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55

Nov. 13, 1995
Nov. 13, 1995

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Nov. 13, 1995

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NBA 1995-96

55

Last spring, the newly unretired Michael Jordan lit up Manhattan, the Knicks and the NBA itself with what may have been the most thrilling performance of his career

There is no place like it, no place with an atom of its glory, pride, and exultancy. It lays its hand upon a man's bowels; he grows drunk with ecstasy; he grows young and full of glory, he feels that he can never die.

This is an article from the Nov. 13, 1995 issue Original Layout

-- Thomas Wolfe, on New York City

 

On March 27 of this year, on a Monday afternoon flush with the
balm of spring, Michael Jordan arrived in Manhattan and checked
into the Plaza Hotel. That evening he and four companions,
including NBC commentator Ahmad Rashad, met for dinner downtown
at Robert De Niro's Tribeca Grill. These were old friends,
determined to liberate Jordan from the prison of his hotel
room--to "keep it regular," as Rashad says. The game that Jordan
and his Chicago Bulls were to play the next night against the
New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden was only indirectly
alluded to, but throughout the evening Rashad sensed something
about Jordan--sensed that Jordan knew that if he had something to
say, New York was the place to say it.

When Jordan returned to the hotel after midnight, CBS's Pat
O'Brien was waiting for a previously scheduled interview. Jordan
had stood him up for more than three hours, but O'Brien had
spent that time well, drawing up the most prescient of
questions. "When will fans see an explosion," he asked, "the
kind of game in which you score 55 points?"

"It's just a matter of time," said Jordan.

Jordan wasn't accustomed to being measured against his past.
Until he stepped away from the game for 17 months, beginning in
October 1993, the public had always spun its wonderment forward,
asking the question, "What's he gonna do next?" But with his
return, the public imagination now ran backward, and to Jordan
the rephrasing of the usual question must have come with
daunting psychological g-forces: Can he possibly do those things
again?

And, oh, those things he had done. There had been that moment
during his final season at North Carolina, in the dying seconds
of a victory at Maryland, when Jordan made off with a lazy
Terrapin pass and threw down a breakaway dunk stunning in its
suddenness, its playfulness, its remorselessness. As Jordan sat
in the locker room, his eyes intent on the latticework of his
shoelaces, a reporter asked him if he had intended the dunk to
"send a message."

"No messages," he replied, scarcely looking up, like an
efficient secretary.

Back then Jordan had no need to gild his game with ulterior
meaning. But things were different now, 11 years, three NBA
titles, two Olympic gold medals, his father's murder and a
bush-league baseball misadventure later. Based on the first few
games of Jordan's comeback from his sabbatical in the Chicago
White Sox organization, a columnist in Florida had already
declared him "finished." One New York tabloid had dubbed him
FAIR JORDAN. And Doug Collins, an NBA analyst for Turner Sports
who had been Jordan's coach with the Bulls and soon would become
coach of the Detroit Pistons, had committed apostasy. He had
called Jordan "human."

So it was that, carrying a new uniform number, 45, and these
fresh burdens, Jordan found himself in New York with a message
to deliver. While you were out....

In a hype-saturated age, before a hype-inured crowd, in a
building whose owners have enough chutzpah to call the place
"the world's most famous arena," Jordan did more than live up to
his extravagant billing that night. In his fifth game and 11th
day back in the league, he somehow surpassed it. He did, indeed,
go for 55 points against the Knicks--more than anyone had scored
in the new Garden since it opened in 1968 and the highest total
to that point in the NBA season. Dunking but once, he scored
blithely, over and around six different members of a team
notorious for its defense, until it came time to win the game.
Then he did so with a pass.

With baseball still on strike, hockey scarcely off its lockout
and football's most gifted and charismatic ballcarrier, its
onetime MJ equivalent, being shuttled in handcuffs between a
jail and a courtroom, the world of sports sorely craved what
Jordan provided. But even he must have wondered if he was still
capable of going off in such fashion--until three days earlier,
in Atlanta. That's where he had fully reacquainted himself with
the rhythms that in basketball come vertically, up from your
feet, not horizontally, through your arms and hips, as a
baseball player's do. Against the Hawks he had sunk 14 of 26
shots and scored 32 points, including the game-winning two on a
hanging jumper at the horn. The performance sling-shot him on to
New York, to find out, as the song says, if he could make it
there.

