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You know what bothers me the most about Michael Jordan's return to the NBA? It's the predictable, hackneyed reaction of writers who trot out the images of Willie Mays and Muhammad Ali whenever a great athlete attempts a comeback.

Mays and Ali make for useful cautionary tales. See what happens when an athlete doesn't know when to quit? He becomes a pathetic figure. He taints his legacy and diminishes himself in the memory of his fans.

Really? Do baseball fans think less of Mays because he stumbled around the outfield for the Mets at the end? Ali was the most revered and recognizable athlete of the century. Does the world remember him best for losing to Leon Spinks?

I remember Mays for his speed, power and grace, for the catch on Vic Wertz, for his Say Hey smile. I remember Ali for the Frazier fights, for his lightning jabs and poetic boasts. I remember Mays and Ali as we like to remember all great athletes.

I remember them young.

Nothing they did at the end changes that. And nothing Jordan does in this comeback will "tarnish" him. He was the best ever, a six-time champion, a matchless competitor who lived for the big moment. His legend is unassailable, incapable of tarnish.

Rest assured, he won't be a pathetic figure. Jordan will still be among the NBA's top players. He will average 25 points. He won't have the explosion of Vince Carter, the quickness of Allen Iverson, the all-around skill of Kobe Bryant. But he knows how to play the game, how to compete.

He will make the Wizards better. He'll be older, slower and presumably humbler.

Certainly, there are reasons for caution. At 38, he is more susceptible to injury. You have to wonder how he'll hold up to the pounding of an 82-game season.

The mental strain is a bigger issue. In his prime, Jordan had the energy and will to survive the long season and the playoffs. He'd play in five cities in seven nights, dealing with the media, making big plays in the clutch. He did it tirelessly, at home and on the road, on back-to-back nights. He competed and he gave the fans a show.

Will he have that same energy at 38? It's doubtful. He might have to sit out the second game of back-to-back nights, like Mario Lemieux. He'll play reduced minutes. He intends to play small forward, which means more pounding in the post.

John Thompson, the former Georgetown coach, said the days of Jordan jumping from the foul line are over. John, those days were over years ago. He adapted his game to the realities of age and became less a dunker, more a fadeaway jump shooter.

He'll still get calls from the officials. He'll teach his young Wizards teammates and make them smarter, too. Defensively, he was a master, adept at playing the angles. Now that the NBA allows zones, he'll be even more effective. The zone will save him from getting isolated against quicker players.

People say the zone defenses will make it tougher to score because he'll be double-teamed all the time. If that's the case, what does it say about Jordan? If he's risking his reputation by coming back at 38, how come everyone assumes he's going to be double-teamed all the time? Well, because he's Michael Jordan, and stopping him will still be the focus of the opposition.

Maybe his body will break down and his comeback will be short-lived, like Magic Johnson's a few years back. But as an NBA lover, I'm fascinated and excited. I can't wait for the season to start.

The title-winning shot against Utah in 1998 won't be his grand, perfect farewell, after all. So what? It's not our final glimpse of an athlete that matters most, but the thrills they gave us along the way.

Instead of fretting about Jordan's return, we ought to celebrate the fact that he was willing to come back for the love of the game, for the rush of competition, even if it meant being a diminished force.

It'll be a joy to watch him again. He'll be a small reminder, in these difficult times, that life is short and you should do what makes you happy while you still can.


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