The only question is, what will we do with Charles Barkley?

Because Michael Jordan is coming.


If Sports Illustrated is to be believed--and, really, doesn't journalistic credibility always come saucily wrapped in a lacy two-piece number from a cove in Fiji--Michael Jordan is playing basketball again, starting next season.

For real. Ninety percent real. They're, you know, pretty sure.

And there is only one place for Jordan to play. Los Angeles.

Right here, next to Shaquille O'Neal, next to Kobe Bryant, next to the man with the soul patch himself, who just bolted from a postgame news conference as he always does, like a shirtless guy on "Cops."

Phil Jackson flips a grin over his right shoulder as his hand reaches for the doorknob to his office late Tuesday night.

C'mon, Jackson is told. Michael Jordan pulls himself back into shape, sells off his stake in the Washington Wizards, takes a paltry salary-cap exception, risks his reputation and his golf game, so he can wear a Wizard uniform?

Banking that Chris Webber comes to Washington in the off-season? That Vince Carter comes in the next one?


"What?" Jackson says. "You think we have something better to offer?"

He laughs and narrows his eyes and disappears into his smoky office.

The Lakers have nothing but better to offer, and no one will ever have to pick up a telephone. Jordan knows. He'll call.

For one thing, Jordan plays for one coach and one coach only and, sorry, Leonard Hamilton's not him. Jordan plays for Phil Jackson.

There's one other thing Jordan plays for. Championships. He is 38, old enough to be Kobe Bryant's father. When he comes back, it's for some fun, a kick in the pants, something to escape the Wizard fiasco, decent proximity to Riviera Country Club, and championships.

What he is not coming back for is to pal around with Mitch Richmond and win 35 games, which is what awaits him in the Sports Illustrated scenario.

He could do that in Washington every day, assuming he knows where the arena is.

So he magically dumped Rod Strickland and Juwan Howard, and the same people who called him a front-office deadbeat made him their executive of the epoch. Do you think Jordan rolled around on the floor and kissed the transactions the next morning?

No chance.

He looked out of his glass office--assuming security opened the door for him--and wondered who those other 12 guys were.

He's coming back--he's coming back, right?--to win another championship.

If he is serious about this, and it's not some scheme to get Barkley's heart pumping again, then his Learjet ought to be plunging through the smog right about now.

No one needs another championship the way the Lakers do.

In a Laker season that has presented the question, "Who's the man?," do you really want to know who the man is?

Jordan would show Bryant what it is like to be Jordan, to lead like Jordan, to give like Jordan.

Jordan would show Shaquille O'Neal what it is like to be Luc Longley, to defer like Luc Longley, to run goofy like Luc Longley.

Jackson loves this stuff. He said sure, it could happen. Jordan could come back, play basketball with a damaged finger, whip up on the hip-hop crowd for a year or two, re-retire to the Laker front office.

Jackson and Jordan talk all the time. Think of the laughs they'd have on Jerry Krause as they reconstructed the Chicago Bulls in Los Angeles, brick by brick, Grant by Harper by Jordan, 120 years old between them, still winning trophies, still woofing on Krause.

Jordan and Laker General Manager Mitch Kupchak, fellow executives and North Carolina Tar Heels, talk all the time. Kupchak shook his head at this latest rumor, said he'd have to call Jordan, or maybe Dean Smith, just for a laugh.

Ron Harper admitted Tuesday night that he might not retire after this season after all. Is there any better evidence that Jordan will play basketball for the Lakers next season? Who's Harper supposed to play golf with?

"Hey, I've got other friends," Harper said.

Oh, Jordan's coming, and not only because David Falk said he wouldn't. He's coming because he needs the Lakers, and the Lakers need him, and because Barkley needs to get off the couch.

That big doughnut's a protected landmark, right?

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