On Tuesday the 28th, at the Bulls' game-day shootaround, the
Garden is rank with the smell of elephants, the Ringling Bros.
and Barnum & Bailey Circus having arrived five days earlier. But
Jordan and a teammate, Ron Harper, are engaged in a game
involving a different species: a version of H-O-R-S-E,
half-court shots only.

"How much?" Harper asks, playing to Jordan's wagering jones.

"Fifty," says Jordan.

"I got you."

Three times they match each other, miss for miss, before Jordan
bottoms one out. Then Harper launches his try into the air, and,
amazingly, it too swishes through the hoop.

But here is what makes Jordan Jordan: His next shot, another
43-footer, is perfect. Harper is literally at a loss.

"Hah!" says Jordan, adding a sort of amen to an omen.

Every year the Super Bowl spends two weeks building itself up so
100 million Americans might be ritually let down. But there has
been no fortnight of foreplay to Jordan's visit to the Garden,
because two weeks ago he still was not officially under contract
to play basketball.

As strobe lights and flashbulbs fire during warmups, the Garden
is already full and charged with promise. Old hands, the ones
who can recall the title fights of the Ali era and the Sinatra
comeback concert held here, have a point of reference. But
younger employees are thrown for a loop. "It was June all of a
sudden, right in the middle of March," Chris Brienza, 30, the
Knicks' director of public relations at the time, will say
later. Brienza has issued credentials to some 325 members of the
media (175 more than for a normal regular-season game) from a
dozen countries. But only about half can be accommodated with
seats, so an apology is distributed to every member of the
press. "As you may have guessed," the handout begins, "tonight's
Knicks-Bulls game is, shall we say, somewhat popular...."

Outside the Garden, the Bulls' team bus has taken 15 minutes to
negotiate the half block from Seventh Avenue to the Garden's
service entrance. Some people among the swells surrounding the
arena bang on the sides of the motorcoach when they realize
who's inside. Scalpers lucky enough to hold $95 lower box seats
are getting as much as $1,000 a ticket. At Gerry Cosby & Co.,
the sporting-goods store in the Garden concourse, clerks are
selling number 45 jerseys right out of the boxes. "All Bulls
stuff is going again after being dead for a year and a half,"
says Cosby's Jim Root.

Jordan is normally available to the press until the locker room
closes 45 minutes before tip-off. He particularly likes to
engage the New York writers, to consider their
smarter-than-average questions. But tonight he hides out in the
training room, playing solitaire on his portable computer.

Every playoff renewal of the rivalry between the Bulls and the
Knicks during the early 1990s has featured an incident with
Jordan at its center. In '91, in Chicago's 103-94 Game 3 victory
over New York, Jordan dunked over 7-foot Knick center Patrick
Ewing as the Bulls swept the series. On the eve of Game 7 a year
later, Michael asked for advice from his father, James, whose
body would be found in a South Carolina creek 15 months later;
Papa's counsel--"Take over"--worked just fine, with Michael going
for 42 and the Bulls winning by 29.

In 1993 Jordan took his infamous gambling trip to Atlantic City
between the series' first two games, both Chicago losses, yet he
rose to block one of 6'10" forward Charles Smith's four
unavailing shots under the basket as Game 5 wound down, and the
Bulls eliminated the Knicks once more. Why, in Game 4 Jordan
scored 54 points. (Imagine ... 54 points!)

The Bulls' route to each of their three crowns went through New
York. Yet in 1994, with Jordan having been taken to task by a
certain weekly sports magazine for "embarrassing" baseball, the
Knicks finally beat Chicago and advanced to the NBA Finals.
Thus, to New York fans, Jordan ought to seem like a Sisyphean
rock. Yet there's affection in the voice of Mike Walczewski, the
Garden's P.A. announcer, as he introduces Jordan, and
unambivalent cheers from the crowd--a crowd that jeers the other
Bull starters.

Jordan will later say that he had never felt less confident
before a game. But the way he walks to the center circle for the
tip-off, pausing halfway there to paw at the floor with his
shoes like some ready-to-strike animal, hints at what is to come.

