In the end, the man who imposed his will on the sport of basketball like no one else before him was outvoted, outmanned and outmaneuvered at the National Basketball Association's All-Star Game, pushed onto a pedestal just before tonight's opening tip by a group of younger players determined to pay tribute.
Michael Jordan, it turned out, would be no one's reserve. Despite not being voted into the starting lineup by the fans, as is custom, he started the final all-star game of his memorable career anyway after Toronto Raptors guard Vince Carter and New Jersey Nets guard Jason Kidd surrounded him, cajoled him and finally commanded him to strip off his warm-up gear and take the floor in Carter's place.
"Vince surprised me," Jordan said after coming off the court toward the end of the first quarter, and indeed, he looked uncharacteristically tight in the opening minutes before eventually rounding into such good form he was able to hit a fadeaway jumper that nearly won the game in overtime. Ultimately, the Western Conference ended up with a 155-145 double-overtime victory, but it was Jordan who took home an all-star record for career points, as well as vindication of his weeklong stance that basketball should be about how a player finishes, not starts.
He had staunchly declined all offers to move into the starting lineup, and maintained that he was not interested in charity. Yet with a packed Philips Arena pulsing with excitement and with Carter -- the one player who had previously said he wouldn't give up his spot for Jordan -- refusing to take off his own sweat suit, Jordan finally relented.
"I told [Carter] as I told the rest of the players, I've started 13 times, I didn't need to start a 14th," said Jordan, who has made it clear he will retire -- for good this time -- at the end of this season. "I hadn't wanted him to back down for what he stood for, but he wanted me to take the spot, and I thought it was very gracious of him."
It was a sharp turnaround for Jordan, who before the game had decreed, "I don't want my last game to be a circus, I want it to be a competitive game.
"I'm somewhat embarrassed because I have the feeling it's going to turn into the Michael Jordan show, which I don't want," he said, although considering the wave of esteem that had been building here all week, it was hard to see it happening any other way. For days, Atlanta has been stuffed with celebrities, athletes and fans desperate to see Jordan in his element once more, and by the time tonight's courtside introductions were made, the anticipation had reached the boiling point.
"There is no other place to be right now," said hip-hop luminary Snoop Dogg, who was joined in the first few rows of the arena by stars ranging from actor Adam Sandler to music entrepreneur P. Diddy to heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis. Iran Brown, the Maryland boy wounded by sniper fire late last year, was also in attendance, as was Mariah Carey, who serenaded Jordan at halftime.
Jordan, 39, responded with watery eyes and a warm speech, thanking his fans and his family. He had appeared slightly more frustrated at the beginning of the game when he clanged his first seven shots off the rim and the backboard, missing even an uncontested dunk. But he made his eighth shot with a soaring layup, and by the end of the game he had gone 9 for 27, scoring 20 points while adding two assists and five rebounds.
The performance was strong enough to give Jordan 262 career all-star points, pushing him past Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to No. 1 on the all-time list, and while Jordan did not earn the game's most valuable player honors, his Eastern Conference teammates did everything in their power to give him as many looks at the basket as possible. Many of them had taken the floor with vintage editions of Air Jordan shoes, and even Carter, who had been showered with criticism all week for his initial decision not to give up his starting spot, fed Jordan playfully, handling a scattering of boos with good grace.
"I'll get this opportunity again, and I want to thank the fans for voting for me," said Carter, who had been the league's third-leading vote-getter despite being limited to just 15 games this season by knee injuries. The NBA allows fans to vote for the game's starters and then asks the league's coaches fill out the reserve roster; players usually abide by the decisions, but in the past a few have given away their positions as a mark of respect.
Tonight was one of those times.
"Michael has never had a going-away celebration, because he's always retired abruptly," said longtime friend Charles Barkley, noting that this game in particular seemed like an appropriate moment to start the confetti. Stardom, after all, has been Jordan's hallmark as he's spent the last two decades redefining the role of a sports personality in modern American society. Endorsements, media coverage and player compensation all changed under his purvey, as did the NBA itself.
"The players in this game have to remember why they are making $10-15 million," said Magic Johnson. Apparently, the players in the game not only remembered but wanted to say thank you. And even Jordan, as reluctant as he was to accept their kindness, seemed to appreciate what the gesture meant in the larger sense.
"It's obviously been a very hectic weekend, but I got to enjoy some of the next generation of players, actually talk to them as opposed to just face them on the court," he said. "I think they are going to carry on the torch and be fine. I think the game of basketball is in good hands."