When I was a kid, my mom used to get cheap Knicks tickets through her job. The day tickets became available, they'd put up a list of games, and you'd have to sign up for the ones you wanted to buy. My mom being my mom, by the time she got to that sign-up sheet, the marquee games were gone, so we'd usually end up seeing our boys beat the snot out of lower tier teams like the 13-win Mavericks, or the not-much-better Milwaukee Bucks. Once, we got to see the Stockton-Malone Jazz, but that was about as "marquee" as our family outings to MSG got. One year, however, my mom came home from "ticket day" with an air of excitement.
"I got Knicks-Bulls tickets!" she said excitedly. "The Bulls are good, right? Michael Jordan?"
"Michael Jordan retired, mom. Nobody wants to see the Bulls play anymore."
"Oh," she said disappointed, maybe in herself, maybe in me for not being more enthusiastic. "Well you and your sister can go. It'll be fun."
Two weeks before that Knicks-Bulls game, the one nobody at my mom's office wanted tickets to, it happened. He came back. God, I hated him for that. And I relished in the fact that he clearly wasn't himself. In his first game back he shot 7 for 28 against Indiana. He was better a few nights later, dropping 27 on the hapless Celtics (on just 17 shots no less), but he seemed to regress in game #3, netting an inefficient 21 points in a loss to the Magic. He was rusty. Sure it was him, but at the same time, it wasn't really him. I mean, he wasn't even wearing the same number. Maybe retirement, brief as it was, had softened him. Maybe his heart just wasn't in it anymore.
We should have seen it coming. Not because he had gone for 31 and the game-winner against the Hawks in game #4 of "the comeback." Just because it was Michael, and it was The Garden, and we were The Knicks, and when you put those factors together in those days incredible things tended to happen. When we got there, my sister and I, it was already buzzing. We scrambled to our nosebleed seats, the ones that were, like, four inches from the slats in the ceiling. We stood during warmups, everyone's eyes just kind of naturally drawn to the very sight of him.
It was an amazing game, close the entire way, but that's not what matters. It was Jordan's night, his official putting-on-notice of the rest of the league. 21-of-37 from the field. 3-of-4 from three. 10-of-11 from the stripe. 35 at the half. He put it all on display. The turnaround jumper. The crossover. The grimace and the gum-chewing, and when the game was on the line in the final seconds, what did he do to cap it off? He passed the ball to Bill Wennington - BILL EFFING WENNINGTON - for the game-winning dunk. He spent the night eviscerating us, as he had so many times, as he would so many more after that night, and then let his homey the mild-mannered librarian deliver the deathblow.
But this is what I'll remember most about that night: when the game was over, after John Starks - JOHN EFFING STARKS - dribbled the ball off his foot to seal the win for the Bulls, we didn't rain boos down onto the court. We didn't grumble. We didn't curse. We stood up and we applauded. It wasn't rousing or anything. It was respectful. I'll never forget that.
Nineteen years ago today, Michael came back to the Garden and dropped the infamous double-nickel. I was there. The man burned The Garden to the ground and we gave him a standing ovation for it. He was so good, so smooth and so unrepentantly cold-blooded that you had to give him his propers. Game recognize game. What else could you do?