The five-month wait for the inevitable is nearly over. Barring an improbable, last-minute change of heart, Michael Jordan's comeback is about to become official.
The route from "99.9 per cent chance that I won't" in April to "I'm doing it for the love of the game" will end with Jordan's announcement this week, possibly as early as Monday.
The official "I'm back" -- probably via fax from the Washington Wizards -- will be almost anticlimactic, but there are other questions about Jordan's second unretirement that eagerly await an answer.
Will Jordan keep his job as the Wizards' president of basketball operations? If so, who would be in charge when he's on the court -- Jordan or his hand-picked coach, Doug Collins? How would Jordan's teammates handle sharing the court with their boss? Would any of them dare not pass the ball to someone who can trade or cut them?
How much will Jordan play? He's 38 years old and last played an NBA game in June 1998. Over the last few months, he's had two cracked ribs, back spasms, knee tendinitis and hamstring problems -- and that's just from pickup games against invited players who would be more or less deferential to him.
Will his body hold up for an 82-game schedule, or will he follow the lead of the NHL's comeback kid, Mario Lemieux, and sit out selected games?
How will Jordan handle losing? He couldn't stand it as a front-office executive, having thrown tirades in front of the television while watching his woeful Wizards go 19-63 last season. Conventional wisdom says a healthy Jordan on the court just might get the Wizards to .500. He never missed the playoffs in 13 seasons as a player with the Chicago Bulls, while the Wizards haven't won a playoff game in 13 years.
Jordan has been very cagey about his comeback plans -- he even asked for pledges of secrecy from the players he scrimmaged with -- but the general outline of his return is clear.
A year ago, Jordan started working out because he found himself with a middle-age belly. His weight reached 242 pounds -- 30 pounds above his playing weight in Chicago. His initial basketball workouts were a last-resort weight-loss plan after he found the treadmill boring.
As the months passed, the workouts intensified. Jordan's focus changed and, despite his denials, he began thinking he could indeed play again. He hired Collins, who coached Jordan in Chicago in the 1980s. Inspired in part by Lemieux, Jordan started holding intense pickup camps at a Chicago gym with NBA-calibre talent. The injuries slowed him down but didn't deter him.
Last spring, Jordan said: "If I had to answer today, I'm 99.9 per cent sure I won't play again." At another point, he said he would have to grade himself a nine on a scale of one-to-10 in order to play again, then teasingly raised himself from six to seven to eight as the weeks went by.
There's no doubt he'll pronounce himself at nine or 10 when the Wizards open training camp in Wilmington, N.C., on Oct. 2.
Preparations elsewhere have been under way for Jordan's return for weeks. The paperwork to sell his stake in Wizards is prepared and awaiting his signature. The Wizards staff is ready to put him on the cover of the media guide. The NBA got overeager and briefly listed Jordan as a player on the Wizards' Web site last week.
Finally, there's a question only Jordan can answer:
Why come back and risk his legacy? Why not find another means to vent his extremely competitive nature?
"It's definitely the challenge," Jordan said in April. "I'm not coming back for money, I'm not coming back for the glory. I think I left the game with that, but the challenge is what I truly love."
On Sept. 10, Jordan was more eloquent as he all but confirmed his comeback after a pickup game in Chicago.
"I'm doing it for the love of the game," he said. "Nothing else. For the love of the game."
By Joseph White