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Alternate History

What If Jordan Had Made A Comeback at 50

Michael Jordan will soon be 60 years old but he teased the idea several times of playing at 50. The most famous was in his Hall of Fame speech where he said “One day you might look up and see me playing the game at 50.” There were audible laughs in the audience, and then he seemed to take offense and say “oh don’t laugh, none of that” with a tone of seriousness. “Never say never, because limits, like fears, are often an illusion”. That was 2009 and he was 46 years old. I got to say at the time I really thought it was a possibility he might try to come back at 50. The fact the audience laughed seemed like it could be the motivation, he was looking for to make it even more likely to happen.

If you have ever read about the psychology of Jordan, he often created these kinds of situations where people didn’t believe in him to motivate himself. Personally, I was really rooting for it. I would have liked to have seen what he could have done at an age no one is still playing basketball at. There is no analog for it in a sport like a basketball. If he failed or looked bad, I certainly wouldn’t have held it against him in any way. I would have just considered it cool to see him in the NBA again and one of the biggest stories in sports history.

At the time, he was still working out with the Bobcats (and reportedly schooling them) and even stated he wanted to get back to his playing weight. He said his new wife had never seen him like that. There was a considerable amount of smoke that he could make the comeback. The first time it seemed like a possibility was in December 2007 when he showed up and started playing members of the bobcats like Raymond Felton, Gerald Wallace, and Jason Richardson and held his own.

This was a couple of months before his 45th birthday, and you can see him scoring over Gerald Wallace in the video. The Bobcats GM states on camera that there isn’t a doubt in his mind Jordan could come back and be effective in the NBA right now. Considering how well he was still playing for the Wizards at the age of 40 I don’t have much doubt he could have still been an NBA rotation player either at 45 years old, but what about 50? This at least splits some of the difference and gets us closer to that answer.

Jordan was still active and would play some with the Bobcats over the next 5 years. In 2013 at the age of 50 he reportedly beat Michael Kidd-Gilchrist one on one. Kidd Gilchrist was just 19 at the time, but it’s still evidence that he could at least be effective. Kidd-Gilchrist averaged 9ppg, 5.8rpg with a 14.0 PER. He wasn’t a terrible player in reality. Certainly on defense, with the athletic ability, he should have been able to hold his own and get around Jordan driving to the basket. It likely was a pretty even match up of completely opposite styles and abilities. Another with one of the best mid range fadeaway jumpshot weapons there was. Along with all the craft and footwork high IQ know-how of a veteran. Very different but it would have been a fun match up of contrast. It was clear evidence Jordan still had some tools to compete with. He was also still playing with others on the team like Gerald Henderson and Bismack Biyombo. I thought Biyombo had the most genuine quote. He said he could still play and help them, it was just a matter if he wanted to.

The stage was certainly set, and Jordan’s trainer Tim Grover said there was a plan in place for him to comeback at age 50. He also thought it was going to happen, and said if it did, he would still be a very good NBA player. This is the same trainer that was still training Kobe Bryant and Dwayne Wade at the time. He went on to say Jordan could average 20ppg, which to me seems delusional. That said, if your trainer believes in you that much, and he’s still seeing working with top 10 players at the time, that does say something. He had also seen Jordan’s age regression and from the last time he was in the NBA averaging 20ppg, so I think we have to trust him some. At least physically, he believed he could get him to a point where he could play effectively, at least.

So What It Might Have Looked Like

Jalen Rose predicted on ESPN that Jordan would come back and play one game at age 50. This actually isn’t unprecedented in sports. Satchel Paige came back and played in one game at the age of 58, fourteen years after he retired. Financially, it would have also made a lot of sense for Jordan as the owner of the Bobcats to be able to sell Jordan bobcat jerseys and more shoes. There was a rule that owners couldn’t play in the NBA, but I see zero issues where that is a problem that doesn’t get worked out for Jordan. Having his comeback would have been nothing but positive for the NBA as a whole.

I’m more of the belief that if Jordan did make the commitment to get in the kind of shape he would have demanded himself to be in, I don’t think he would have wanted to come back for just one game. I think if he was doing it, it would have been done more seriously. I don’t think he would have played 82 games though. What I could have seen happening is him coming back at or around his 50th birthday, which was conveniently February 17th. The same day, the All Star game was held. (That would have certainly been a game he ceremoniously could have competed in). The Bobcats would have had 29 games left that season had he come back on Febuary 19th just after his 50th birthday. Playing 20 or 25 so games out of those 29 with days of rest for back to backs off for heavier weeks and finishing that season was certainly a more doable task. It would have also helped sell tickets and drive interest in a Charlotte team that was terrible and would have welcomed him. It was just the team to do it too. It would have been good for the NBA, Charlotte, and Jordan. I believe it could have added to his legacy as well.

John McEnroe

Tennis is a much different sport, but one that physically you have to be athletic and have the stamina to compete in. It’s not like a Quarter Back, Pitcher, Boxer etc where you are just throwing a ball or punching. You are running around for hours with quick bursts where you need to be athletic. John McEnroe once said when asked at 58 years old what he would rank on the world. He said number 1200 in the world. He was a former #1 player in the world in tennis and probably one of the top 10 best players ever for context.

