Jordan exits for 3rd time, still very much a star

He got away with it, legend intact.

Michael Jordan took on his most dangerous opponent in his latest and (maybe) last comeback. While he didn’t beat Father Time, Jordan certainly baffled and beguiled him.

There were moments that even Father Time had to call time against Michael, relentless to the end.

Jordan will walk off the stage this week, still, remarkably, a serviceable star at age 40.

He can leave without regret, and even more importantly, without our sympathy or pity, without anyone comparing him to an aging Willie Mays stumbling in the outfield or a Muhammad Ali unable to hit back.

Jordan risked ridicule of his legacy, a grandiose journey that already had secured a perfect ending with his title-winning jump shot five years ago as a Chicago Bull. He came back last season, stepping down from the Washington Wizards’ executive suites as team president to “scratch my itch,” to feed his competitive fire until it burned out, to teach his young team first-hand about desire and dedication.

They obviously didn’t learn enough from Master Michael. If only the Wizards were as strong finishers as their erstwhile boss.

Although they matched last season’s win total by beating the Miami Heat on Saturday night, the Wizards (37-42), were ousted from the playoff picture, meaning Jordan’s 15th season will end unceremoniously in Philadelphia against the Sixers on Wednesday.

Jordan swore last November that he would retire for the third and final time after the season. He played nearly 40 minutes a game down the stretch, an indication that he is going out, he said, with “nothing left in the tank.” Of course, when it comes to retirement announcements, Jordan is about as credible as the Iraqi minister of information. Two other attempts didn’t take.

“After this, there will be no want,” Jordan said. “I’m 100 percent sure that after this I’m done.”

Even after a seasonlong series of Michael tributes, not everyone is buying it, considering Jordan looks as if he could easily play another season. Physically, he held up well, looking sound on knees that cost him 22 games last season.

With three games remaining, Jordan is averaging 20 points and shooting 45 percent, playing an amazing 37 minutes per game. His first step might be gone and his shooting touch is often suspect, but he was more than a museum piece to be viewed behind velvet ropes. He scored 41 points in 53 minutes against Indiana and had a 45-point outburst against the New Orleans Hornets, plus several vintage game-winning shots.

“Mike could average 15 at 50,” marveled Magic star Tracy McGrady.

Already, there are rumors that Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson – Jordan’s old Bulls coach – will try to coax him this summer into playing, turning the Lakers into a traveling all-star show next season. Imagine Shaq, Kobe and Michael together.

“I’d never say never,” Wizards teammate Jerry Stackhouse said. “You never know with Michael, man.”

Maybe this time Jordan really means it. And some critics think maybe it would be best for the Wizards to be free of his hulking, demanding shadow and develop without having to defer to His Airness. Jordan says he plans on returning to the Wizards’ front office, he but is not contractually obligated to do so.

Jordan didn’t exactly reinvent the position of general manager, failing to turn Washington into a playoff team. He reshaped the franchise (only Jahidi White was a holdover), and traded Richard Hamilton for Stackhouse last summer, but he never got the Wizards over the hump.

He got them to play as hard as he did some nights, but had to publicly berate them at times. He and Stackhouse feuded, and Jordan had little patience for young Kwame Brown’s work habits.

The Wizards floundered – except at the box office. Jordan’s presence gave them relevancy, allowed them to sell out every home game and made Washington the NBA’s most popular road team. He remained the league’s cash cow, and will retain his title as commercial kingpin in retirement.

“It was worth it,” Jordan said of his two-year comeback. “It was fun to be around the kids and get that itch scratched. And it has been scratched.”