How does a pro basketball player score 55 points? Even if you're
Michael Jordan, it helps if you've essentially been ordered to
do so by your coach. The request unburdens the conscience,
leaving you free to let fly. For the better part of two seasons,
Chicago coach Phil Jackson has run up against the skinflint New
York defense too many times without Jordan not to take full
advantage of his presence now. "They'd smothered us," Jackson
will say. "We needed scoring. So I said, 'Go for it.'"

The first option of the Bulls' basic triangle set comes off the
fast break. The team's most potent offensive threat nestles into
the low post, hoping to get the ball there and make a move
before the defense can entirely establish itself. During
Jordan's absence, forward Scottie Pippen usually played this
role, called post-up sprinter, but in Chicago's pregame meeting
Jackson told Jordan to take up in the hub of the Chicago
offense. "Everything else is pretty much a moot point if he can
make his shots," Jackson will say afterward. "And we knew within
a few minutes that he was making his shots."

His first, a short pull-up jumper in transition, comes on a pass
from forward Toni Kukoc, the Croatian emigre who arrived after
the Bulls' third title and had so looked forward to playing with
Jordan that he broke down in tears the day Jordan announced his
retirement. Jordan's second shot comes after he has set up as
the post-up sprinter, and the Knicks are called for an illegal
defense. He takes the subsequent inbounds pass and shows John
Starks, who's attempting to guard him, a little mambo with the
ball and a left-to-right rock before leaping up to shoot and
score.

During the first quarter he'll do this again and again, having
his way with the 6'5" Starks. Sometimes Jordan doesn't so much
as show his face to Starks before spinning into a fallaway. The
first time he feels Starks rest a forearm on his back Jordan
spins past him and along the baseline for a layup. The next time
he spins in the same direction, only to fall back and unspool
another perfect jumper. Starks, with no recourse now, is
whistled for a hold. As if to highlight the defensive quandary
they're in, the Knicks are cited for their second illegal
defense violation five minutes into the game.

Midway through the quarter, on consecutive baskets, Jordan
knocks down two shots that are mirror images of one another: He
takes two dribbles to his right, soars and feathers in a jumper
(10 points now), then takes two dribbles to his left, leaps and
sinks another (13 and counting). It's as if he's a basketball
camper doing station drills, and the Knicks scarcely exist.

Here, finally, New York decides to dispatch some help to Starks.
When Jordan next catches the ball on the low block, he finds
Ewing rushing at him. Jordan spins to avoid the double team but,
sealed off by the baseline, he's forced to leap up and throw a
pass that's picked off.

In spite of this momentary success, the Knicks call off the
double team. The move baffles Jackson, but New York coach Pat
Riley has his reasons: In spite of Jordan's performance so far,
the Knicks hold the lead and will for most of the game, at one
point by as many as 14. And there's no team in basketball more
adept than the Bulls at swinging the ball out of a double team
and into the hands of an open shooter. "Their shooters and their
spacing are so good," Riley will say, "that if you start running
all over the place, they're going to get everything."

As the quarter winds down, Jordan seems joyous with each touch
of the ball. One time he seems to bring his right knee up, in a
sort of mummer's strut, as he rises into his shot (15 points
now). "It's rare that players can live quite up to New York,"
Jackson, himself a former Knick, says later. "I've seen a lot of
them fall flat on their faces because of the pressure to perform
there. But he had the whole evening in the palm of his hand.
Sometimes the game just seems to gravitate into his grasp."

At one point the Knicks throw a new jersey at him, 6'8" forward
Anthony Bonner. Jordan has schooled the smaller Starks on the
blocks; Gulliver here he takes outside, draining his longest
jumper of the evening thus far, with a little leftward float
thrown in to make it interesting (17 points). Then he bottoms
out a three-pointer, only the second of 11 attempted treys to
this point in his comeback (20 points). The Knicks lead at the
quarter 34-31, but Jordan has sunk nine of 11 shots.

"I'm going to miss him," Starks had said upon hearing of
Jordan's retirement. "He brought out the best in me."

"I think he forgot how to play me," Jordan will say after the
game.

