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The Inside Track | COMMENTARY

For Jordan and Jessica, It Was a Special Night

November 04, 2001|SHAUN POWELL | NEWSDAY

NEW YORK — All eyes were on him, a 38-year-old basketball icon with a mid-life crisis, and all hearts were with her, a 12-year-old with a real-life crisis.

She wore jeans, an Allan Houston jersey and a black ribbon bracelet that she tugged occasionally to relieve her nervousness.

Covering her blonde hair was an FDNY cap with the names Brian, Stan, Lt. Bob and also Dave, her father and one of four firefighters lost from Engine 226 in Brooklyn.

It was Michael Jordan and Jessica DeRubbio and 19,000 additional fans all drawing strength from one another. Jordan returned to basketball Tuesday night because he needed the adrenalin hit he couldn't get as a part-time Wizards owner locked in a luxury suite, and she needed Jordan to provide an emotional lift the way her father once did.

This was the deal Jordan cut with the basketball public when he decided to return: Love me like you used to, and I'll try to love you back. So this was the vibe on the most anticipated opening night in NBA history. In an ideal setup devised either by the basketball gods or a wise commissioner, Jordan made his reappearance in a traumatized city and made those in the arena temporarily forget their troubles. And that wasn't easy to do for a star-struck girl sitting courtside.

"I was nervous all day," Jessie admitted. "Just jumping around the house and real excited. I still can't believe I'm so close to the players."

When the cry for help came Sept. 11, Dave DeRubbio and three co-workers at the firehouse on State Street in downtown Brooklyn took off for lower Manhattan. They never returned. Dave became part of a disturbing statistic, but there was more to him than being just a number.

"He was real easy-going," said Jack Halabe, a fellow firefighter at Engine 226. "Everyone enjoyed every minute they were around him. He had a great sense of humor and loved his job."

The big, burly, tough man who turned tender when it came to his daughter had a passion for his only child. The next great love of his life was the Knicks. He followed them faithfully during his 38 years, and that's why his peers had an easy decision when it came time to hand out the best and most expensive seat in the house.

When filmmaker Spike Lee auctioned one of his tickets, it generated a final bid of $101,300, which will further swell the relief fund. Then the winner did the right thing, called the city Fire Department and told them to give it to a deserving kid. It was a gesture made even more special when the wealthy philanthropist insisted on remaining invisible.

"I'm glad someone had the goodness in their heart to spend that kind of money," Lee said. "For someone to wish to stay anonymous says a lot about that person."

The intensity of the bidding also said plenty about the power of Jordan. He didn't lose his ability to create a buzz after three years away, but the immediate impression is his jumper needs help. It was strange to see him airball his second shot, and then blow a finger-roll going one-on-one with Mark Jackson. And the Knicks' refusal to be victimized, like so many times in the past by Jordan, made for an unspectacular evening.

"I just didn't shoot with any kind of rhythm," Jordan said. "My shot was pretty flat. It's just the beginning of a long season."

It was that kind of first game back for Jordan, who bricked often and couldn't pull his team from the clutches of a tight score. In the final 60 seconds he was short from the key, long on a three-pointer and threw away a pass. Jordan shot 7-for-21 and his 19 points couldn't match the impact of his last return at the Garden, when he dropped 55.

"This was the place to make a comeback," Jordan said anyway, despite the flat performance. "They recognize basketball here. When I come to New York, they want me to score 60 and for their team to win. But I feel good. I'm going to get stronger as the season goes along. I look at this as a challenge."

A greater task awaits a 12-year-old girl after losing a parent and part of her world. For a few hours, though, you couldn't tell. She broke out in a bashful smile when comedian Chris Rock gave her a playful nudge before tipoff. She seemed like a kid happy for the chance to see Jordan up close, during and after the game.

"It's really symbolic, her being here," Lee said. "She represents all the kids who lost a parent on Sept. 11. She'll go home happy tonight. She'll be a hot-shot in school tomorrow."

As for Jordan's shot, it may take awhile.

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