to such treatment.

Is he the greatest? Jordan stops short of confirming that, but said he would relish the chance to compete against anyone to determine the answer. That will never happen, but Jordan’s most important priority is to be known as a winner.

Jordan recalled a time with the Bulls when he rolled off 20 straight points to secure a late victory and assistant coach Tex Winter reminded him there is no “I’’ in “team.’’

“I looked back at Tex and said, ‘There’s an “I’’ in win,’ ’’ said Jordan, who won six NBA titles. “So whatever way you want it. And at the end of the day, if my teammates could ever say anything about me is, well . . . ‘We won.’ ’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com

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