Jordan's return to Chicago has extra air of importance

He's downplaying 1st game at United Center as visitor

January 19, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Everyone, it seems, is eager to get Michael Jordan back to Chicago.

Everyone, that is, except the legendary guard himself. With his first game in Chicago against the Bulls, the team he led to six championships, in the United Center, the arena his exploits practically built, looming today, Jordan has shifted into full lowering-the-expectations mode, downplaying just about any and all significance to the contest.

In other words, just another game, just another city.

"There will be a lot of media coverage, but it's not going to change my preparation for the game," said Jordan after Wednesday's 111-67 loss here to New Jersey. "I'm pretty sure I'll see a lot of friends and family members. I will greet them, but when the ball goes up, I've got to play the game of basketball.

"The Chicago uniform is different. I know that, and there are different people in those uniforms. I could understand if the players that I played with were still in those uniforms. It would be a different situation. But they're not. I'm in a different uniform. I'm with another organization, and that's the way it is."

If only it were that simple. Jordan, whose jersey hangs from the United Center rafters and whose statue adorns the plaza outside the arena, has already been through whatever catharsis is attached to playing against the only other team he had played for before this season, as he scored 29 points in Washington's 89-83 win over Chicago on Jan. 4 at MCI Center.

But this, despite Jordan's attempts to make it so, is different. This is the prodigal son returning home, or, in the sporting equivalent, Johnny Unitas strolling into Memorial Stadium in a San Diego Chargers uniform.

"He knows what Saturday's game is going to be like," said Washington coach Doug Collins, who coached Jordan for the first three years of his career in Chicago. "It's going to be noon [Chicago time] on national TV, and I'm sure that when he walks into that visiting locker room or when we pull up and he sees that statue, I can imagine what's going to be flooding through his mind. He wants to win that game."

Jordan said Wednesday that he knew that today's game "would be made into a playoff game," even though the Bulls have the worst record in the league and the Wizards, even with a four-game slide, are at .500 and in playoff contention.

In fact, if there is any edge taken off the intensity of the game, it will be because the city's attention will be divided between the goings-on at United Center and the Bears' playoff game at Soldier Field later this afternoon against the Philadelphia Eagles.

On the subject of how he ended up wearing a different uniform, Jordan said that he had "no regrets" about his decision to retire after hitting the winning shot in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals against Utah.

But, in keeping with his public stance that his decision to retire was based on the joint decision of team owner Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause to let then-coach Phil Jackson and teammate Scottie Pippen leave, Jordan maintained that he didn't want to go, either.

"Obviously, it wasn't my choice to leave," Jordan said. "I took what was given. In the end, they decided to go a different direction, and I chose not to go in that direction. I can't blame them for that. They made their choices, and I made my choices."

Jordan's only moment of sentimentality about his running with the Bulls came when he was asked about his days at the old Chicago Stadium, where he won his first three titles before it closed in 1994.

The rickety, old arena gave birth to a legend, but, as Jordan tells it, even legends eventually have to move on.

"I loved Chicago Stadium, and I think everybody knows that," Jordan said. "But when they tore down the stadium, I had to play in the United Center. I had to make my adjustments. I liked the Boston Garden, but now I play in the FleetCenter. It's a part of life. Things get replaced and people move on. You accept it. You may have your favorites, and something you prefer, but that goes with the territory."

NOTES: Forward Christian Laettner, who has missed the past 14 games with a broken leg, was activated off the injured list. Laettner is expected to play today, but Collins said that Popeye Jones will probably start. Also, the team also said that tests on rookie Kwame Brown, who was suspected of having a fatigue problem, have come back negative.

Wizards today

Opponent: Chicago Bulls

Site: United Center, Chicago

Time: 1 p.m.

TV/Radio: Chs. 11, 4/WTEM (980 AM)

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