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M.J. was never afraid to fail

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Remember this about Michael Jordan: He was never afraid to fail.

Whether it was swinging at a baseball during his first hiatus, or his insistence on taking the last shot every time it mattered, Jordan never minded missing.

One night in the playoffs toward the end of his career, the Bulls trailed by a point and Jordan missed the last shot. In the locker room afterward, he wore a crooked smile. "It happens," he said. "I've missed dozens of those." It was a curious thing to say, since a commercial that was running on TV at the time played on Jordan's vulnerability. It ended with a close-up of a ball clanging off the rim and Jordan's disembodied voice saying it had happened to him more times than he cared to remember.

A few days later, someone went back and counted. Turns out the number of times Jordan missed a last shot when it mattered was less than six. When someone told him that, he shook his head and said, "Dozens."

The wonder of Jordan is that he always kept score. If he's missed dozens of shots to win games, then Jordan was counting all the way back to those one-on-ones against his older brother Larry on the dirt basketball court behind their house in Wilmington, N.C.

Every other kid who ever dreamed of being a pro basketball player takes thousands of shots in practice and during games, but not one of them can remember every miss that mattered. Jordan can. It's the reason he never stopped taking them, the reason why he's coming back. To become the world's greatest athlete, first you have to become the most driven.

At 38, Jordan won't be as fast as he was the last time we saw him. He won't jump as high, or be able to go nonstop for 48 minutes. All those budding NBA superstars who can't wait to get their hands on Jordan will now get their turn. They would do well to remember something that Ron Artest said Tuesday: "I can't wait to see him play."

Artest plays forward for the Bulls, and during one of the more heated games at Jordan's summer scrimmages, he cracked the master's ribs. And now Artest can't wait to see him play.

For all that, Jordan will have to be spectacular night in and night out — and unbelievably lucky — to win as many games with the Washington Wizards as he is going to lose. He knows that. And he's already made peace with the idea that Kobe Bryant or Vince Carter will fly higher, and leave Jordan clutching air in the background. He did it to everybody else.

But what Bryant and Carter, and Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady and all those other kids licking their chops at the moment are about to learn, filling up one frame doesn't make a movie. They'll be younger, more athletic and most important of all, they'll be surrounded by considerably more talent. But they'll have to learn the only way to beat Jordan is by going through him time and time again.

It's easy to be cynical about what's being billed as "The Third Coming." Jordan said he was doing it for the love of the game, but he's already beyond rich and he'll be even richer when it's over. He said he was doing it to show the kids who work for him firsthand how to play the game. Some people think that's just masking tape covering an ego that needs constant massaging. There's probably some truth to all of it. Or it may be that Jordan is coming back simply because he can.

All the people who saw Jordan hit .202 during his brief, undistinguished, minor-league baseball career never saw him in the batting cage two hours before anybody else arrived, taking cuts against a pitching machine until he broke enough blisters to make his hands bleed. He played every basketball game with the same maniacal devotion since he was a kid.

That's why Jordan was never afraid to miss, and why he's not afraid now. The young Washington Wizards, the rest of the wannabe Mikes in the league, and all of us looking on are about to watch Jordan embark on a mission that can't possibly succeed. But anybody who pays attention will be reminded that failing isn't nearly as painful as not trying at all.