Years ago, looking at the commotion that surrounded Kareem Abdul-Jabbar when he retired, Michael Jordan said he would do whatever he could to prevent a similar public celebration in his final days. So here Jordan is, with perhaps only three months remaining in his career, and he's being serenaded by a pop diva in a mermaid dress at the NBA All-Star Game.
Jordan didn't want this fuss, rails against it privately, and said late Sunday night following the star-studded hoopla over him: "These guys went against my wishes in a sense. . . . Hopefully, it doesn't get like this everywhere I go. Obviously, everybody knows the places I am going to go and . . . it will be my last time there, but now with the fanfare today. I will look around, yes, I will have a lot of memories of a lot of places. But I just want to go there, play the game, try to make the playoffs, keep beating teams we can beat. And teams we haven't beaten, we want to beat them, too."
Jordan then took a deep breath. He did a lot of that the past two weeks as people in and around basketball went to great lengths to thank him. "You've got to understand how much I appreciate it," Jordan had said a few days earlier outside the Wizards' locker room. "But it's hard to know what to do after you thank people for saying these things."
So what now? "Just try to keep moving on, get this thing over and done with," he said.
He can't be serious, can he? "Hey, I've got memories to live with, [but] I will enjoy the rest of the season no matter how you look at it."
He'd have another great all-star memory if not for the final play of the first overtime, when Kobe Bryant made two of three foul shots after he was fouled by Jermaine O'Neal with one second remaining. Bryant was one of the many people shocked and disappointed by Ted Bernhardt blowing his whistle. Bryant had to try to make that last-second shot; anything but his best effort would have dishonored Jordan on the night he was so lavishly honored. But when the shot was errant, Bryant wanted the game to be over, as did everybody else on both teams, probably everybody in the stands and most folks watching. Only Jordan could produce drama at an exhibition game.
But fittingly, the zebras inserted themselves unnecessarily in the All-Star Game just as they have all season. Bernhardt's whistle rewrote the ending and subsequently the history of the weekend. You've never seen the air go out of a place faster than it did Sunday night at Philips Arena.
The bigger picture here is that the younger players were so into the Jordan curtain call. Just two years ago, we chronicled the typical young NBA player as self-absorbed, shallow, and perhaps even thuggish. But since the 2001 All-Star Game in Washington, there seems to have been a seismic shift or one heck of a revolution regarding young NBA stars and their respect for geezers. I don't think anybody then would have thought for a second that Allen Iverson would have led the charge, damn the consequences, to get Jordan on the court for an all-star game. Iverson, as some may have noticed from postgame interviews late Sunday, wore a red, Jordan Chicago Bulls jersey after the game. "I've been looking for it for a long time," he said, "and the guy told me if I went to his store and signed some autographs that he would make sure I got it. . . . This is a great day, and I want to cherish it."
What all this means is that Jordan is suddenly faced with the responsibility of getting everybody, especially his Wizards teammates, to forget about the dazzle of this last week and deal with the immediacy of the team's western road trip, which begins in Sacramento.
Though the Wizards limped home at the break, there are only three teams in the Eastern Conference locked into playoff berths and they are the Pacers, Nets, and Pistons -- hardly world-beaters. Fourth-place Boston is vulnerable, and Philly has played terribly the past month. The battle out West is much spicier because the Lakers appear to be on the prowl. And now that the all-star lovefest is over, we can forget about Mariah's dress (yeah, boyee!), why Vince Carter relented, passing the torch and Jordan's victory lap and get to the drama of a basketball season that so far has had far more bark than bite.