Waning Jordan wins in Chicago

His return to Windy City as Wizard proves trying: `I'm very glad it's over'

January 20, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO - By the time yesterday's game at the United Center ended, Michael Jordan felt the weight of the statue in his likeness had been lifted from his shoulders.

Certainly, coming back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago, for the first time in his 13-year career as an opponent, took an emotional toll on Jordan, one that was obvious from the time he was announced in the starting lineup to his embrace of longtime Bulls announcer Johnny "Red" Kerr at the end of the game.

Luckily, Jordan's Washington Wizards teammates were able to take up the slack on the floor, as they managed a 77-69 victory that defines the word "ugly."

Afterward, Jordan, who managed 16 points and 12 rebounds in a game-high 41 minutes, reflected on one of the most trying days of his storied career, and pronounced himself none too eager to repeat it anytime soon.

"I'm very glad it's over," Jordan said. "I think a lot's been made of this game and it wasn't a particularly good game to watch. I'm glad we won the game. Now we go on to Minnesota, and hopefully the next time we come in here, there's not so much hype. Hopefully, it was good for ratings."

A nearly national television audience saw Jordan look a lot less like the player who led the Bulls to six NBA titles and more like, well, a 38-year-old. Jordan just missed a triple double. But the third statistical component was a career-high nine turnovers.

Jordan said the emotion of the day overwhelmed him. The Bulls franchise did not orchestrate any special event to commemorate his return. And neither team owner Jerry Reinsdorf nor general manager Jerry Krause, both of whom Jordan has feuded with since he left the Bulls after the 1998 title season, were present for the game.

But the Chicago fans, even with their interest distracted by the Bears-Philadelphia Eagles playoff game, showed their appreciation for Jordan's heroics, cheering him for more than a minute after his name was called in the starting lineup, an ovation that would have lasted longer had the lights not come down for the Bulls' introductions.

It was a moment that nearly drove Jordan to tears.

"When the crowd started that whole thing, it was tough for me to play," Jordan said. "I had a tough time playing against Chicago [yesterday]. It's almost like playing against a relative, in a sense. It's not as intensified or as motivated, but they gave me the highest respect. Thank God they cut the lights out or else we'd be sitting there still. It was really tough to play against Chicago fans."

Once the game started, Jordan, who is just 16-for-56 from the field in his past three games, clearly struggled with his shot, due in no small part to rugged defense applied by forward Ron Artest.

"Michael wanted to win this game badly," said Washington coach Doug Collins, who coached Jordan in Chicago early in his career. "Ron Artest played him very well. He's a good, strong defender and played against Michael all summer. Michael was mad every time I took him out. He said his legs were fresh. I told him I'd just keep him out a minute as I knew it was important for him to win here."

Jordan's new Washington teammates, namely forward Popeye Jones (game-high 14 rebounds) and point guard Chris Whitney (20 points, all in the second half) took up the slack.

Whitney was 10-for-10 from the foul line, all coming in the final minute of the game. It was too much for the Bulls (8-31), who played abysmally on offense for 3 1/2 quarters - shooting a franchise-record low 16.7 percent in the first half, and a season-low 24.7 percent - but made a late charge, whittling a 17-point Washington lead to six with 26.5 seconds left on a Ron Mercer three-pointer.

With the win, the Wizards (19-18) not only ended a four-game losing streak, but matched their victory total for all of last season. That may not seem like much for a man who has come to define winning to a generation of basketball fans. But for Jordan, the win, coming in the city where he made his fame and fortune, represents one more step in an athletic life.

"We've got guys who are elevating and helping out, even when I'm shooting 7-for-21," Jordan said. "That's the beauty of what's happening with this franchise. The only way this franchise is going to grow is if they don't sit back and wait for me. I'm not the same player I was in 1998, and as much as my competitive nature relishes trying to carry a team or a franchise, that's not a goal that I can meet. That takes a lot for me to say, given the competitive nature that I have.

"For the success of this franchise, guys are going to have to understand that they have to elevate their game and play above their heads. That to me is the challenge of trying to find a way to win in ugly situations. Obviously, this wasn't a great game and we found a way to win, and that's a big step in the right direction."

Next for Wizards

Opponent: Minnesota Timberwolves

Site: Target Center, Minneapolis

Time: Tomorrow, 6 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/WTEM (980 AM)

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