So many celebrities are in the Garden that if the Oscars hadn't
taken place in Los Angeles the night before, the whole country
might be listing alarmingly to starboard. The usual potted
plants, Knick regulars Woody Allen and Spike Lee, are rustling
their leaves courtside. Tom Brokaw, Peter Falk, Bill Murray,
Diane Sawyer and Damon Wayans all have taken the trouble to
rearrange their busy schedules. There's Christopher Reeve,
pre-accident, and Mario Cuomo, post-Pataki. And tonight the
stars seem to come in pairs. Phil and Marlo. Connie and Maury.
Lawrence Taylor and fellow pro wrestler Diesel. Even pairs that
should be together: Itzhak Perlman, recording artist, and Earl
(the Pearl) Monroe, now a recording executive.

As Jordan goes for the speed limit, announcer Al Trautwig,
working the sidelines for MSG Network, approaches a large man
sitting courtside. "Excuse me," he asks. "Are you Al Cowlings?"

In spite of having its own financial market and international
flights to 65 cities, Chicago has a woeful dearth of
celebrities. Joe Mantegna and Oprah can only take a town so far.
Chicago is so star-poor that, months later on Monday Night
Football, a Bear fan diving 30 feet from the stands in pursuit
of an extra point will end up with the same agent as Jim McMahon.

Thus the city must get all it can out of its single world-class
celeb. Two nights after Jordan's New York epic, SportsChannel
Chicago will air 24 hours of highlights and documentary footage
of, and interviews with, the man himself. And a Windy City radio
station will poll its listeners on the pressing matter of
whether Jordan should be named King of the Universe.

It's a wonder that only 41% say yes.

In the second quarter Jordan seems to slip the bounds of the
Garden and reinvent his surroundings--to pull asphalt under his
feet and the spirit of New York's playgrounds into his
bloodstream. Fifteen of the Bulls' 19 points this quarter will
be his: his 28th and 29th of the game on his staple, the simple
fallaway over Starks; his 30th and 31st after jabbing with each
shoulder, then spinning into another fallaway that beats a dying
shot clock. In a glimpse of foreshadowing, up for a jumper near
the end of the half, he passes up the shot, pitching instead to
a 7-foot teammate, end-of-the-bencher Bill Wennington, who
pitches it right back.

Jordan's tongue comes out often as he makes these moves, of
course. But at one point he flashes a trace of a smile. His
mirth is evidently contagious; later in the game Starks will
head downcourt unable to suppress a laugh at the ridiculousness
of what he has become a victim of. "In a game like this," the
former supermarket checkout clerk says later, "you just have to
hope he starts missing."

Jordan hardly has missed as he leaves the court at the half. The
Bulls trail 56-50, but Jordan has sunk 14 of 19 shots. As he
files through the tunnel an adolescent girl reaches over the
railing above, risking getting singed as Jordan's hand meets hers.

A Garden basketball crowd is famous for its ability to make the
syllables of the word defense sound like invective. Yet Jordan
and his 35 points have reduced 19,763 people to disorganized
murmuring. Going back nearly four decades New Yorkers have been
quick to root for the home team, but they've also been
appreciative of the great opponent. The Knicks sucked rotten
eggs during the early 1960s, but the undercard of an NBA
doubleheader back then might have featured the Boston Celtics or
the Philadelphia Warriors, and fans would fill the old Garden
for a 6 p.m. tip-off to behold the conjurings of a Cousy or the
majesty of a Chamberlain.

Yet through the 1990s Jordan haunted the Garden in part because
some of that connoisseurship seemed to spill from the loges and
infect the Knicks themselves. From power forward Charles Oakley,
the team's enforcer and an ex-Bull who adores his former
teammate, to Starks and that laugh he'll let slip, the entire
Knick family seems to have a streak of the fan in it.

Not that anyone in the stands is going to take the Knicks to
task for falling under Jordan's spell, least of all tonight,
anyway; they too are his hostages, suffering from a sort of
Stockholm syndrome. "More than anything else, the fans wanted to
see him have a great game," Jackson will say. "It was like
they'd gone to a Broadway show."

