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J.A. Adande

The Torch Is Passed by Jordan, and Bryant Uses It on the Wizards

March 29, 2003|J.A. Adande

The Michael Jordan Farewell to Los Angeles Performance -- sold out, of course -- turned out to be nothing more than an opening act.

There's no better way to sum it up than to quote the sign held aloft by a fan at Staples Center Friday night.

"Goodbye Michael ... Hello Kobe." No more words were necessary. They don't allow signs larger than two feet by three feet in the building anyway, so that would have to do.

The supposed draw was Jordan's last trip to L.A., the place where he first jumped into international prominence in the 1984 Olympics, and the city where he won his first NBA championship. The fans arrived early -- Jack Nicholson wore Air Jordan shoes and a Jumpman logo T-shirt -- and started taking pictures the minute the Washington Wizards hit the floor for warmups.

It turned out to be a historic night all right -- the night Kobe Bryant set a Laker record with 42 points in the first half.

Bryant finished with 55 points, the most by anyone in the NBA this season, while Jordan scored the number by which we'll always remember him: 23.

The most amazing aspect was that Jordan put on an offensive display worthy of his earlier years while using the tactics he uses now, at age 40.

Said Phil Jackson, who coached Jordan in Chicago and now coaches Bryant and the Lakers: "I've encouraged my players to watch what [Jordan] does because of his footwork, his ability to get quality shots even though he doesn't have that elevation or speed that he once had. He can still find his shot just by using footwork, which is a credit to his game. His game is so clean."

That would be an accurate description of Bryant's game Friday night. His 15 field goals didn't include one dunk. Nine of them were three-pointers, including one in which he was trapped in the corner and freed himself by giving Bobby Simmons a little shimmy move, then rising up for a turnaround jumper.

He pulled up on the fastbreak instead of taking the ball all the way to the hoop. He pump-faked and baited defenders into him to draw fouls and get to the free-throw line, where he shot 16 for 18.

The main Michael Moment came when he was sitting on the bench between periods. A highlight montage (filled with shots of him in a Chicago Bull uniform, of course) played on the scoreboard video screens. At its conclusion the fans gave Jordan a standing ovation that lasted a minute, cresting when Jordan caught his live image on the screen and waved to the camera.

The last came with 2:34 remaining in the game, when Juan Dixon entered and Jordan took a seat while the fans left theirs and gave up the loudest cheer of the night.

I've seen Jordan go for 50-plus three times in person. By the third I knew how to sense what was brewing. He'd get it going in the first quarter and it was obvious: It was going to be one of those nights.

That's what was so amazing about Bryant Friday night. It came out of nowhere, like a weakside safety blitz on an unsuspecting quarterback.

All eyes were on Jordan, who made his first five shots -- an array of jumpers -- on his way to 13 first-quarter points. Then Bryant closed the quarter with 10 points in the final two minutes, and opened the second with 11 in the first three minutes.

Twenty-one points in five minutes. That's not a scoring binge. That's a flash flood, or one of those other natural phenomena that the folks on my favorite meteorological TV channel call "a weather event."

The main reason the Lakers have assumed Jordan's old throne is they have the two greatest forces in the game: Shaquille O'Neal's dominance and Bryant's willpower.

Jordan might still have the same desire, but he just can't do as much with it as Bryant can. Make no mistake: the Lakers at the outset caught Jordan at his best.

Wizard assistant coach John Bach noticed that Jordan had that focus, the type he gets before his big games. Jordan, who was chatting with reporters before a game in Portland Tuesday night, didn't avert his eyes from a scouting tape playing in the visitors' locker room Friday.

He was locked in in the first quarter, helping the Wizards get off to an eight-point start. But it was almost as if he didn't have any response for Bryant's outburst.

In the old days he would have guarded him, which was usually the end of any opponent's scoring run. Friday he defended only Bryant once, on a switch, and wound up stealing a pass intended for Bryant. So we never got to see one last Jedi duel between the master and the youngster.

I guess now we know for sure what makes Jackson such a great coach. He asks players to produce and they do so -- at an otherworldly level.

When Jordan was asked about his memories of his former coach in Chicago, he said: "The thing that I remember greatly about Phil was, he challenged me. He was never intimidated by me. He could easily be intimidated by the things that I achieved. If I played bad, he told me I played bad. If I needed to improve in areas, he told me I needed to improve in areas."

In January of this year, with the Lakers sluggish and O'Neal slowly rounding back into form, Jackson asked Bryant to take on more of an offensive burden. Bryant responded by scoring 30 or more points in 16 consecutive games, including 11 in which he topped 40.

About 90 minutes before tipoff Friday night, Jackson had another suggestion: "I think Kobe's the one who's got to carry the game a little bit."

A little bit? What would have happened if he had asked Kobe to give everything he had?

I was a little sad before the game, when I realized this would be my last chance to see Jordan play live. It's one of the great privileges in sports.

I'm not missing anything right now. I just wonder what Kobe Bryant has in store next.

J.A. Adande can be reached at: j.a.adande@latimes.com

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