Hoop Dreams

Up in the rafters of chicago's airy new United Center arena, giant sheets of steel arc out over the audience, put there to bang the noise from the crowd back to the floor. Even so, this is an antiseptic hall, oddly lacking in intimacy. Above it, over the polished hardwood floor where Michael Jordan has never played a game, hangs a banner that quietly intones his absence: michael jordan, 1984-1993. Since it went up, as Jordan tried his hand at minor-league baseball, this banner has marked the greatest hole in professional sports. But as the Bulls took the floor last Friday night, to a roar of palpable anticipation, another placard raised its voice in hopeful challenge. Furiously waved, bluntly handwritten, it screamed its entreaty for every soul present: come home m.j.!

It was the punctuation mark to a week of eager speculation, and of a ravenous hope best described in terms of collective appetite. Eighteen months after he left basketball at the top of his game, Jordan spent three days last week working out with the Bulls in their practice facility in suburban Deerfield, Ill., and stayed to study game films. Then on Friday morning, as scrubs from the Chicago White Sox farm system headed to West Palm Beach, Fla., for a game against Braves replacements, Jordan announced through his agent that he wouldn't be making that trip: he was retiring from baseball. At the United Center arena Saturday night, where fans scrambled for last-minute tickets just in case, these events could mean only one thing, and that was the only thing. ""The crowd obviously isn't cheering for us,'' said Bulls guard Steve Kerr, in an electrified locker room at the Center. ""They're cheering in anticipation of somebody else.''

Jordan was the greatest player in the game, and after he retired he vowed, ""I'm never coming back to play basketball. Not in this lifetime. Never. Unless I change my mind.'' Sometime in the last two weeks, Jordan appears to have done just that. Last Thursday, according to a team insider, Jordan met with a Bulls official to discuss a possible return -- a formal sequel to very casual talks he'd had with Bulls coach Phil Jackson last September and October. His retirement from baseball the following day, says the source, was ""a message to Bulls management. Michael is saying, "I have no baseball entanglement, and the players know I can still play. So come and get me'.'' No NBA regulation prevents Jordan from returning to the Bulls, where he is still under contract through next season (Bulls general manager Jerry Krause denies reports that Jordan is still drawing his estimated $4 million-a-year salary). At the end of the week, all that stood between Jordan and the game he helped redefine was an agreement with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. But as much as fans want it, even Bulls insiders admit this may be a big obstacle. Reinsdorf, who also owns the Chicago White Sox, is a notorious hard-liner; he's considered one of the hardest heads in the baseball strike. ""I don't know if this is going to happen,'' says one source close to the situation. ""If I were going to play the odds, I'd bet he's coming back.''

If there is one NBA owner who would walk away from a chance to have Michael Jordan, it is Jerry M. Reinsdorf. If there is one player who'd give up a chance to reign over all others, it is Michael Jordan. Locked in a farcical symmetry (a 59-year-old, cigar-chomping bundle of truculence from Brooklyn looking in a fun-house mirror to see the most graceful athlete ever to wear big shorts), both are proud, tough-minded, mercurial, unpredictable and utterly uncompromising. Both have been called worse -- though Jordan, at least, has also been called better. The last time they had business with each other, their dealings -- described as amicable -- may have been what pushed Jordan into retirement. ""Reinsdorf probably could have held onto Jordan,'' says a source with ties to both men, ""if he'd said, "Let's tear up your contract' . . . There's no question Jordan deserved to be the highest-paid player in the game. But Reinsdorf never approached [the subject] . . . And Jordan had too much pride to ever approach him . . . So Jordan picked up another ball.''

So far, neither side has even acknowledged that anything is up. By Saturday night, even as radio stations claimed to know the exact date and place of his return (March 24, Chicago, against Orlando), Krause flatly refuted all rumors. ""You were told wrong,'' he told Newsweek. Jordan ""knows we want him back,'' Krause said. ""When he makes up his mind, he'll pick up the phone.''