Intermission over, Jordan scores points 40, 41 and 42 on a
three-point shot. Forty-seven, 48 and 49 come on another trey.
No one in the NBA should be able to jump-shoot his way to a
total like this, least of all against a team of bogarters like
the Knicks, least of all Jordan, whose J is a jumble of knocked
knees and limbs akimbo even when it's clicking, and it hasn't
been clicking since he returned. Yet here he is, on his way to
scoring 55 the way Larry Bird might have scored 55.

The Bulls' Steve Kerr may be the best three-point shooter in the
league. Yet friends will tell him later that he looks starstruck
as he sits on the bench, watching as Jordan sends shot after
shot whispering through the net. The reaction of players like
Kerr worries Jackson. The Bulls were so dependent on Jordan
prior to Jackson's taking over the team in 1989 that then
assistant coach John Bach referred to the team's "archangel
offense." To transform Chicago into the group that won three
straight titles, Jackson took on twin missions: to jawbone
Jordan into involving his teammates more through the triangle
offense, and to persuade the "Jordanaires" that the team's goals
weren't being served if they stood around gawking during number
23's levitations. Jackson's membership on the 1973 Knick title
team, a squad founded on balanced scoring and a commitment to
finding the open man, established his bona fides as he made that
sale.

At first Jackson and Jordan coexisted in delicate balance--the
coach with his higher truth of championship basketball, which
Jordan so desperately sought; the superstar with his worldly
gift, the ability to manufacture baskets when Jackson's beloved
triangle broke down. By the time the Bulls won their first
crown, Jordan had become so committed to team play that he
accepted the ritual "I'm going to Disney World" endorsement
opportunity only when the other Bull starters were included. Yet
now Jackson wondered if he would have to make both pitches all
over again. No one on the team had played with Jordan before his
return other than Pippen, center Will Perdue, swingman Pete
Myers and guard B.J. Armstrong, who as a rookie had actually
checked out a library book on Einstein and Mozart, hoping they
would give him insight into genius and make him a more
sympathetic teammate to the great one. And would Jordan come to
understand that the team, which had been playing well when he
rejoined it, didn't need a savior?

As if to provide Jackson with Exhibit A in that case, Chicago
seizes its largest lead, 99-90, precisely when Jordan is taking
his longest rest of the evening, for more than five minutes at
the start of the fourth quarter. The Bulls knew they could score
by letting Jordan go one-on-one. Now they have proved they can
prosper without him at all.

Still, Jackson might wonder: Can the team click with Jordan a
constituent part?

As the game enters its final minutes Jordan and Ewing are taking
turns. Another Jordan jumper over Starks--points 52 and 53--gives
the Bulls a 107-102 lead. After Starks counters with two free
throws, Ewing adds one of his own; then, finally coming over
again to help Starks on a double team, he blocks a Jordan shot,
making possible a slam from Starks that ties matters at 107.
Jordan dishes off for his first assist of the game, to Pippen
for a bank shot, and Chicago leads 109-107. Ewing's two free
throws reknot things at 109 with 39 seconds left on the clock.

It's felicitous that Jordan and Ewing, Ewing and Jordan, are
engaging each other down the stretch. In a few months they will
be leading an uprising against the players' union. At the Plaza
earlier this afternoon Jordan met with Charles Grantham, at the
time the executive director of the players' association, to bone
up on issues pertaining to a new collective bargaining
agreement. By tonight's lights, could there be any better pair
to make the case for how very productive NBA labor can be?

At Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta the suits know that the
Nielsen ratings took their usual dip at halftime. But they spike
up with the start of the third quarter, the result of tens of
thousands of Hey, are you watching this? phone calls. Through
the final two quarters the numbers creep upward in 15-minute
increments, from a 5.2 to a 6.0 to a 6.8 to a 7.4 to an 8.0,
ultimately averaging a 5.0 rating--a record for a nationally
telecast game on cable.

Steve Smith of the Hawks yapped at Jordan three nights earlier,
proving anew that, all things considered, mouthing at Michael
isn't a prudent thing to do. "Who's going to get the shot?"
Smith asked Jordan as the Bulls prepared to put the ball in play
for the last time.

"Pippen," Jordan said, before taking the inbounds pass with 5.9
seconds to play, moving up the floor and beating his
interlocutor with the game-winner.

