NEW YORK -- This was not the way it was supposed to begin.
With the game on the line, Michael Jordan missed and then he missed again. In between, he tried to pass over the top of the Knicks' defense but threw the ball away. On the slim evidence of a single game, at least the first one that counted, the man defined by winning is now going to have to learn how to deal with losing.
The first basket of his Third Coming carried faint echoes of the Jordan that used to be.
Barely 90 seconds into the game, Jordan faked a drive to his right, cut left past Latrell Sprewell and switched the ball to his right hand just in time to slip it under and then around New York center Felton Spencer for a finger-roll layup.
But there were more than a few glimpses of the 38-year-old former front-office boss who is nowhere near the Jordan that left the game three seasons ago near the peak of his considerable powers. And never was that more evident than at the end of the Knicks' 93-91 win over the Washington Wizards.
"What did Michael have, six assists, four steals and five rebounds?" Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "He makes two more shots and you say, 'Wow, he had a great game."'
But first you have to look past the 7-for-21 shooting night, the last of the three turnovers and the fact that advancing age and the NBA's decision to allow teams to play zone defense might have reduced the best player ever to little more than a wily veteran with perhaps the best midrange game going.
The question all along was not whether Jordan could score, but whether he could do enough to make the team around him better. The answer at the moment is no.
"It could have been a great outcome, but it's the beginning of a long season," Jordan said. "That's the way I look at it."
But that's not the way his opponents will.
"He's used to being around Scottie Pippen and guys knocking down shots around him," Sprewell said. "We definitely forced their team to have guys make the plays other than Michael. It just worked out for us tonight."
Several times in the opening half, Jordan let fly with a jumper, turned while the outcome was still in doubt and loped back up the court with the arrogance of a man who knows thousands of those shots have fallen before. He turned out to be right only once.
He was 5-for-13 at halftime, and then the cold shooting set in. Jordan turned aside fatigue as an excuse and refused to blame the tendinitis that nagged at his knees during a summer packed with four-hour workouts.
"The knees have been bothering me a little bit," he said, "but they felt fine tonight."
Left unsaid, by Jordan, anyway, was the five days of practice he skipped to let those knees rest. Because the Wizards hold closed practices, no one but his coach and teammates knew his preparation for the opener effectively ended with the last exhibition game Friday.
But a reporter who saw Jordan return to the lobby of his Central Park hotel after a shootaround Tuesday morning saw him wobbling, wearing icepacks on both knees.