Tuesday, October 30, 2001
On this night, hoopla reigns supreme
By Wayne Drehs
NEW YORK -- In his first game as head coach of the Chicago Bulls, on the same Madison Square Garden stage where he found himself Tuesday night, Doug Collins got his first taste of Michael Jordan.
Scarily nervous, suffering from a splitting headache and sweating profusely that night, Collins found his new team tied with the hometown Knicks with about two minutes to go. After popping an Advil, Collins was handed a glass of water by Jordan and told to cool it.
"Take a double drink of this," Jordan said. "And relax. I'm not going to let you lose your first game as a head coach." Jordan went on to be Jordan, as the story goes, scoring something like the last 10 points as the Bulls beat the Knicks. Stories like this, promises like this, defiance like this, would become commonplace for Jordan as the championships, praise and MVP trophies began to stack up. He rarely failed.
But on this Tuesday night in October, one in which fans paid as much as $100,000 for a courtside seat and the spectacle surrounding the game was supposed to dwarf the contest itself, the strange and unusual happened.
In the arena were Jordan had once thrived, in front of the fans he had frequently disappointed, a 38-year-old Michael Jordan missed. When the game was on the line and his team needed a 3-pointer to potentially force overtime, the ice water in those muscle-bound arms wasn't there.
"It could have been another memorable situation. I had a great look," Jordan said. "But it fell short. I just couldn't get into a rhythm."
For most of the Knick fans in attendance, it was the perfect ending. After all, even though they were eager to see Jordan's debut and had forked over the cash to do so, in no way did they want the Knicks to lose.
But for others, it was a bit of a shock and forecasted what could be a trying season for His Airness. After all, the last we saw of him, his right arm was raised like the neck of a beautiful swan, frozen in all its fully extended glory, as Jordan dropped the series-winning shot in the 1998 NBA Finals. Tonight, 40 months later, that same arm was left hanging at Jordan's side, slugging into the cramped Wizards locker room after letting his team down.
Inside the jam-packed Garden, you could almost hear the collective gasp in the fourth quarter when a wide-open Jordan fired the potential game-tying 3-pointer. Likewise, you could hear the steam that was released when the jumper fell short.
"I think we were all surprised, I know I was, when that 3 went up, because I thought it was in," said Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, another who had been through it before. "We are thankful for the win. Thankful it didn't go in."
On a night where many of Hollywood's finest were in attendance, the late-game drama was fitting. The missed jumper marked the end to just Game 1, or opening night, if you will, of this reunion tour. Just like the opening night of the Rolling Stones or Pink Floyd after a long layoff, there are some kinks to work out. After all, only two Wizards -- Christian Laettner and Chris Whitney -- were even in the league when Jordan last played.
Still, this will be the game everyone will remember. As Collins confessed before game time, no upcoming night will carry the glitz, the glamour and the anticipation of this one. It's easy to understand why. Nearly 600 media credentials were issued for the game, far more than the 150-or-so typically issued for a Knicks regular season contest. Reporters from Japan, Israel and France were on hand and the BBC televised the game throughout Europe, something it has never done before.
As early as 3:30 p.m. ET, some four hours before tip-off, scalpers were already pestering passersby about tickets. Prices started in the thousands, not hundreds. Inside the arena, Spike Lee staked claim to his world famous courtside seat just after 5:30 p.m. ET, two hours early. He was joined by Jessica DeRubbio, daughter of Brooklyn firefighter David DeRubbio, who was killed in the World Trade Center disaster.
They were hardly alone as high-profile attendees. Also in attendance were former boxer Joe Frazier, comedian Chris Rock, actors Matthew Modine, Michael Keaton, Kevin Bacon, Richard Dreyfuss, New York Rangers forward Mark Messier, model Heidi Klum, Good Morning America's Diane Sawyer and MTV's Carson Daly.
Frazier stole the show after the first quarter, when, inspired by L.L. Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out," he threw his fidora and suit coat to the ground and started shadowboxing in the middle of the floor. Daly, Klum and Dreyfuss were hits after the game, as they stopped to chat with various police, fire and military personnel who were honored before the game.
Despite his critical miss, Jordan still dominated the post-game conversation.
"Incredible, he's simply incredible," Dreyfuss said. "There isn't anything else you can say. Words don't give it justice."
Yes, this was more spectacle than basketball game. So many celebrities were in the house that the Hollywood television show Extra had a reporter and cameraman on the scene.
When Jordan arrived here Tuesday night, draped in a sleek black suit, dark blue dress shirt and a gold tie, he fittingly walked down the Madison Square Garden hall where pictures hang of Elvis, Frank Sinatra, George Burns, Sammy Davis Jr. and other New York performers.
He paid no attention to the pictures, instead focusing on the music that blared through his headphones. But the anticipation that his arrival keyed was comparable to that of Garden entertainers past.
"The great ones don't disappoint," said Spike Lee, wearing an authentic Knicks Latrell Sprewell jersey. "And that's MJ for you. That's why he came back -- for all this. And let me tell you -- I never seen this many media people, this much of a buzz in this arena, not even when we played San Antonio a couple years ago in the Finals."
They came to see the man. They came to see the legend. The one who doesn't lose and who wills his way to victory. And yet when the chips were down and everything was on the line this night, the legend failed.
Now Collins -- and everybody else in attendance -- can say they've seen it all.
"He's a competitor, so sure he's disappointed," the first-year Wizards coach said. "I'm disappointed. But if he makes three or four more shots, everybody is talking about what a game he had. So I'm not worried about it."
Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com.