The world was watching. More importantly, New York was watching. To have Michael Jordan be supernatural in that setting, in his fifth NBA game in 22 months, on the world's biggest basketball stage, was almost too much to ask.
But it wasn't too much to deliver. What he did to the Knicks at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night deserves a spot alongside all the other sparkling performances in his richly blessed career. Maybe a spot above them all.
Jordan shook off the rust of nearly two years, then shook the Knicks all night long. And when he had finally shaken them enough, when they finally found a way to block his path to the basket with the game on the line, he suckered them and gave a little-used teammate the chance to be the hero.
Bill Wennington, third-string center, took Jordan's pass over three defenders with 3.1 seconds left and dunked home the points that gave the Bulls a heart-wrenching 113-111 victory. But the rest of the night, Jordan was something way beyond heroic.
His 55-point show, under those circumstances, was probably greater than the 69 points he scored five years earlier against the Cavaliers; the 63 he dropped on the Celtics in the 1986 playoffs, the 55 he had against the Suns in the 1993 finals; even the 54 he scored on the Knicks in Game 4 of the 1993 Eastern Conference finals. That series, by the way, was the last time the Knicks had seen Jordan in person.
And they aren't eager to see that much of him again. "He just played his butt off," said an admiring John Starks, the first (and most frequent) of six Knicks to go before the firing squad wearing the red No. 45. "He came in and showed everybody that he's the Michael of old."
Starks even suffered the final indignity while being guarded by Jordan. Starks took Anthony Mason's inbounds pass but slipped and the ball rolled into the backcourt with 0.8 seconds left.
Even Jordan was surprised how quickly he became the Michael of old. In his first game 10 days ago, he missed 21 of 28 shots. In his fourth, Saturday in Atlanta, he scored 32 and hit the winning jumper at the buzzer.
"That's when I really got the confidence," he said.
Tuesday night he showed it all: 21 for 37 from the floor, including three of four from three-point range, 10 for 11 from the line. Twenty points in the first quarter, 35 in the first half. The overwhelming majority were jumpers, in which he simply got isolated on his man, then lost him.
Pondering the massive, playoff-level hype surrounding his return to the Garden (besides the national TV cameras, more than 300 national and international journalists were present), Jordan gave a virtuoso performance. "Tonight I just really felt confident coming in," he said. "I had low expectations for myself. I wanted to fit in, wanted to develop chemistry with my teammates."
Besides, he said, "I guess it really took four games to get my rhythm down. I was worried that it would take longer, but I'm glad it didn't."
It was the most points scored by an opposing player at the current Garden.
It was enough to make Knick Coach Pat Riley speak in almost awed tones. The man who coached Magic Johnson for nine years said: "There are some players that are simply unique, that transcend every aspect of the game. And he's the only one in the history of this game that's had the impact he has had."
Still, Jordan's efforts almost weren't enough. The Knicks led at halftime, 56-50, and the Bulls didn't make their move until everyone got involved. When they chopped a nine-point deficit to three in the third, they did it mainly without Jordan, and took a 99-90 lead with six minutes left with him on the bench.
Patrick Ewing, who scored 36 points, 14 in the fourth quarter, led the Knicks back, scoring eight unanswered points to slice the lead to 99-98. But the Knicks missed 10 foul shots in the second half.
Still, Ewing blocked shots on consecutive possessions down the stretch, including Jordan in the lane with 1:18 left. The Knicks turned that into a Starks breakaway dunk that tied it at 107 with 1:14 left, the first of three times the Knicks tied it in the closing minutes. The last was when Starks made a pair of free throws with 14.6 seconds to go.
Wennington was in the game only because the other centers, Will Perdue and Luc Longley, fouled out. "I knew Patrick would leave me, because he was leaving me to double the ball the whole game," said Wennington of his only points. "I just stepped under the basket and put it in."