Sun, May 15, 2005 - Page 24 News List

M.J. vanishes from basketball scene to work on motorcycles

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

In the last image of Michael Jordan bouncing a basketball, he is wearing the blue, black, white and gold jersey of the Washington Wizards, a uniform that never fit.

Two years after Jordan retired, for the third time, as a player, and was fired by Wizards owner Abe Pollin, he is only as tangible as the bronze statue of him outside the United Center in Chicago.

The team with which everyone associates him -- the Bulls -- lost in the first round of the NBA playoffs to the team -- the Wizards -- that disassociated itself from him.

Now Washington is on the brink of elimination, trailing by 3-0 to the Miami Heat, and Jordan's connection to the playoffs is closer to fading further into the background.

While at 42, he retains his magnetic marketability and reigns as the nation's most recognizable sports celebrity, Jordan has slipped into a new, more private life in Chicago. He declined to be interviewed for this story.

Jordan continues to wait for the right opportunity and price to buy an NBA team. In the meantime, he has taken up a new sport: motorcycle racing.

He is not riding professionally, but in January 2004, Jordan formed his own team -- Michael Jordan Motorsports Suzuki -- that now supports three riders on the growing road-racing circuit.

Jordan was at a race in Birmingham, Alabama, on the weekend the playoffs began. He has been to all three road races this season, and is expected to be at the fourth on Saturday in Sonoma, Calif.

"M.J. is an enthusiast," Kenny Abbott, Jordan-Suzuki's general manager, said by phone on Friday morning in Sonoma. "Everything he does he is thinking about motorcycles, the race team and how can things be better. He's very involved on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis."

Though Jordan grew up riding dirt bikes and watched NASCAR races in North Carolina, he is not the ultimate gear-head.

"He's not going to ask us what kind of sprocket size we're using or about a fuel injection map," Abbott said. "He'll look at the suits, the colors, the apparel. He thinks more about the image, the energy, where we're at in the lap charts, how the race will shape up."

Ever the strategist, Jordan motivates just by his presence in the paddock, Abbott said.

"Michael just has that way about him where he can walk into a room and the energy changes," he said. "It's like, `hey, M.J.'s here.' There's a nervousness, is everything picked up and cleaned up? Then it's like, `M.J.'s here!' He's everybody's best friend, says hello to everybody, doesn't leave anybody out. He doesn't micromanage, but he wants what he wants."

Jordan is still searching for a basketball team for which he can be the majority owner.

Meanwhile, Jordan spent more time watching other basketball teams in Chicago -- those of his sons, Jeffrey, 16 and Marcus, 14.

Bill Wennington, Jordan's former teammate in Chicago, has a son who plays in the same AAU league as Jordan's sons. "Michael would sit up in the high corner of the bleachers, usually with a bodyguard," Wennington said recently.

Jordan owns restaurants, oversees his clothing brand with Nike, and still has six other endorsement contracts. In a rare appearance, Jordan showed up at the Final Four in St. Louis to cheer his Tar Heels to the national championship.

In 2002, Jordan's wife, Juanita, filed for divorce after Jordan admitted to an extramarital affair. Jordan filed suit against his former lover, Karla Knafel, for extortion, a case that is at the Illinois Supreme Court. He and Juanita reconciled.

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