NEW YORK - What began with more hype and electricity than any season-opening game in recent NBA history fizzled instead of sizzled for Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards late in the second half last night against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden.
Jordan was quieted by a swarming Knicks defense and an erratic jump shot, and the Wizards couldn't hold a fourth-quarter lead.
After losing rookie Kwame Brown with an ankle injury, the Wizards wound up losing to the Knicks, 93-91.
Making his return to the NBA after a three-year absence and playing before a worldwide audience, Jordan finished with 19 points on 7-for-21 shooting, and missed a couple of big shots down the stretch.
"My shot today was pretty short and pretty flat," Jordan said. "It could have been a great situation, but it's the beginning of a long season - that's the way I look at it."
Trailing 87-83 with a little under three minutes left, Washington cut its deficit to one on a three-pointer by reserve forward Tyrone Nesby. After Latrell Sprewell scored on a second-chance basket for the Knicks, Jordan made a 17-footer to make it 89-88 with 1:11 to play.
The Wizards had a chance to take the lead after Allan Houston missed for the Knicks, but Jordan's 18-footer faded to the right of the rim. Sprewell missed, but the Knicks got the rebound and the Wizards fouled Othella Harrington, who hit a pair of free throws for a 91-88 lead with 34.4 seconds left.
Jordan had a chance to provide the Wizards with the kind of magic moments he had given the Chicago Bulls here for so many years. After turning the ball over, Jordan got it back but missed a 25-footer.
"The game is a little bit different, my teammates are a little bit different, and obviously the outcome tonight is a little different from what I wanted," Jordan said. "But I feel good about myself and about what the team did tonight, and we have to continue to work in the right direction."
Kurt Thomas got the rebound of Jordan's miss, was fouled, and made both free throws for a five-point Knicks lead.
The Wizards had one more chance after Chris Whitney stole a pass and made a three to cut the deficit to two, 93-91. Mark Jackson was fouled, but missed the first free throw and purposely missed the second. Sprewell led New York with 28 points, but even the Knicks were talking about Jordan.
"I tell you what, I think he was a dominant player on the floor. He didn't shoot particularly well," Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said.
The Wizards didn't look like the team that slogged through a 2-6 preseason for much of the first half last night. Despite missing 14 of their first 20 shots - including three of eight for Jordan - the Wizards still managed to build an early lead. They also managed to recapture the lead with Jordan out of the game.
Trailing 16-14, Washington went on a 7-0 run while finishing the first quarter with a 21-19 lead. With Jordan back on the floor to start the second quarter, and with Whitney giving the Wizards a lift off the bench, the Wizards built their lead to as many as 11, at 35-24, when Jordan hit Popeye Jones on a 50-foot pass for a layup.
Though Jordan looked a little rusty in the first half, the Knicks looked awful. Playing without an injured Marcus Camby, New York turned into a team of jump shooters. Jordan went back to the bench with the Wizards ahead 39-30, but went back in after the Knicks cut their deficit to 43-39 with 1:11 left in the half.
It didn't help. The Knicks scored on a rebound tip by Harrington and Jordan took too much time off the clock, finding Richard Hamilton as the buzzer on the 24-second buzzer was going off. Jordan finished the half with 11 points on 5-for-13 shooting. He also had four assists and three rebounds.
As happened throughout the preseason, Jordan had received a standing ovation after being welcomed back to the league by New York Gov. George Pataki during the pre-game ceremonies and again when the starting lineups were introduced. A few boos could be heard through the cheers.
Though the ticket scalpers had gone cold in the preceding 24 hours amid government warnings of possible terrorist attacks and a few new anthrax cases in the city, there was an electricity in anticipation of Jordan's debut with the Wizards.
The circus-like atmosphere surrounding the game started hours earlier, as Jordan was heading out after morning shootaround. He was surrounded by a mob of reporters and cameramen who were among the 600 credentialed for the game, including a television crew from China.
At one point, Jordan was asked if just returning to a court on which he had had so much success - even with the absence of former Knicks Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and John Starks - was enough to stir some memories of past performances.
"I talked to Patrick yesterday," Jordan said of his former Olympic Dream teammate who now plays for the Orlando Magic. "Obviously I miss those guys. They've got enough quality players here, you just can't overlook them. It does bring back memories, but you have to focus on the game at hand."
Among the celebrities in the crowd was Knicks' season-ticket holder and famed Jordan protagonist Spike Lee, who auctioned the seat usually occupied by his wife on Yahoo.com. The proceeds from the $101,300 bid went to the Twin Towers Fund.
The anonymous bidder gave the seat to Jessica DeRubbio, 12, whose father David was a fireman for Engine Co. 226 in Brooklyn who lost his life doing his job following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11. Lee was told that David DeRubbio was a lifelong Knicks fan.