Just what Jordan is thinking is anyone's guess; we can no more put ourselves in his mind than we can in his body. As recently as two weeks ago, he appeared set on returning to minor-league baseball. Friends in North Carolina and Chicago, and in the White Sox farm system, told Newsweek he talked of nothing else. Expecting to make the Sox AAA Nashville Sounds (he played AA last year), he had already put down $20,000 to join the Golf Club of Tennessee in Kingston Springs, Tenn. As unlikely, as unacceptable, as it may seem -- how can we consider the career deliberations of a man who can do something better than anything else in the world, especially when that thing involves a basketball? -- Jordan's baseball career was no lark (page 56). Teammates admired his humility and work ethic. ""He was like anybody else on the team,'' says Kerry Valrie, Jordan's closest friend on the AA Birmingham Barons. ""He was trying to get to the same place we're trying to get to.'' White Sox official Ron Schueler even talked vaguely about Jordan's being called up to the big club as early as next September. ""He was fully focused, talking about baseball,'' says a friend who saw him in late February. ""The only thing he said was he wasn't going to cross a picket line. Something between now and then . . . made him decide he wanted to do something else.''

That something is the ongoing baseball strike. Jordan has been a strong union man; when he was threatened with possible censure over gambling charges in 1992, the basketball players union backed him all the way. Early this month, Schueler announced to all of the players -- including Jordan -- that if they weren't going to cross the picket line to play major-league exhibition games, they would have to move their gear into the minor-league clubhouse. Some went along, moving their bags to the lesser digs. Jordan asked friends to help move his to his car. The next week he announced he was gone.

Now, according to a source, come the hard decisions. Jordan reportedly wants a complicated package: more money, more years on his own contract, as well as a similar upgrade for teammate Scottie Pippen. ""He wants to be taken care of, and he wants his buddy taken care of.'' These are huge hurdles. Under the current collective-bargaining agreement between the league and the players association, all teams are barred from extending or renegotiating contracts. Says Krause, ""There's no way we can do anything with the contract. That's an NBA rule.''

Then there is the Pippen problem. Pippen, whose contract expires in 1998, has exchanged open hostilities with the Bulls, largely over money. He called Krause a liar and told reporters earlier this year, ""No place could be worse than here,'' demanding that the team ""trade me or Krause.'' Reinsdorf, who has never renegotiated a contract, has rebuffed Pippen. Until last week it seemed certain that Pippen was bound elsewhere, as soon as the Bulls could trade him. Now, things are less sure. Says the source, ""Both sides -- the owners and Jordan, who increasingly speaks forPippen -- want assurances this would be a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. Pippen has been upset -- and Reinsdorf doesn't extend contracts. Now Jordan's put the pressure on Reinsdorf.'' He adds that ""Reinsdorf wants assurances that the negative talk [from Pippen] will quiet down and that these guys will play hard for at least three more years. This year they can't win a championship and next year will be tough. But the year after next, they could bring home another trophy.''

For the league, the timing couldn't be better. Without Jordan, ratings for last season's playoff finals dropped 31 percent. This season, things have only gotten worse. Despite the emergence of exemplary new stars like Shaquille O'Neal and Detroit's Grant Hill, the game's image has been riddled with the cries of spoilsports and malcontents. (A low point: after criticism from his coach, Minnesota star Isaiah Rider called a press conference to tell reporters, ""What does growing up have to do with basketball?'') And as fans celebrated the possible return of Jordan last week, the league was embarrassed by drug allegations tied to the 1993 death of Boston's Reggie Lewis (page 55).

For Madison Avenue, where Jordan has topped even his performance on a basketball court, the prospect is just as inviting. By some estimates, Jordan's endorsements -- for Nike, Quaker Oats, McDonald's, Chevrolet and others -- influenced $300 million to $400 million in annual sales at his peak. Though he has shown remarkable staying power since quitting basketball, his return means a needed boost. ""Let's face it,'' says sports marketer Brandon Steiner. ""Things in sports have been a little weird lately. Capriati, Louganis, O.J. There hasn't been a lot of positive news. It means a lot in the celebrity world to have that big, bright burning star.'' Last Friday, amid all the speculation, Nike's stock rose to $76.50 a share.

