“Every New Yorker was there when Bobby Thomson hit his home run to win the pennant, when Bill Buckner let the ball go through his legs in Game 6, when Roger Maris got No. 61, when the Rangers finally got the Stanley Cup. So they’ll say. And now they’ll say they were there the night Michael went for double nickels in the Garden. And Jordan isn’t even theirs, though he is everyone’s, really. If his comeback has meant anything, it is that.” — Chicago Tribune columnist Bernie Lincicome (March 29, 1995)
Barely two breaths after the final buzzer, TNT’s Craig Sager swept in to intercept him. Near midcourt of a basketball shrine, with an entire building still catching its breath and the buzz from the previous 2 1/2 hours pulsating, the night’s headliner was asked how he felt about the performance he had just given.
Michael Jordan, with his hands on his hips, began to answer with a most self-assured and infectious grin.
“It’s starting to come back to me a little bit,” Jordan said.
Bulls fans everywhere knew that grin, that look in Jordan’s eyes, what it all signified.
“I felt very good tonight,” he continued. “I shot the ball very well. I felt myself in great rhythm.”
Zero arguments. Not with Jordan’s stat line that Tuesday night in New York City: 37 shots taken, 21 made.
Three 3-pointers. Ten free throws added on 11 attempts.
That one spectacular number bursting from the points column of the box score: 55.
Bulls 113, Knicks 111.
Wow, what a show. What a reminder of all that Jordan had once been and a foreshadowing of all the possibilities that were still ahead.
It has been 25 years since that March masterpiece at Madison Square Garden, a full quarter-century since Jordan’s comeback from his first retirement awoke those feelings of invincibility in Chicago.
Jordan’s legendary fax had been sent 10 days earlier, triggering “incoming” beeps at the Berto Center with a landmark announcement crawling out on Falk Associates Management Enterprises letterhead.
By the time the Bulls made it to the Big Apple a week and a half later, Jordan had played four games in his return, four games in that unfamiliar new jersey number: 45. The hype built with his first game back against the Pacers, then another road test in Boston plus his first contest ever played at the United Center.
Heck, three nights earlier Jordan had been Jordan in Atlanta, rising for a pull-up 17-foot jumper at the buzzer and burying it for a 99-98 Bulls win.
Still, make no mistake, this gem on Broadway? This was the true “I’m back” moment, the reminder of Jordan’s scoring prowess, of his big-stage allure, of his remarkable competitiveness.
For the 34th time in his career, Jordan scored at least 50 points. He broke his own record for points scored by a Knicks opponent at Madison Square Garden.
Perhaps most remarkable, he broke a 111-111 tie in the closing seconds with — what else? — an assist, an absolute dime around a Knicks double-team. To Bill Wennington. For a dunk.
“As you look up in the stands, people are high-fiving. And we’re in New York.” — TNT color analyst Hubie Brown
Poor John Starks. One of the league’s grittiest, most fearless defenders never had a chance that night. That should have been apparent in the opening minute. On Jordan’s first shot. With the Bulls in transition, Toni Kukoc hit Jordan on the left wing. One dribble, left elbow pull-up. Good.
Next possession? Jordan again, near the top of the key. Another silky jumper. Good.
The blitzkrieg kept coming. Six of Jordan’s first seven shots went down.
Starks had been eager for this challenge. He never wanted much help defending Jordan. And Knicks coach Pat Riley was reluctant to give him much anyway, afraid of the Bulls’ spacing and the ability of Jordan’s teammates to make open shots. But no one had anticipated this, the flicker of a flame becoming an inferno so quickly.
Post up, drop step, lightning-quick drive to the bucket.
Post up, turnaround, another easy J.
The decisive drives. The poised pullups.
At the end of the first quarter, Jordan coaxed Anthony Bonner onto his heels, pulled up from the right wing and buried a 3 over the outstretched reach of Anthony Mason.
Twenty points at the end of the first quarter, 13 more in the final 4 minutes, 45 seconds before halftime, pushing him to 35.
Late in the second quarter, Jordan stole an errant Patrick Ewing pass and bolted out for a 2-on-2 transition opportunity. Starks tried to slow his penetration. But with his eyes up and his tongue out, Jordan got deep into the lane, drew a bump, double-pumped and banked home a layup while being fouled.
The aahs crested around the arena. Courtside, TNT play-by-play announcer Bob Neal bellowed his excitement.
“It feels like Beethoven has come back to write his 10th and 11th and 12th and 13th symphonies.”
“This is one of those nights in the place we know as big-game New York. Jordan comes back to the Garden for a game that will feel more like a concert, or a show, as if the sports arena has turned into Carnegie Hall, or Radio City, or the biggest theaters on Broadway. … There are no easy Knicks tickets anymore. Tonight’s ticket is impossible: There have even been 100 more requests for media credentials than is normal. Jordan changes everything, the game and the way the Garden will feel, even the way the sidewalks around the Garden will feel an hour before the game starts. These things still happen in sports. The marquee on Seventh Avenue should read ‘Michael Jordan Tonight.’ Just that.” — Mike Lupica, New York Daily News columnist
No wonder this had been such a hot ticket.
