Michael Jordan last played in the NBA 10 years ago. (Yes, it’s understandable if you want to think of hi career as ending with that shot against the Jazz, but for the purposes of this post, we’re going to have to face some hard truths.) That year he did pretty well for a guy who turned 40 during the season, averaging an even 20 points per game (though he took 18.6 shots per night to do it), along with 6.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists a night. Despite those respectable numbers, though, the days of “Michael Jordan, G.O.A.T.” had clearly passed him by, and he hung it up seriously-totally-for-good-this-time after the season.
But this is Michael Jordan we’re talking about. His body’s not immune to the ravages of time, but his legendary competitiveness is. Even Wright Thompson’s profile, which probably did more to humanize Jordan than anything written about him ever has, made that clear. And it’s tempting to think: with his competitiveness and the talent that propelled him to such great heights, could he still pay in the NBA if he wanted to? His trainer Tim Grover not only thinks so, he took it a step further:
“He’d average 20. Yeah, he’d average 20.”
Hey, Jordan was a great player. The greatest ever, in fact. It’s always tempting to think he could recapture the magic of the past – hell, the central focus of Thompson’s profile was Jordan’s own never-ending struggle to move on with his life, post-basketball. Plus, obviously Grover’s not an objective source. And when you see anecdotes in Thompson’s story like:
A while back, [Jordan’s] brother, Larry, who works for the team, noticed a commotion on the practice court. He looked out the window of his office and saw his brother dominating one of the best players on the Bobcats in one-on-one.
… it’s hard not to think, “You know, maybe if MJ really put his mind to it…” And then you remember you live in reality. And in reality: come on now. Once again, in Jordan’s last NBA season, which was a decade ago, when was already turning 40, he averaged exactly 20 points a game. For Grover to be correct, MJ would have to have experienced essentially zero dropoff in his ability to play in the NBA in the last decade. And remember, right after the anecdote about MJ’s one-on-one triumph (apparently over Michael Kidd-Gilchrist) came the aftermath:
The next morning, Larry says with a smile, Jordan never made it into his office. He got as far as the team’s training room, where he received treatment.
“You paying the price, aren’t you?” Larry asked.
“I couldn’t hardly move,” Jordan said.
Even Grover allowed that the grind of a full season would be a problem (“Listen, would he be able to go out and get through an 82-game season?”), but it’s pretty clear that Jordan, as currently constituted – even if he followed Grover’s reported comeback plan to a T – could not hold up over the course of an NBA season. You know, just like every other 50-year-old on the planet.
Do we get the appeal of wishing otherwise? of course. The idea of a Jordan comeback is as appealing to us as anyone. Who doesn’t love the idea of the greatest player ever schooling guys up to 30 years younger than he is? But then we remember – it’s an idea. The idea of Jordan’s last comeback was great, too – and then the real thing inevitably fell short of the impossible expectations surrounding it. How far short would it fall a decade of aging later?
Of course, maybe Grover meant that Jordan would average 20 minutes a game. Still probably too high a bar to set (after all, Grover even said he didn’t think Jordan would actually come back), and we also doubt he was talking about anything but points, but a little more plausible. And what’s Michael Jordan – or at least the general public’s idea of Michael Jordan – about, if not stretching the limits of what’s possible?