Jordan returns to NBA

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

NEW YORK -- Michael Jordan wasn't exactly No. 23 of old and he missed his biggest shot of the night in his return to the NBA.

Looking more like a promising playmaker than one of the game's greats, Jordan spent the majority of his minutes at point guard in his regular-season debut for the Washington Wizards after a 3 1/2-year retirement.

He scored 19 points and passed the ball as much as he shot it, getting six assists but making a few key mistakes that the old Jordan might not have made in a 93-91 loss Tuesday to the New York Knicks.

Jordan had a chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer from in front of the Knicks' bench with 18 seconds left, but missed the shot -- one of 14 misses in 21 attempts. He also had two turnovers late in the fourth, and an airball and a missed layup in the first quarter that diminished a final stat line that included five rebounds and four steals in 37 minutes.

The Knicks took an 87-86 lead into the final two minutes, and after Latrell Sprewell hit a turnaround, Jordan answered with a 21-footer -- his first field goal of the quarter -- to cut New York's lead to 89-88.

The 38-year-old Jordan missed his next shot, also a jumper, and then failed to outjump Kurt Thomas, allowing him to grab an offensive rebound. That led to a pair of foul shots by Othella Harrington with 34 seconds left for a three-point lead.

Jordan threw an ill-advised pass that was stolen on Washington's next possession, but Christian Laettner stole the ball back. After Jordan missed the 3-point attempt, Thomas was fouled on the rebound and made both shots for a 93-88 lead that all but ended it.

Sprewell led New York with 28 points, including 13 in the fourth quarter, and Allan Houston had 22 to reach 10,000 points for his career.

Chris Whitney scored 18 points to lead the rest of the Wizards, who would have made Jordan's return a much bigger success if they had converted a few of his precise passes into field goals.

As bad as his teammates looked for three quarters, they managed to open the fourth quarter with an 8-0 run and take a 71-69 lead before Jordan checked in with 8:57 left. Jordan hit his next shot and got an assist on his next pass, helping the Wizards maintain a slim lead.

The game stayed close the rest of the way, setting up an ending that could have been dramatic if Jordan had been a little more accurate with his shot. He ended up missing four of his final five attempts and showed no emotion when the game ended.

Wearing his familiar uniform No. 23 but the unfamiliar colors of blue, black and gold, Jordan made his much-anticipated comeback before a sellout crowd at Madison Square Garden -- the site of some of his greatest moments.

He was cheered during player introductions, jeered when he tossed up an airball less than three minutes into the game and scrutinized on every move the rest of the night.

When the Wizards tried to run the offense through Jordan in the low post, the Knicks immediately double-teamed him and made him throw his passes with his back to the basket.

So Washington decided to let Jordan bring the ball upcourt, and he consistently found open teammates with crisp and crafty passes that too often resulted in bobbled balls and missed jumpers.

Jordan's first touch 10 seconds into the game resulted in a pass to Christian Laettner for a shot that clanged off the rim. Jordan also missed his first jumper -- a 17-footer that hit hard off the back rim -- before he used a surprisingly quick first step to drive around Sprewell 90 seconds into the game for a finger-roll that bounced around and in.

They were Jordan's first points since he hit a jumper over Utah's Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals to give the Chicago Bulls their sixth championship.

Jordan went on to hit successive jumpers against the Knicks, although he had another less-than-great moment when he missed a contested breakaway layup after intercepting a pass by Mark Jackson.

Jordan finished the first half with 11 points, four assists, three rebounds and three steals. He had only four points and one rebound in the third quarter.

The night was special not only because of Jordan's comeback, but because of the pregame routine that was changed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Every person entering the building was screened with a hand-held metal detector, and the Knicks put on a pregame presentation without its usual glitz.

Rather than introducing players one by one as they normally would, both teams lined up on opposite foul lines with members of the armed services, postal service, and police and fire departments. A police drum corps played as each of them was introduced.

Jordan received a loud ovation from the fans, who were already on their feet by the time he was introduced. Some of the players and Washington coach Doug Collins sang along to "God Bless America."

Earlier in the day, Jordan offered some of his thoughts on all the Washington Wizards' doubters out there.

"You know, the unknown is dangerous," Jordan said. "Everyone speculates, but no one knows -- and I think that's a part of the challenge.

"This young team, although they've never won anything and have never really been put in a situation to win, may be a story in the making."

NOTES: Kwame Brown, the No. 1 pick in the draft, scored his first NBA points on a layup with 7:08 left in the fourth. He had a chance for a three-point play but missed the free throw. Brown turned his ankle with 5 1/2 minutes left and did not return... Charlie Ward was ejected for a flagrant foul (category two) with 6:28 left after he clobbered Popeye Jones on a breakaway. ... Felton Spencer started at center for New York in place of Marcus Camby (sore foot). He played 12 minutes and outscored Washington center Jahidi White 3-1. ... David Checketts, ousted as president of Madison Square Garden last spring, returned to the building and sat in the fifth row near midcourt. ... Among those sitting courtside were Mark Messier, Bill Bradley and Jordan's agent, David Falk.

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