As that Tuesday night approached — Jordan’s first game back in New York since an unforgettable 97-94 Bulls win in Game 5 of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals — the anticipation continued escalating. Even in New York, where Jordan had been such a damn thorn in the Knicks’ side, the appreciation of his greatness proved irresistible.
The cheap seats for Jordan’s return to Madison Square Garden were going for $300 on the secondary market, the premium tickets demanding $1,500.
The occasion was being likened to Frank Sinatra’s unforgettable out-of-retirement concert at Madison Square Garden in 1974. There were allusions to the event being, perhaps, bigger than the second Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight there.
This wasn’t just a regular-season game between old rivals. It was first-class theater.
NBA Commissioner David Stern was in the sixth row that night, enamored himself with Jordan’s presence. “He reminds us of something,” Stern told Newsday. “He reminds us how we want our sports to be. He is back to expanding the possibilities.”
That’s what basketball fans always had been drawn to — the expanded possibilities.
When the fourth quarter began, Knicks legend Earl “The Pearl” Monroe remained riveted in his courtside seat with actor Peter Falk to his left. Monroe was asked how he would have guarded Jordan.
“First of all,” he said, “I’d make sure he didn’t get off the bus to get in the building.”
Spike Lee was nearby. Phil Donahue and Diane Sawyer too. Renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman was in attendance, as was Ed Bradley from “60 Minutes.”
Oh, and actor-slash-Chicago sports fanatic Bill Murray was courtside wearing a “World Championship Goat Roping” hat from Ozona, Texas.
No one was leaving the building. No one was going to miss Jordan getting past 50, which he did with a pull-up over Starks at the free-throw line with 3:35 remaining.
No one was going to miss the fantastic finish, with the Knicks erasing all of a nine-point fourth-quarter Bulls lead and setting up one last spurt of suspense.
The bright lights. The big stage. The late-game pressure.
“Hey, don’t count on me to shoot it every time. I can pass.” — Jordan immediately following the win
Jordan’s penultimate bucket came with just more than 2 minutes left, yet another off-the-dribble pull-up that was followed by a ferocious glare and that familiar nod of competitive intensity.
“It was like Starks wasn’t even there,” Brown noted on the broadcast.
Jordan’s final points came with a nasty pump fake. Starks bit and was now up in the air, Jordan had his space and the hang time to fade right for a go-ahead bucket.
The Bulls led 111-109.
No one had scored more points in an NBA game all season.
Still, the Bulls needed even more, and so in a timeout of a tie game with 14.6 seconds left, was there any question where Phil Jackson’s markerboard directed the ball? To Jordan, of course, on an inbounds pass from Scottie Pippen.
Do your thing, M.J.
Jordan dribbled the length of the floor, accelerated right, then stopped on a dime so abruptly that Starks rolled his left ankle. Jordan changed direction to his left as Starks recovered. Then Jordan spun quickly back right and was in the lane for a potential game-winning jumper. Only Ewing and his 8-foot wingspan had come to help.
Jordan’s dart to Wennington came with the swiftness and ferocity of a cobra strike.
Uncontested jam. Just 3.8 seconds left.
Bulls 113, Knicks 111.
Wow, what a show.
“I’d be lying if I say I came out to pass the ball,” Jordan said after the game. “I wanted to make them stop me from scoring. Which they did.”
Around the same time, Starks was in the home locker room with an ice bag around his sprained ankle. He probably could have used one for his head too.
“That’s why Jordan is the best,” he said.
For the Bulls at that time, the win was exhilarating but hardly seismic. They improved to 37-33 on the season, still 15 1/2 games behind the conference-leading Magic and clawing just to climb up from the East’s No. 6 slot.
Still, so much of that night in New York was vintage ’90s Bulls. All those moments of Jordan dominance. Pippen flashing his versatility and mixing in a first-quarter dunk that’s as vicious as any highlight reel finish anywhere. The Bulls struggling to slow Ewing and having extreme difficulty shaking the Knicks. Then in the end? Well, they dug deep and shook the Knicks as they so often had.
The teams met again three weeks later in Chicago — Jordan dropped 28 in a 21-point Bulls win. But there was no postseason rematch.
The Bulls fell to Shaquille O’Neal and the Magic in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Knicks lost in the same round, in seven games to the Pacers.
Yet on one March Tuesday night in New York City, something important was reawakened. Perhaps it was a foreshadowing of where Jordan and the Bulls were again headed — to an NBA-record 72 wins the next season, to three more NBA championships, to unquestionable dynasty status.
The hoopla around the Bulls was rising rapidly again. The team again was being mobbed getting in and out of hotels on the road. That powerful Jordan aura had returned. His sense of ease, he said, had too.
“Once I’m on the basketball court,” Jordan told Sager, “the rest of the stuff doesn’t make a difference to me. Because I’m in my dream land. This is what I enjoy doing. I love playing the game of basketball. And once I’m out here, no one can really do anything but let me play the game of basketball.”
It was indeed starting to come back to him a little bit.
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