Asked for the umpteenth time about a comeback, a sly smile played on Michael Jordan's lips, then he gave his strongest indication yet that he would return to play in the NBA.
Jordan has said for months he may mount a comeback, and in a 30-minute conversation Monday with The Associated Press, Chicago Sun-Times and cnnsi.com, he said the news conference to announce his decision would be held in Washington, D.C., by the middle of next week.
Asked whether he was definitely coming back, Jordan said: "I'm doing it for the love of the game. Nothing else. For the love of the game."
Reached later Monday by The Washington Post for comment on the reports that he has all but decided to return, Jordan said, "I didn't say that. I have not said it." He told the Post he needed a little more time to gauge himself.
This would be the second comeback for the 38-year-old Jordan, who led the Chicago Bulls to six championships.
Jordan has worked out all summer preparing for the expected comeback with the Washington Wizards. He is president of basketball operations for the team and a part owner, meaning he has to divest his ownership under NBA rules before returning to the court.
Jordan has tested himself and his game repeatedly in scrimmages against top-caliber NBA players, with league referees officiating. The only question remaining is whether the tendinitis in his right knee would limit his effectiveness.
Jordan, however, said the knee was sound. If it remains that way over the next few days, he said, "I'll be ready to go."
In October 1993, Jordan stunned the basketball world by retiring, saying he had nothing left to prove in basketball and wanted to give baseball a try. He played a season of Double-A ball for the Chicago White Sox team in Birmingham, Ala., but returned to the Bulls in March 1995.
When Jordan walked away from the Bulls for the second time in January 1999, it wasn't on his own terms. He saw the blueprints for a rebuilding in place and ducked out.
Jordan said he would have considered returning with the Bulls' front office as he ultimately did with the Wizards but that Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf never called.
In the half-hour conversation Monday on a curb outside his restaurant, Jordan dropped the conditional tense when talking about his basketball future for the first time since acknowledging in April that he was serious about coming back.
"I want to play for years," he said.
A half-mile to the west, a bronze statue of Jordan stood guard outside the United Center, an arena where his jersey hangs in the rafters alongside the six championship banners he brought to Chicago. A hundred yards to the east was Hoops the Gym, where pickup games this summer against the likes of Penny Hardaway and Charles Oakley convinced Jordan that he could still compete at the highest level.
As some of those players filed out of the gym following the afternoon scrimmages, Jordan leaned back and took in the Chicago skyine.
"I know there are a lot of naysayers out there," he said.
But Jordan made it clear he wasn't coming back to fulfill any expectations but his own.
"Winning isn't always championships," he said. "What's wrong with helping kids find their way, teaching them the game."
By JIM LITKE
©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 2001 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.