I watched McEnroe play a guy that was ranked about 300 in the world competitively at 59 year old so that seems realistic. He also said the club he trained at played at had 38 pro’s and some high-level juniors, so he had an intimate grasp of competition at an advanced age from playing them on a weekly basis. It’s really the only close analog I can think of in the athletic-based sport of a 50-something who was still training seriously, for the senior tour, and playing professionals. If 58 year old John McEnroe said he could be the 1200th best player in the world. I have to think 50 year old Michael Jordan could be top 800 in his sport at worst and probably somewhere in the 400-800 range in the world. That’s just my interpretation, as basketball would still be a more difficult sport to compete in at that age than Tennis.

Vince Carter

Carter is one of the most athletic players to ever play the game, and probably the closest analog athletically to Jordan of all the players that played into their 40’s. I think Vince was more athletic at 40 than Jordan was.

Carter had such a surplus of athletic ability that allowed him to still look like an average NBA athlete at age 43. He didn’t look out of place at all. Although he was playing more Power Forward at this point, he was still easily getting up for dunks and was a productive NBA role player.

Vince Carter
agegamesMinutesppgrpgPERPF/C % of Mins
427617.57.42.611.856%
436014.652.17.594%

As you can see Carter was still a solid player at 42, but when it goes it can go pretty quickly. Most of that regression came from not shooting the ball as well from 3 point range. 38% to 30%. That’s probably noisiness, but what isn’t was the fact he was pushed much more to the post. If Jordan was ever going to comeback, you have to expect he is playing mostly at PF. Even as a Wizard he was already pushed up in the lineup to SF, playing 79% of his minutes at SF, and even 5% at PF in an era where the NBA had bigger PF’s.

The NBA had evolved a lot by 2013 from where it was in 2003, but it was still harder to play a 6-6 guy like Jordan or Carter at PF in 2013 than it was in 2021. There would have been no choice, though, a 50 year old Jordan on defense is where the biggest liability to him staying on the court would have been. You would have had to hide him on PF’s on defense, as he couldn’t chase wings by that point. The scoring I think wouldn’t have been an issue. The craftiness and fadeaway would have still worked. I think Jordan was a much better player than Carter, and Carter at 43 years old would be as close of an analog as we are going to get of Jordan at 50. What is encouraging was that Carter could play 60 games. Jordan at 50 could have played 20 or 30 I believe and recovered enough to be effective game to game.

Michael Jordan
agegamesMinutesppgrpgPER
408237.020.06.119.3

Probably the most impressive aspect of that season for Jordan was playing 82 games at 37 minutes a game. We have to remember he was a durable player. He was 31st that season in PER, 39th in VORP, 51st in BPM. Think it’s safe to say he was around a top 35 player in the NBA at age 40. I estimate if he came back at 50 he’s probably the 400th-best player in the world. He’d be capable of scoring. I think he would demand to play about 25 minutes a game, and on the Bobcats that year it wouldn’t have been an issue. In think given what Carter did at 43 Jordan comes in on a similar pace, playing a similar position of PF and his numbers look similar to this over the last 25 games of the season.

Michael Jordan
agegamesMinutesppgrpgapgPER
502525.010.03.82.58.0

Antwan Jamison said he thought he could still average 10 or 11 ppg at the time. I think so as well. If 19 year old Kidd-Gilchrist could average 9ppg in 26 minutes a game with a shot like this

I think 10 or 11 ppg from Jordan at 50 is entirely reasonable. I don’t think Jordan would have been efficient at all. He really wasn’t even with the Wizards, but on that Bobcats team he would get up shots. He might get 20 shots up some games, He probably would have had a true shooting of around 45%. I expect there would have been several games he got hot with the fade way and scored 20 points. He would probably have had some highlight passes and made some players look foolish with his IQ and footwork, and the massive hands and ball fakes. It could have been a fun story.

Why it didn’t happen

I suspect Jordan wanted to make a comeback, privately and planned on it at 46. I don’t think you say what he did at the Hall of Fame speech and have zero interest in that.. I think what he found was that while he may realistically have done it as credibly at 46, as you age the aging process speeds up. I would imagine he knew by 50 that he wasn’t at a level he could have competed like he wanted and probably thought he could at 45 or 46. That’s not to say he couldn’t have still been a top 400-600 player in the world, which is the range you probably need to be to credibly compete in the NBA.

I think that he also probably found that getting his body to the level he wanted, while not impossible, was certainly much harder than expected. He was reportedly 260lbs, so he would have needed to lose at least 30 or 40lbs, and as stated before he said he was trying to drop weight for his wife. I think ultimately after floating the idea he pulled the plug for these reasons mainly the weight and his overall game not being what where he thought it would have been 4 years earlier when I think he was eying it. He would have known where he was at as a player while working out with his team over those years.

There is also the scoring average, which is a nice clean 30.1ppg that was at risk of dropping below 30ppg. I think it would have been truly worth it. There probably are only a few players that have ever lived that could even entertain the idea of playing in the NBA at 50 years old. Even with Jordan it would have been on the borderline if it had fallen in the category of a stunt or if he legitimately was still a top 400 player in the world worthy of a roster spot. It’s fun to think about, and I do believe it was considered by Jordan, I wish we got the answer.

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