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Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2015

Jordan finds satisfaction in All-Star farewell

Tuesday, February 11, 2003

He passed on the perfect ending the last time he had the chance.

So Michael Jordan didn't mind Kobe Bryant erasing the one he cobbled together in the closing seconds of the first overtime in Sunday night's All-Star game. Not that he would ever admit otherwise.

"As much as I wanted to play well," Jordan said after his East side lost 155-145, "it felt good just being out there."

Anybody who still harbored doubts about his retirement can relax. Jordan is leaving this time for good. For most of his competitive life, you couldn't have pried a sentence like that out of him with a crowbar. Now you just hope it isn't followed by a torrent of tears.

When he was younger, Jordan never worried about perfect endings or playing well, and he never, ever set foot on a court just to feel good "being out there." That was something the supporting actors said, not the guy who owned the spotlight.

But Jordan turns 40 in a week. And while that little "competition problem" his late father talked about still has Jordan in its grip -- and probably always will -- age has finally taught him a fact of life most of us are forced to learn much earlier. Nobody, not even Jordan, wins all the time.

To be sure, the night had already been humbling enough. There was the awkward maneuvering before the game to squeeze out a starting spot for Jordan, the 0-for-7 start from the field, the kitschy tribute delivered by Mariah Carey at halftime, and perhaps toughest of all, seeing defenders swat his shots away with such practiced cool that they looked as though they had been doing it all their lives.

Still, there were only 4.8 seconds left in overtime when he swerved into the corner and made a high-arching 15-footer over Phoenix's Shawn Marion to give the East a two-point lead. But the Lakers' Bryant was fouled on a 3-point attempt at the other end with a second left.

The heir apparent made the first and missed the second. Jordan came over and said something.

"I was needling him, trying to get him to miss," Jordan said.

"He was talking trash," Bryant confirmed. "Part of me felt I had a job to do, but another part of me just didn't want to do it, to be honest with you."

The competitive part won out. Bryant made the final free throw, Jordan had one final attempt blocked and the game went into double overtime for the first time. There, MVP Kevin Garnett scored nine of his 37 points while Jordan watched the final five minutes from the bench.

Afterward, someone asked if the sequence when Bryant trumped Jordan's potential winner was part of a bigger picture, akin to a symbolic passing of the torch.

"Obviously," Jordan began, almost by instinct, "I'd rather we won the game."

But then he quickly veered off down memory lane, echoing several of the things he touched during the halftime speech, about how important it was to pass on the lessons he learned from men like Julius Erving, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.

"Now I can go home and feel at peace with the game of basketball," Jordan said at halftime.

To do that, Jordan had to tie up a few other story lines. And because he understands what it means to be playing on borrowed time, he made sure to get to those. There was a reconciliation with East coach Isiah Thomas, the 10 points Jordan needed to surpass Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the leading scorer in All-Star history, and proof that the game he was leaving behind would wind up in good hands.

The first time Jordan came out of retirement, he said it was to teach the knuckleheads and the flood of youngsters pouring in some respect. The jury is still out on that one, but four of the starters Sunday -- Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O'Neal -- jumped directly from high school to the pros and there wasn't a head case among them.

A fifth starter, 7-foot-6 center Yao Ming of China, was a kind of Jordan legacy, too, part of a wave of foreign-born players that drew inspiration as youngsters from the Jordan-led Dream Team's excellent adventure in the 1992 Olympics.

Jordan traveled everywhere and anywhere for a competitive fix, a kind of modern-day Ulysses roaming the world in sneakers and baggy shorts. He could have left in the most triumphant way, after his jumper gave the Bulls a sixth title in 1998, but the second time he came back for himself.

Now, he's finally come full circle. Like the soccer great, Pele, playing for the Cosmos in New York when his best days were behind him, Jordan is on his last legs, happy to be out there, happy to pay the game back.

The rest of his season will be played out quietly, and it will end somewhere well short of his expectations, and we'll hear more of the same we heard Sunday night.

But under his breath, the greatest player of his time -- of any time, really -- will walk off the stage muttering the same thing he was probably muttering Sunday night, "If only I could get that last shot back one more time."

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.

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