Tonight, as adrenaline gets the better of Starks, he can't help
himself. "Hey, how ya doin'?" the Knick guard asks Jordan late
in the game, renewing acquaintances, after a fashion. "What's
been goin' on?"

The same free-flowing juices that set off Starks's mouth cause
him to bite for any fake Jordan offers, including this one.
Starks is on his way down, helpless, as Jordan rises up for his
final attempt, and final basket, of the night. The score now
stands at 111-109, Chicago.

Jordan has squeezed off 37 shots. Twenty-one have found their
mark, three from beyond the arc. Throw in his 10 foul shots and
Jordan, as Spike Lee will put it, has dropped "a double nickel"
on the Knicks.

During the 1994-95 season, Chicago's second-most celebrated
basketball player may have been a West Sider named William
Gates. He's the costar of Hoop Dreams, the acclaimed documentary
film that traces Gates's life from age 14, when he was only a
whisper in the Cabrini-Green housing projects, through high
school, to the day his world-weary mother and washed-up older
brother tearfully send him off to Marquette on a full
scholarship. In a moment that gets just right the suddenness
with which parenthood can steal up on adolescents living in
places like Cabrini-Green, the film cuts to a shot at the
Gates's kitchen table. Encircling it are an infant girl, Alicia;
her teenage mother, Catherine; and William, who, it becomes
quickly clear, is Alicia's father. They are discussing the day
Alicia was born and Catherine's request that William be in the
delivery room?a request that went unfulfilled. "I can't miss a
game just because an incident occurs, you know, unless it was
like a death or something like that," William says.

"Something like that!" says Catherine. "This is a
once-in-a-lifetime thing! Like the girl is born every day...."

"Especially around that time of the year, too, state
tournament," says William.

Last night, Oscar night, Gates was in the Garden, playing in the
Golden Eagles' 87-79 NIT semifinal defeat of Penn State. Gates
didn't intend to let the Bulls pass through town tonight without
looking in on his homeboys, and, a movie star now, he lined up
courtside seats with Lee. But at 6 a.m. Catherine, now Gates's
wife, called to tell him she was again going into labor, more
than five weeks early.

It's an instructive epilogue to the film that Gates headed back
to Chicago to witness the birth of his second child, William Jr.
"Catherine's getting me back," Gates thought to himself as he
headed for the airport. "Michael saved that performance for me,
and I missed it," he will say upon hearing what had occurred in
his absence.

Gates never did make it back for the NIT final, which Marquette
lost 65-64 in overtime to Virginia Tech. Yet his decision
bespoke a maturity that developed only after Hoop Dreams
finished filming. He seems to have learned that you can
hoop-dream all you want, but ultimately reality will settle back
in--and in reality there's much more to life than a basketball
game.

The foul that puts Starks on the line, where his free throws
will tie the game at 111, is Perdue's sixth. Jackson sends
Wennington in at center, and the Bulls call a timeout.

In the huddle the Bull staff points out that the Knicks have
permanently changed their defensive thinking. After letting
Starks (and such others as Greg Anthony, Hubert Davis and Derek
Harper) be used and abused for most of the game, New York has
sent Ewing over the last three times Jordan probed the Knick
defense. Jackson and his aides remind Jordan that there will be
a vacuum in the middle into which a teammate might slip.

Jordan dribbles to precisely the same spot from which he sank
his last shot, the right elbow of the foul lane. Starks tracks
him all the way. Sure enough, Ewing rushes over. "I'd be lying
if I said I was coming out to pass the ball," Jordan will say
later. "I was coming out to score. But then Patrick came over to
help...."

It's an article of basketball faith that a player who's
double-teamed finds the open man. But Jordan has been so
individually mesmerizing to this point that his pass to
Wennington, who looks like a leper alone under the basket, seems
like a revelation.

From Jackson's vantage point it looks as if Jordan has pulled an
Amazing Kreskin, bending his pass around the onrushing Ewing.
Starks has been so fooled by Jordan's sudden pass that, after
biting on another fake, he stumbles, spraining his left ankle.
From the Garden floor Starks's view must have been obscured;
following the game he believes Perdue has scored the dunk that
wins the game 113-111.

