The city that booed Santa Claus, that booed the Easter Bunny, that booed native son Kobe Bryant, cheered Michael Jordan as it has never cheered a player who wasn't its own. Wednesday night, they loved him as much as any city has other than Chicago and maybe New York. They clapped and screamed until their hands and voices were raw, until Michael Jordan choked up and couldn't believe his own eyes. Philly, the place that at times appears to love nobody, loved him.
From Julius Erving and Moses Malone to Bill Cosby, the people of Philly put on their good clothes, paid real good money, and turned out to pay last respects of sorts. Michael Jordan is very much alive, of course, but the greatest and certainly the most celebrated basketball career since peach baskets were nailed to the wall in Springfield, Mass., was put to rest here Wednesday night in a celebration befitting a king. From the presentation of a golf cart driven onto the court by Malone, to the big bear hug from Erving, to the one-more-time pregame introduction by longtime Bulls announcer Ray Clay, it had the feeling of saying goodbye to an old friend, though he had been in truth a bitter rival.
"It was a chilling event," Jordan said of the way Philly made him feel. "I felt proud about what I had done over the years."
With 6 1/2 minutes left in the game, they stood and chanted, "We want Mike," and started to actually boo until Jordan took off his sweats one more time, and entered the game with 2:35 left and the Wizards trailing by some incredible number of points. Steve Javie, a contentious, ornery referee for the most part, shook Jordan's hand when he walked to the foul line. Javie actually delayed the game by refusing to hand the ball to the foul shooter. Jordan stayed in the game only 50 seconds that last time, until he made two free throws with 1:45 left. And the racket they made inside First Union Center rivals any noise you've ever heard indoors. Three encores it took, the third and final one drawing him up out of his chair and onto the court to wave at the fans and mouth "thank you." It's not often you see Michael Jordan overwhelmed in a basketball setting, but he was Wednesday night. "It was wonderful, just incredible," he said.
And then he did what he hardly ever does: Michael Jordan sat back and took stock.
"I never knew where the end was going to be," he said, "but I once said that I wouldn't be playing at the age of 40. Well, here I am, playing at the age of 40. It's like trying to determine how long you are going to love a person. Love is a very delicate thing; once you love the game, you never lose that love for it. You never know when you can walk away from it. And I tried a couple of times, obviously, for different reasons. But I've come to grips with it now . . .
"It's been a great relationship. It's been like my best friend. Obviously, sometimes you've got to grow up and move away from your best friend."
So that's it, that's all folks. It's over. I was going to write in this column that he should come back again, one more time. I didn't want to see him come back this time, but here I am like so many folks now, not wanting to see him quit. He can score 25 points any time he wants, even tomorrow if needed, and can grab 10 rebounds any time he wants, even against the Lakers or Spurs tomorrow if needed. Mr. Bill Cosby sat on the baseline. Cosby is Mr. Philly. He's also Mr. Basketball. "We've seen guys who had to leave the game and he's nowhere near that," Cosby said. "Great players like Earl [The Pearl] Monroe leave the game, and it was time. But Michael doesn't need to leave. I think he should have a fourth comeback. I think he should come back every five years. Who wouldn't enjoy it every time?"
Spike Lee, the man who brought Jordan to mainstream America commercially with his brilliant Mars Blackmon commercials -- remember, Blackmon in "She's Gotta Have It" would make love to his girlfriend while wearing his Air Jordans in bed -- traveled in from New York City for the finale. The old commercials are running all over the tube these days. Jordan had never heard of Lee at the time, in 1986. "I'm happy," Lee said, "to have known him, to have been alive at this time to see him play. Michael Jordan is our Babe Ruth. I was born in 1957, at the right time in regard to this. I got to see him play."
Bill Walton, a man who knows a thing or two about greatness, called Jordan's final game, on ESPN. "This is a sad day for me," Walton said. "I'm a fan. I'm a fan of Michael Jordan's. I'm going to miss everything about him, the example he set on a daily basis."
Larry Brown, a product of the University of North Carolina, just like Jordan, said, "I hate to see the day come, but I know it has to come. I'll save my ticket [stubs] and make sure my son and daughter get to see them."
Brown, after the finale, was wistful. "I remember my dad talking about Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth. And I remember how in love with Jackie Robinson I became growing up in Brooklyn. I even walked like him. And then, my son got to see Michael and spend time with him and he's going to say the same thing about Michael I said about Jackie."
For 21 years I've been writing about Michael Jordan, from North Carolina to Chicago to Washington, and as an Olympian. The time I was most professionally jealous was when I read somebody's line about Jordan, "He plays basketball better than anybody else has ever done anything." I wish I had written that line, because even though it's so over the top, it's why people have felt about him the way we have. It's why folks traveled from Taiwan to watch his final game the other night in Washington. It's why people in Philadelphia, a town for which he did nothing but defeat when it came to basketball, poured out their hearts to him on this night.
There won't be any more comebacks. I asked him that question a half-dozen different ways one day last week. "I'm done," he said. "That's it. I've exhausted it now. I've gotten everything out of basketball I could. And I think, I really believe, I've been true to the game and it's been true to me . . . I think I can move on now, without a problem."
In time, so perhaps will we.