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Jordan lifts off tonight

Posted: Tuesday, October 30, 2001

NEW YORK -- Michael Jordan returns to the NBA at the arena where he's had some of his greatest moments.

When he came back to Madison Square Garden in 1995 after his first retirement, he scored 55 points against the New York Knicks. Then there was the 42-point game in 1998 when he wore a pair of vintage Air Jordans. On opening night in 1986, he scored 50 points.

There were four other nights on which Jordan dropped at least 42 points on the Knicks, and at the 1997 All-Star game, he recorded the first triple-double in All-Star history.

''It enthused me to play there every chance I got,'' said Jordan, who makes his regular-season debut Tuesday night with the Washington Wizards. ''There's a lot of memories of playing on that floor, and I'm not going to forget them.''

After eight preseason games, it all begins to count now for the 38-year-old Jordan, whose second retirement lasted nearly 3 1/2 years. He will start at small forward, wearing a uniform other than Chicago's for the first time in his NBA career.

He returns with six championship rings and with the fourth-highest scoring total in league history. But he is coming back with a team that won only 19 games last season when he was the team president.

''I go in with no preconceived ideas other than just to play hard, and whatever happens, happens,'' Jordan said Monday.

''I'm in better shape than I thought I would be. I feel really good right now -- just want to go in and get off to a good start of the regular season, and hopefully the team feels the same way,'' Jordan said.

The job of defending Jordan will fall to Latrell Sprewell, who is eager to play the game to end all the questions he's been hearing about Jordan.

Sprewell was also on the opposing team when Magic Johnson made his comeback in 1996 after a 4 1/2-year retirement. Sprewell recalled with a laugh Monday that Johnson made all the highlight reels that evening by making him look bad with a head fake.

''It's going to be fun. It's what everybody has wanted to see for some time now. I guess people are anxious to see how good he is,'' Sprewell said. ''I expect him to play hard and to get a lot of shots off.''

Jordan was spectacular at times during the preseason, scoring 41 against New Jersey and 18 in one quarter against Miami. But the players guarding Jordan in those games were rookies Richard Jefferson and Brandon Armstrong and the since-released Donny Marshall of the Nets, along with the recently waived Rodney Buford of the Heat.

Sprewell, a much better defender than any of them, is aware that Jordan has been shooting mostly jumpers with the Wizards. Some defenders will try to crowd a jump shooter, forcing him to drive, but Sprewell said he wouldn't go overboard on any such strategy -- nor would he apply fullcourt pressure when Jordan brings the ball up as the playmaker.

''He can still go left or right. He has a ton of shot fakes, so I don't think getting up on him will solve the problem,'' Sprewell said. ''One of his strengths is being able to go in any direction, and if he's cut off he's going to go in the other direction. From what I've seen, he can still do that.''

Jordan will return to the court with some impressive personal accomplishments. Aside from his six championships and 10 scoring titles with the Bulls, he reached 40 points 201 times, 50 points on 38 different occasions and 60 points five times.

Not counting his time with the Birmingham Barons when he was playing minor league baseball, Jordan has not had a three-game losing streak since the opening three games of the 1990-91 season.

Coach Jeff Van Gundy, whose first career coaching victory came against Jordan and the Bulls in their 72-win season of 1995-96, recently watched a tape of Jordan's return to the Garden following his first retirement.

Van Gundy said it struck him how physical that game was, ''like hand-to-hand combat.''

''Five games back and he gets 55 against the best defense in the league and he makes it look easy,'' Van Gundy said.

Two weeks ago, Jordan was asked about his most memorable Garden moments. He recalled the game on March 8, 1998, when he brought out the pair of original Air Jordans and got blisters on his feet while scoring 42. He also pointed to a 1993 playoff game when the Bulls blocked three shots by Charles Smith at the end of the fourth quarter to take a 3-2 lead in a best-of-seven series they went on to win in six games.

The Knicks will issue 500-600 media credentials for the game, and it might be the toughest ticket in town -- even with the New York Yankees playing Game 3 of the World Series in the Bronx, a few miles to the north.

''Michael has played in games far bigger than this one,'' Wizards coach Doug Collins said. ''Although it is his return, he hasn't played in three years. When you've played in world championship games, that's far bigger than a home-opener in New York, even though this is a big, big game.''



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