Shots are short, but memories are long

Wizard's return gives foes a sinking feeling

November 01, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Pete Babcock couldn't recall the specifics of the game, what transpired in the more than 47 minutes that preceded Michael Jordan's winning shot. What the Atlanta Hawks general manager remembered yesterday was the anticipation of victory being drained from his body as he watched the ball go in.

It happened more than six years ago, shortly after Jordan had come back to play with the Chicago Bulls. Struggling in his first few games after spending a season playing minor-league baseball, the top-of-the-key jumper over Steve Smith at the buzzer gave the Bulls a 99-98 victory.

"A sick feeling, like everyone else he's done that to," Babcock said yesterday by telephone from Atlanta, where Jordan and his new team, the Washington Wizards, will play the Hawks in an 8 p.m. nationally televised game at Phillips Arena. "He's done it so many times.

"We had played so well all night, and all we had to do was make one more stop. In that situation, you know where the ball is going to go, who's going to take the shot, but you're still helpless to stop it. That's what great players do. I remember Magic doing it to us when I was in Denver in the playoffs one year."

Jordan celebrated his first game-winning shot in his first comeback by racing to midcourt at The Omni and pounding the floor. It gave him 32 points for the night and seemed to propel Jordan back to his status as the game's best player. He scored 55 in his team's next game against the Knicks in New York.

With the Hawks in Houston on Tuesday night, Babcock was unaware that Jordan had a chance to do something nearly as dramatic against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden. But Jordan missed a 25-foot three-point shot in the waning moments of a season-opening 93-91 defeat.

It capped off a poor shooting performance for Jordan in his return to the NBA after a three-year retirement and his first official game with the Wizards. The 38-year-old legend missed 14 of 21 shots, finishing with 19 points, six assists, five rebounds and four steals in 37 minutes.

"You know Michael, he's so competitive," new Wizards coach Doug Collins said after making his own return to the sidelines. "He's disappointed. He wanted to win the game tonight. I thought he did fine. He missed a few shots. He really hadn't practiced [because of a sore knee] since our last exhibition."

Jordan didn't want to use the tendinitis in his knee as an excuse, but said the few days away from practice might have contributed to his erratic shooting. What also led to Jordan's poor shooting was New York double-teaming him on many possessions, especially in the fourth quarter.

"I guess the biggest difference is that I'm a little bit older than I was the last time I shot the ball," said Jordan, who practiced on a limited basis in Atlanta yesterday. "My game's a little bit different, my teammates are a little bit different. Obviously, the outcome tonight was a little different than I wanted, but I feel good about myself and what the team did tonight."

The Knicks seemed more surprised than even Jordan did that he missed the three-pointer, as well as an off-balance 17-footer that faded weakly to the side of the rim a little earlier, or that he made a crucial turnover that led to a basket by Allan Houston.

Houston wasn't quite sure if the fans in the Garden were pulling for Jordan or the Knicks toward the end.

"I think there were some mixed emotions," said Houston, who finished with 22 points and teamed with Latrell Sprewell (28 points) to take control of the game down the stretch. "Some people wanted him to make that shot and some people were happy."

Considering Jordan's popularity in Atlanta, that could be the sentiment tonight.

Starting with his first appearance with the Bulls in his third NBA season, Jordan has helped sell out whatever venue he has played in in the city. His last appearance during the 1997-98 season drew an NBA-record 62,000 to the Georgia Dome.

Babcock is looking forward to the big crowd and the excitement surrounding Jordan's return. Upon seeing when the first meeting of the teams fell on the schedule, and where it was being played, Babcock thought about that game in March of 1995.

"I wouldn't vote for a repeat performance," he said.

NOTES: Rookie center Kwame Brown's first appearance in his home state will have to wait until later in the season. Brown, who grew up in Brunswick, Ga., sprained his right ankle in Tuesday's game against the Knicks. Though X-rays were negative, Brown is listed as doubtful for tonight.

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