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J.A. Adande

Burden to Bear

A Defeat (or Two) Can't Take the Air Out of a Great City

January 20, 2002|J.A. ADANDE

CHICAGO — You might see Wizards 77, Bulls 69 and Eagles 33, Bears 19 and think Chicago was a two-time loser Saturday.

Uh-uh.

This was a special day for the city, a day when it was the center of the sports world.

It was a chance to savor and remember some of the privileges of being a Chicago sports fan over the years. Like the opportunity to drive west on Madison Avenue and watch Michael Jordan. Or the chance to watch the NFL playoffs in familiar Soldier Field, that chilly but intimate lakefront stadium with the majestic columns.

On Saturday, Chicago got to honor Jordan, something it never tires of doing. And it took the great play of Donovan McNabb to knock the Bears out of the playoffs. That's Donovan McNabb from Mount Carmel High on the South Side of Chicago, my friend.

See, the city couldn't lose.

It got to show off the lung power of 23,534 fans at the United Center and 66,944 fans sitting in sub-freezing temperatures at Soldier Field (which will be renovated, with a new seating bowl and more luxury suites that will obscure the view of the columns from inside the stadium).

Great city, great fans. As Jordan's agent, David Falk, said, "Any fans that could support the Cubs through 50 years have to be great."

Want to know the power of the Chicago fans? They tamed Jordan. They turned the greatest competitor the NBA has seen into a pussycat.

They showered him with affection, used their lungs and hands to repay him for the six championships he won for them and the 29,277 points he scored for them and the countless Michael Moments he gave them.

And those eyes that used to burn with competitive fire were moist with ready-to-roll tears.

Players, coaches, media and fans were all fair game for Jordan's self-motivational tactics.

You think it's a coincidence that he had some of his greatest moments--including his career-high 69-point game--in Cleveland? It's because the Cavaliers' fans never treated him with the usual reverence he found at other arenas. They rooted vehemently against him without paying him a scintilla of respect. Never even paused to appreciate the show. So he took particular delight in punishing them.

But he couldn't bring himself to hate Chicago on Saturday. The city always showed him love.

Wizard Coach Doug Collins recalled the days when he coached a younger Jordan with the Bulls and the fans would make the old Chicago Stadium's foundation shake when MJ took the court.

"I remember, 'And from North Carolina ...' and not being able to hear anything else," Collins said. "The Stadium used to sway. You could feel it move. I coached him every night for three years and the hair stood on my forearms every time he was introduced."

This time he was the last visitor introduced, and with far less fanfare.

"A 6-6 forward from North Carolina, Michael Jordan."

But the crowd kept cheering and it wouldn't die down. The wave of noise crested, gathered itself, then surged again.

Jordan waved. His eyes looked watery. He smiled.

Finally, after more than a minute, they turned off the lights and began the Bulls' introductions. Traditionally, especially in the glory years, that was the cue for Bull fans to go crazy. This time they booed. They weren't ready to stop applauding Jordan.

The ovation lasted long enough and reached decibels high enough to create a special moment. And there might have been problems if it were allowed to continue.

"Thank God they cut the lights out, or we'd be sitting there still, I'm sure," Jordan said.

Jordan still couldn't believe the outpouring of emotion.

"Almost had me crying. How am I supposed to play after that?"

He couldn't. Not to his old standards, of course, but not even up to par with the better efforts of his latest comeback. He scored only 16 points and missed 14 of his 21 shots, even threw up a couple of airballs. He committed nine turnovers.

"When the crowd started that whole thing, it was tough for me to play," he said. "I had a tough time playing against Chicago, because

It didn't help that he had to go against the in-your-face defense of Ron Artest. That's the same guy who broke Jordan's ribs during a pickup game last summer. You'd think Jordan would want revenge against him, but he likes this kid too much.

"I love Ron Artest," Jordan said. "He's got so much intensity and such a competitive drive. One time he kicked me and said, 'I'm sorry.'"

Artest certainly didn't show Jordan any reverence when he was guarding him. He didn't even appreciate the Jordan-induced delay in the Bulls' introductions.

"I didn't like that," Artest said. "After they called him, they should call us right out. It's not like somebody won the championship and they're giving out rings and trophies. They called him, call us out. What are we waiting for? We're the home team."

The less said about the game itself, the better. To paraphrase the inscription on the Jordan statue outside the arena, this game was the worst there ever was, the worst there ever will be.

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