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MONUMENTAL MOMENT

Kiss him goodbye?

This could be the end of something big. The Chicago Bulls play Utah again tonight, intent on closing out the Jazz, all the while hoping and praying it isn’t the end of Michael Jordan’s career. But nobody knows, apparently not even Jordan.

What guarantee is there, in any event, that the man and the moment--Jordan and the NBA finals--that defined the NBA, or sport, in the ‘90s, will ever meet again?

Even if he consents to return to some kind of patched-together team without Coach Phil Jackson, who is as good as gone, and Scottie Pippen, who reasserted Thursday that he’s leaving too, who says the new entity will make it back here?

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No, Jordan doesn’t want to tip his hand, but, yes, all this has occurred to him. Tonight may be it.

“Well,” Jordan said, “it’s going to be hard for me not to think of it in that way.

“I’m going to think of it in a way that, we’re finishing off the season and from the beginning we wanted to play and win our last game.

“And what evolves over the summer will make me think about what this game actually meant--either the team’s going to be broken up and Phil is going to go his way and Scottie and I are going to go our way. . . . “

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Jordan, as ever, hopeful to the end, is almost incapable of imagining things won’t work out. However, Pippen might be going his own way too, leaving Jordan on his own, though Pippen seemed to soften recently, probably under unrelenting pleas from you know whom.

“The thing I always tell Scottie,” Jordan said, ". . . is always keep your options open. Don’t close the door. I closed it one time [retiring and vowing never to return] and next thing, you have to open it back up.”

However, people close to Pippen say, emotionally at least, he has already left the building. Even if he’s offered a multiyear deal, he isn’t inclined to stay to see Jordan retire in a year, with Jackson gone and his archenemy, General Manager Jerry Krause, directing the rebuilding of their ruined empire.

“I don’t have any intention of coming back here next season, even though I stated a couple of days ago that I would look to come back,” Pippen said Thursday.

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“I think this is the last run for this ballclub and I want to look to go out and explore all the opportunities.”

Jackson is so far gone, he’s urging Jordan to come with him: “What better time would there be to retire if you won the championship? I can’t think of a better time for Michael to do that than this year.”

No Jackson, probably no Pippen--what would Jordan have to come back to besides his buddies, the Jerrys, Reinsdorf and Krause?

In other words, enjoy this one night, which is all we’re guaranteed. One way or another, it’s late in this game.

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Who Was That Guy, Anyway?

That’s easy. He was the best who ever was.

Larry Bird, a tough man with a compliment, called him “God disguised as Michael Jordan.” That was when Jordan was 22, years before he began the run that may reach six titles in six full seasons.

Magic Johnson, another man who acknowledged few peers, says he can’t bear to think of this league--in which he is part-owner of a team--without Jordan.

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That is, Jordan is the best basketball player ever. That doesn’t mean he was the greatest man, or anything like it. He usually remembers that although, under constant adulation, he sometimes starts holding out his arms to his people, as if he has just strolled down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets.

This week, for example, he’s into a crusade of getting rings for teammates Joe Kleine, who isn’t on the playoff roster, and Scott Burrell--"my pet project"--who’s clinging to the bottom of Jackson’s rotation. Last spring, it was assistant coach Frank Hamblen.

Burrell is known by teammates as one of the most clueless players to struggle in the triangle offense, which is why Jordan has made him a project. The people who have known Jordan longest insist that his real crusade is to win a sixth title and burnish his image that much more.

Of course, if one can accomplish that while earning one’s Boy Scout merit badge for ring-bearing, why not?

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“He’s done everything exactly the right way,” teammate Steve Kerr says. “He’s so smart. He knows the image that he’s projecting.

“He knows that by not renegotiating his contract, he probably made more money off the court because of that, because he was holding to some values and standards that were important to people. And obviously, when his contract did come up, he cashed in. [Jordan made $33 million from the Bulls this season and an estimated $70 million in endorsements.]

“He’s just very smart. He’s got a really good eye for what’s gonna happen, depending on what he does.”

Off the court, Jordan might have been just a guy, if a handsome, gracious and shrewd one.

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On the court? What is the word that transcends star? “Superstar?” “Megastar?” What is the word that transcends transcendence itself?

That was Jordan.

He was athletic to the point of beauty. He was as solid fundamentally as one of those thick-legged high school guards who have to be because they know they can’t play otherwise.

“We thought he was going to be good, or we don’t take him third in the draft,” says Kevin Loughery, his first pro coach.

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“We also thought he was a franchise player. But never could we have fathomed he was gonna be the best player ever to play.

“You look back, in college, he played the passing game [in which players aren’t supposed to beat defenders off the dribble]. Then he went to the Olympic team--they also played passing game. But when we put in one-on-one drills the third day, we saw he had the ability to take the ball anyplace on the floor that he wanted to take it, and that he could do things that shocked us.

“Then about two weeks into the camp, you find out he was about as great a competitor as you’re gonna find. Then you know you got a great player.

“And then, you know, the guy walks in the gym the first day as a rookie coming out of college early, an early entry in the draft, and he’s the leader immediately--so he had the whole package.”

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Jordan had the whole, entire, anything-you-could-dream-up package.

No player with such gifts ever played with such heart. In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, when he was worn down and his jump shot was worn out, he started going to the boards as if the fate of the free world depended on it. When the Bulls shot free throws, he lined in the second position on the lane and crashed on every shot. It was all the 6-foot-10 Derrick McKey could do to box him out. There are thousands of moments like that to throw on the pile of Jordan’s greatness.

“The most impressive game I saw him play was last year in the playoffs against Miami, when he was 0 for 15 or something at the half,” Kerr says. “He was like two for 21 going into the fourth quarter.

“It was the day after his infamous 100 holes of golf or whatever. Every shot was flat, looked terrible--and he proceeded to score 20 in the fourth and almost pull us back to win the game.

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“If that isn’t just sheer confidence, arrogance, I don’t know what is. Because most guys, if they miss three or four shots, get a little gun-shy.”

Leadership?

Check.

Last spring, the Atlanta Hawks upset the Bulls at home in the playoffs and Jordan went off on everyone. The key, says a former Bull, is he did this all the time.

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“Mike walked in the locker room and he killed every one of those guys,” the former Bull says. “Phil and [assistants] Jimmy Rodgers and Frank Hamblen and Bill Cartwright just leaned up against the wall.

“He was going up and down the lockers--'You guys don’t know what it takes to win!'--he just killed them all. It was the greatest speech you ever heard. It was like Knute Rockne.

“And when he was done, Phil just said, ‘That’s it.’ ”

Opponents?

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When the rookie Allen Iverson dared to slap away Jordan’s attempt at friendship on the floor, you could almost hear a hush fall over the league. Even for the big guys, the rule was, “Don’t mess with Mike or he’ll show you why you shouldn’t.”

“I remember one play,” the New Jersey Nets’ Jayson Williams said after this spring’s series. “They’d been driving down the middle so I said I’d take a hard foul on Michael. The next time down, he hit me in the side of the head and said, ‘Don’t think I forgot about that.’

“He’s one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met.”

He’s the most amazing basketball player we’ve ever seen. Treasure these few moments that we’re still together.

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