At 40, Michael Jordan was no longer a superhero. As his final NBA comeback was winding down, Jordan had settled into a new, unfamiliar role: Mere mortal. He was averaging around 20 points, roughly ten points lower than his career average. His presence alone no longer meant his team was destined for a title -- in fact, his Wizards would end the season at 37-45, missing the playoffs by five games.
On March 9, 2003, Michael Jordan entered Madison Square Garden for the last time as a professional basketball player. The 14-year-old me was there, hoping that for once in my lifetime, the Knicks might have the last laugh.
But just as he had done countless times throughout his career, Jordan dug deep for a game at the mecca. He drained some signature fadeaway jump shots, and shimmied and stutter-stepped his way to 26 first-half points as the Knicks clung to a 56-53 lead. After a quiet third, Jordan re-entered the game early in the fourth. Just as the Knicks seemed to be pulling away, he promptly hit two straight jumpers to bring the Wizards within four. As the game neared its end, the Wizards found themselves with the ball, down three, 97-94 with four seconds to go. Jordan had 37 points.
As the teams prepared for what might be the final possession, I rose to join the already standing Garden crowd, and noticed for the first time a sea of red jerseys before me, along with signs inscribed with things like "Let’s Go Michael!" and "Michael, Rock MSG One Last Time!"
"They're rooting for the Wizards to win," I tried to tell my brother, who couldn't hear me over the roar of the crowd. I was in shock -- Madison Square Garden was rooting for the enemy, and the scene was set for another masterpiece.
And even at just 14, even I knew Jordan's long history of tearing out Knicks fans' hearts. His Bulls had eliminated my Knicks from the playoffs five times in the 90s. Jordan is the main reason Patrick Ewing never won a ring. Jordan had chosen MSG as the arena for him to shake off the rust of his first retirement in 1995, when he dropped 55 points and made the game-winning assist in the final seconds in just his fifth game back. In his 43 career appearances at the Garden, Jordan scored 30 or more points 25 times.
But on this night, the Knicks didn't care about Jordan's legacy. They refused to give him the opportunity to perform any more last-minute heroics, immediately fouling him before he could get a shot off, sending him to the line. He hit both free throws -- points 38 and 39 --bringing the Wizards within one, 97-96. The Knicks were able to run out the clock before the Wizards could foul, and the crowd was eerily silent. Jordan quickly stormed into the locker room. At 40, Jordan had scored 39 points and grabbed eight rebounds, but it wasn't enough.
"Perfect endings happen if you play hard and do all the necessary things you need to do, but I wasn't trying to come up with something that would be a perfect ending," Jordan told ESPN after the game.
In true Jordan fashion, he was more concerned with the his teammates' effort.
"It's very disappointing when a 40-year-man has more desire than a 24-, 25-, or 23-year old, diving for loose balls, busting his chin and doing everything he can to get his team into the playoffs, and it's not reciprocated from the other players on the team," he said. "Until guys let go of that macho, cool attitude and do the necessary things that it takes to play the game of basketball, it's going to be tough for Washington to make anything."
Meanwhile, even the Knicks noticed that by the end of the game they might as well have been playing the game in Chicago.
"It was really bizarre, a strange feeling,'' Allan Houston said. "You're fighting so hard for the playoffs and it's almost like you're on the road. But you know what? It's Michael.''
Hard to believe but in 10 days, on Feb. 17, Michael Jordan will turn 50.
Since his retirement, there have been numerous players heralded as "the next Jordan," but to this point no one has come close to being what Jordan was, both on and off the court -- Jordan was larger than life, and a hero to many. He was covered TMZ-style, years before TMZ existed. The ESPN recap of this game even included a paragraph on which shoes Jordan wore that night, because, to a lot of people, which shoes Michael Jordan wore on a given night mattered:
It's been ten years since the 14-year-old me left the Garden cheering, while thousands of other Knicks fans left disappointed, and I finally understand why -- for one night -- Madison Square Garden was Michael Jordan's home court. Everyone just wanted to see one more Michael Jordan miracle.