For the Bulls, the second biggest question -- after the Big Question -- is whether Jordan is in shape: surely he didn't forgo the athlete's diminished days only to grab them now. According to reports, Jordan has in recent months worked out with the same personal trainer he used during his basketball career. And even in his retirement, he occasionally dropped by practice to train with the team. But that still doesn't mean he's in game shape. Coach Phil Jackson says that in early conversations, he and Jordan ""talked about the number of games [Jordan might play], about not having to go on the road twice.'' In workouts last week, Jordan's shot was off, but teammates say his intensity was there. ""The last two days [of practice] have been like some good game days,'' said guard Ron Harper. Has he lost anything? ""Only his hair.'' Harper added that at least Jordan's jaw is in shape: even in workouts, ""he's the best trash talker around.''

The Bulls players all say unhesitatingly they want him back, and maybe they even mean it. A corrosive 1992 book, ""The Jordan Rules,'' drew the star as uncommonly hard on what he saw as his support staff. But so far there have been no rumblings. His return doesn't guarantee a championship, or even an improvement on the Bulls' rocky season. But at the least, it guarantees a thrill. ""Sure, we talk among ourselves,'' says Kerr. ""A lot of us never got to play with Michael. When I played with Cleveland, I didn't play much. I sat in the best seat in the house and watched Michael Jordan play basketball.''

But to another audience, Jordan's career and possible comeback mean more than any of this, more than baskets and championships and market share. As anticipation swept through blacktop courts across the country last week, kids in struggling neighborhoods in Houston and Los Angeles talked about what Jordan meant to them. On hardscrabble playgrounds where wiry young bodies pursue the cruel hopes documented in the film ""Hoop Dreams,'' a few of the players cited Jordan's game. But all talked about his life off the court: about his character, his family and especially about his relationship with his father, James Jordan, who was murdered in 1993. ""He's got a good attitude, he don't smoke, he don't drink,'' says Robert Taylor, 11, who considers Jordan his hero. ""He got two kids -- and a wife.'' On a warm Friday afternoon in the Clayton Homes projects of Houston's beleaguered Fourth Ward, Taylor watched as some older teens drinking malt liquor from brown paper sacks moved the young kids off the concrete court. Out here, to ""be like Mike'' can mean a lot more than knowing how to handle a basketball. ""[Jordan] just done baseball for his daddy,'' he says. ""He wants his daddy to be proud of him. I want my dad to be proud of me.''

What it all adds up to, whether Jordan will really return and when, remains uncertain. Reinsdorf has been described as a negotiator who ""lets things linger till he gets what he wants.'' Jackson hints that Jordan ""doesn't want a charade out of it,'' if he does come back. But Jordan is nothing if not surprising; we love him in part because he remakes the world into something we didn't know was possible. ""I think he's enjoying keeping us hanging on a thread now,'' says Gene Silverberg, Jordan's friend and partner in a Chicago restaurant. ""We're in the middle of a game with Michael. Before he gets to the basket he has to make a couple of moves, and we're in the middle of the couple of moves. Before we even know what happened, the ball's in the net.'' At the very least, in retiring from baseball, Jordan has provided the most exciting moment of the pro-basketball season so far. But as with all of Jordan's moves, we must wait to see how this one finishes. Because that only he can imagine.

IT'S ALL IN THE NUMBERS Basketball's Michelangelo had a very different record when he became a minor league baseball player. CHICAGO BULLS BIRMINGHAM BARONS 1992-93 1994 72 WINS,29 LOSSES 65 WINS, 74 LOSSES Shooting percent Batting average .495 .202 Points scored Runs scored 2,541 46 Assists Runs batted in 428 51 Rebounds Stolen bases 522 30 Three-pointers Home runs 81 3 SALARY SALARY $3.9 million $10,000