Before the Bulls strung together their three titles, critics
returned again and again to three quibbles with Jordan: That for
all his individual greatness, he wasn't a winner; that his
heedless defensive wanderings left the rest of the Bulls
vulnerable; and that when he was double- and triple-teamed, he
couldn't reliably find his teammates. Not that he needs to, but
within a few seconds Jordan provides a tidy set of refutations,
one for each canard: The Bulls win. When Starks fumbles away New
York's last chance in the final three seconds, it is under
pressure from Jordan. And the winning shot comes on Jordan's pass.

To Jackson, a son of Pentecostal ministers and a relentless
proselytizer for team play, that last act is the night's
transcendent moment. "Justice," Jackson says of that pass.
"Poetic justice. It brought reality and order back to the
evening."

No longer able to dictate to their lavishly paid charges, NBA
coaches are all social workers now. The best ones have found
ways to reach their players almost subcutaneously. Jackson's
style of management is particularly indirect. As he explains in
his new book, Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood
Warrior, Jackson prods and pokes, trying less to drum into each
Bull a set of cold facts than to nudge him to a heightened state
of awareness. As a result players often come to Jackson after
they've realized what he wants them to grasp.

Several days after the Knick game Jordan approached Jackson.
"I've decided to quit," he said. "What else can I do?" Jordan
was kidding. But he soon became serious. Jackson had encouraged
him to fire away that Tuesday night. But Jordan told Jackson
that he understood how his outburst in the Garden had to be an
aberration if this fragile and reconstituted team were to
challenge for the title. "You've got to tell the players they
can't expect me to do what I did in New York every night,"
Jordan said. "In our next game I want them to play as a team."

As glad as Jackson was to hear Jordan say that, things wouldn't
be so easy. The whoopee over his return cleaved Jordan from his
teammates. As he searched for privacy, Jordan cocooned himself
inside his retinue of friends and followers--a natural and
perhaps necessary reaction, but one that alienated him from the
group. The confidence and trust the team had developed before
Jordan's return began to dissipate. Nowhere was this more
evident than in two games in the Eastern Conference semifinals
against the Orlando Magic. Rust and unfamiliarity with his
teammates led Jordan to bollix up critical plays late in Games 1
and 6.

To reemphasize to Jordan and Jordanaires alike their
interconnectedness during those ill-fated playoffs, Jackson had
read the team a favorite passage of his from Rudyard Kipling.
It's a text Jackson is sure to return to this season, as the
Bulls make another run for a title, this time while integrating
into the team the iconoclastic personality of Dennis Rodman.

Now this is the Law of the
Jungle--
as old and as true as the sky;
And the Wolf that shall keep it
may prosper,
but the Wolf that shall break it
must die.
As the creeper that girdles the
tree trunk,
the Law runneth forward and
back--
For the strength of the Pack is the
Wolf,
and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack.

Basketball's great wolf had his howl on that Tuesday night in
the Garden. But having delivered a message, he was ready to
return to the game's ultimate truth, a lesson his coach regards
as holy writ: That if you're not in it together, you're not in
it to win it. And if you're not in it to win it, double nickels
ain't nothing but chump change.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY STANLEY [Drawing of Michael Jordan with New York City skyline inbackground]TWO COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: ILLUSTRATIONS BY STANLEYWith baseball on strike and hockey scarcely off its lockout, the world of sports craved what Jordan provided. [Drawing of Michael Jordan shooting jumpshot; drawing of fans watching game]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY STANLEY Sometimes Jordan doesn't so much as show his face to Starks before spinning into a fallaway jumper. [Drawing of John Starks guarding Michael Jordan]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY STANLEYIt's felicitous that Jordan and Ewing, Ewing and Jordan, engage each other down the stretch. [Drawing of Patrick Ewing]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY STANLEY [Michael Jordan's final statistics against New York Knicks in game on March 28, 1995]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY STANLEY Jackson reminds Jordan that there will be a vacuum in the middle into which a teammate might slip. [Drawing of Phil Jackson talking with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and other members of Chicago Bulls]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY STANLEY "Justice," says Jackson of that pass. "Poetic justice. It brought reality and order back to the evening." [Drawing of Michael Jordan passing basketball to Bill Wennington while being guarded by Patrick Ewing and John Starks]