Greatest. Largest. Loftiest. Oldest. Cagiest.

For Washington sports fans, it was a night of a thousand superlatives. There was Michael Jordan, the greatest ever, taking the court against the New York Knicks in front of a capacity crowd at MCI Center. Billed as "Michael Jordan Appreciation Night," this was the last home game for "His Airness." More than 20,000 of the sports-craziest people came to celebrate the celebrity who once jumped the highest, flew the farthest and became the richest, easiest-to-identify, best-loved sports icon in the world. And even though he was the oldest player on the floor in last night's National Basketball Association game, he was still the cagiest.

It was also a night of superlative weirdness. The loudest pregame ovation went to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who presented a flag to Jordan after the national anthem. To commemorate Jordan's years of service, team owner Abe Pollin donated computers to local high schools and gave Jordan a plaque. (The Denver Nuggets, a couple of weeks ago, gave Jordan a Harley-Davidson.) But the strangest twist came during the postgame interview, when Coach Doug Collins lashed out at unnamed players on the team for being disrespectful and spoke of possible roster changes.

"We stunk," Collins said of his team's 93-79 loss to the Knicks. "We lost our edge two weeks ago." He said he would miss having Jordan on the court.

The disrespect he felt from certain people, Collins said, was "insidious."

He praised Jordan, but mostly in the context of needing to rebuild the team. "All these guys who thought he took away from their games this year are going to find out what he brought."

He added, "Be careful what you wish for."

At the start of the game, Rory Mason, 7, of Herndon, one of the youngest fans in the stands, was wishing for a Jordan jam: "I hope he does a slam-dunk." This, Jordan's last game at MCI Center, was Rory's first. He had a Jordan jersey on his back and ketchup on his lip.

Fabian Biedermann, from Aargau, Switzerland, perhaps traveled the longest distance to see Jordan play. "I want to see him make a buzzer-beater tonight," Biedermann said. "And score, like, 60 points."

Something superhuman.

About four minutes into the game, Jordan dribbled between his legs and scored -- a jumper from the side. A little later, he granted Rory's wish and slammed one home. He led the team, as usual, with 21 points and 8 rebounds.

As the game settled into a rhythm, the Wizards played their best, but it just wasn't good enough. There was poetry in Jordan as he moved about the floor, sometimes slowly, always slyly. He worked the hardest, gliding around for jumpers, pulling in rebounds, attempting derring-do steals.

The game between two out-of-the-playoffs teams was surprisingly animated and supercharged. Throughout the night there were video tributes on the vast screens overhead. As the final seconds ticked down, the crowd began to roar.

Before Jordan received his plaque, there were taped greetings from coaches and players, such as Dean Smith, Jordan's college coach, and his Chicago Bulls running buddy, Scottie Pippen, who called Jordan the greatest.

Over the course of his 15-season career -- interrupted by a dalliance with baseball and a brief retirement -- Jordan has been called the best by coaches including Don Nelson, Larry Brown, Doc Rivers, Kevin Loughery and Doug Collins; players including Vlade Divac, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing and John Starks -- on the night in 1995 that Jordan poured in 55 points against the Knicks just after his return from baseball; and countless others including boxer Sugar Ray Leonard and ESPN analyst Jack Ramsay.

"I think when you talk about athletic ability and being creative on the floor, Michael is the best," John Paxson, a former teammate on the Chicago Bulls, told Larry King.

"Michael is the best that ever played the game," Utah Jazz forward Karl Malone once said.

And player-turned-analyst Danny Ainge told the New York Times in 1996 that "Michael's the best player, without question, of all time."

That Jordan chose Washington as his curtain call was the coolest thing that could have happened to this starchiest of cities. He brought a dash of daring and glamour and drama to the District.

We have symmetries in sports. Jordan's first game as a Washington Wizard was an away game against the Knicks. His last appearance in a home game was against the Knicks. He played against Patrick Ewing back then; he played for Patrick Ewing last night.

And we have cemeteries. Buried for the night were questions of Jordan's gambling and gamboling. Any sins -- and many spins -- were in the past. He's older, wiser. He's made the transition from sensation to sensei, giving advice on the run instead of talking trash.

In his postgame interview, however, Jordan was asked about Collins's harsh words. He said that obviously "Doug felt very, very disrespected." He said that he had had to step in at one point to stanch the dissing.

Jordan was noncommittal about his plans for next year.

Last night's game wasn't Jordan's last. He plays again tomorrow night in Philadelphia in the season-ender -- and he has come out of retirement twice before. It wasn't his best. And because the Wizards had already blown their chance for a playoff berth big-time, the game didn't really mean anything.

But to Washington fans, it was one of the most memorable moments in the city's roller-coaster sports history. In honor of the last time local basketball fans had anything to cheer about, the Wizards wore the red, white and blue retro Bullet jerseys from 25 years ago, when Wes Unseld led the team to the NBA championship.

Was there too much hype? Too much hyperbole?

It's the least we can do to celebrate someone who gave the highest hopes to Washington hoops.

Jordan has been honored in songs and movies and paintings. He has appeared in a Michael Jackson video, in a feature film with Bugs Bunny and in the lyrics of rap songs. Alan R. Shapiro, a poet and English professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, wrote a poem about Jordan, "On Men Crying" after seeing Number 23 balled up on the floor clutching the championship trophy in 1991. Jordan sobbed, the poet wrote,

as if the prize

for having proved he was The Man was that he got to be the boy,

the baby, weeping the way Achilles must have wept

because he could weep now, the bronze gear recovered,

the degraded foe behind him dragged in a wake of dust

Other transcendent players, like Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson, have not received such attention. There is no apparent Jordan heir.

If you believe in basketball -- and we as a nation do, so help us God -- Jordan has been the highest of high priests. We are like a cargo cult and he has brought us the grandest cargo. The snazziest shoes, the closest-fitting underwear, the most colorful sports drink. And he has provided us the ultimate example of superlative success by being the hardest worker, the most creative artist and, even last night during the postgame grilling, possessor of the winningest smile.

A photograph of Michael Jordan and his ubiquitous jersey number are projected onto the floor at MCI Center during the halftime tribute.Despite the swirl of emotions, Jordan looks almost serene as he waits for a rebound.Michael Jordan made his way to the court through a throng of younger admirers at MCI Center yesterday for his final home game in a 15-year career. He drew a hug from the Knicks' Latrell Sprewell, above, before the tipoff, and a sustained ovation, below, as he left the game for the last time.