There are agents, lawyers and other suits to handle the complicated stuff, but for advice from the heart Michael Jordan knows just where to turn. "We had a long talk, and Michael said, 'Ma, I have to do this,'" says Deloris Jordan, 60, of the conversation she had with her son shortly before he decided to end his retirement and return to the NBA—again. "He said, 'I won't let people put a ceiling on my goals. If it doesn't work out, at least I won't have to say I wish I had tried.'" Her advice to the man many think is crazy to take his Air Nikes out of storage: "I said, 'I'll be right there cheering you on.'"

Cheers, after all, are the soundtrack to the life of Michael Jordan, who dominated pro basketball for much of the '90s and, at 38, is chasing glory once more. On Oct. 30 fans were on their feet as Jordan, last hailed 2½ years ago after sinking a dramatic jump shot to win his sixth world championship with the Chicago Bulls, strode onto the court as a starting guard for the lowly Washington Wizards. Forced by league rules to sell his stake in the team before he could play, the ex-boss looked a little rusty in scoring 19 points—and hoisting a rare air ball—in a 93-91 loss to the New York Knicks. "I felt good," Jordan said after the game, appearing not at all dismayed. "This is the beginning of a long season, is how I look at it."

The big question surrounding his comeback: How good will he be over the course of that season? Sure, there will be nights when he shows flashes of magic and wills the Wizards to victory. But what about the other nights, when he faces players young enough to have owned his poster in grade school? "He may not be the same physically as he was at 33," says Arnie Duncan, CEO of the Chicago Public Schools and a pal who joined Jordan in pickup games this summer. "But playing with him is like painting with Picasso. On the court, he has the heart of a killer."

But what about the knees? Nagging tendinitis plus a cracked rib slowed Jordan during his summer workouts, and clearly he cannot dunk and dazzle like he used to. "I hope he plays great, but I think eventually this is doomed to end unhappily," predicts Mike Lupica, sports columnist for the New York Daily News. "He has been passed by."

Which may explain why the ultracompetitive Jordan opted to suit up again. He first quit the game in 1993 after the death of his father, James, in a roadside robbery convinced him to pursue his dream of playing professional baseball. He struck out 114 times in 436 at-bats for the minor league Birmingham Barons and hustled back to the NBA in 1996. Three titles later he retired in 1999 to spend more time at his gated Highland Park, 111., mansion with wife Juanita, 42, and their children Jeffrey, 12, Marcus, 10, and Jasmine, 8.

The former Bull was also bullish about his future as a businessman. Lavishly paid for endorsing Nike, MCI, Gatorade and other companies, "He wanted to become a young mogul who cuts the checks rather than cashes them," says Sam Walker, a reporter who covered Jordan's business exploits for Esquire. Jordan did well in the food biz (he owns five restaurants in three cities) but two Internet ventures—including MVP.com, a sporting-goods firm launched in 2000—both crashed.

Not that he was left wanting for his pricey cigars. His endorsement deals netted him $40 million last year, more than any athlete except his buddy Tiger Woods. Still, there was his fierce appetite for competition. And so in January Jordan began working out at Chicago's Hoops the Gym. Early on, says Gary Cowan, the gym's owner, "you could tell he wasn't the same." Nonetheless, says Boston Celtic forward Antoine Walker, who worked out with him, "he still has his game. When he gets his legs underneath him, he'll be back to dunking." How good will he be? "The sky's the limit," says Walker.

Jordan will earn $2 million over two years and donate his first season's salary to the families of those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks. "He really is in this because of his love for the game," says Cowan, who got to see that passion up close one day this summer. "I pressed the button to lower the baskets from the ceiling, and Michael got this look in his eye," he says. "He picked up a ball and shot at the basket 28 ft. up. And he made it. He still has the little kid in him."

Alex Tresniowski
John Slania in Chicago, Joseph V. Tirella in New York City and J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • John Slania,
  • Joseph V. Tirella,
  • J. Todd Foster.