Outside the Garden, the Bulls' team bus has taken 15 minutes to negotiate the half block from Seventh Avenue to the Garden's service entrance. Some people among the swells surrounding the arena bang on the sides of the motorcoach when they realize who's inside. Scalpers lucky enough to hold $95 lower box seats are getting as much as $1,000 a ticket. At Gerry Cosby & Co., the sporting-goods store in the Garden concourse, clerks are selling number 45 jerseys right out of the boxes. "All Bulls stuff is going again after being dead for a year and a half," says Cosby's Jim Root.
Jordan is normally available to the press until the locker room closes 45 minutes before tip-off. He particularly likes to engage the New York writers, to consider their smarter-than-average questions. But tonight he hides out in the training room, playing solitaire on his portable computer.
Every playoff renewal of the rivalry between the Bulls and the Knicks during the early 1990s has featured an incident with Jordan at its center. In '91, in Chicago's 103-94 Game 3 victory over New York, Jordan dunked over 7-foot Knick center Patrick Ewing as the Bulls swept the series. On the eve of Game 7 a year later, Michael asked for advice from his father, James, whose body would be found in a South Carolina creek 15 months later; Papa's counsel—"Take over"—worked just fine, with Michael going for 42 and the Bulls winning by 29.
In 1993 Jordan took his infamous gambling trip to Atlantic City between the series' first two games, both Chicago losses, yet he rose to block one of 6'10" forward Charles Smith's four unavailing shots under the basket as Game 5 wound down, and the Bulls eliminated the Knicks once more. Why, in Game 4 Jordan scored 54 points. (Imagine...54 points!)
The Bulls' route to each of their three crowns went through New York. Yet in 1994, with Jordan having been taken to task by a certain weekly sports magazine for "embarrassing" baseball, the Knicks finally beat Chicago and advanced to the NBA Finals. Thus, to New York fans, Jordan ought to seem like a Sisyphean rock. Yet there's affection in the voice of Mike Walczewski, the Garden's P.A. announcer, as he introduces Jordan, and unambivalent cheers from the crowd—a crowd that jeers the other Bull starters.
Jordan will later say that he had never felt less confident before a game. But the way he walks to the center circle for the tip-off, pausing halfway there to paw at the floor with his shoes like some ready-to-strike animal, hints at what is to come.
How does a pro basketball player score 55 points? Even if you're Michael Jordan, it helps if you've essentially been ordered to do so by your coach. The request unburdens the conscience, leaving you free to let fly. For the better part of two seasons, Chicago coach Phil Jackson has run up against the skinflint New York defense too many times without Jordan not to take full advantage of his presence now. "They'd smothered us," Jackson will say. "We needed scoring. So I said, 'Go for it.' "
The first option of the Bulls' basic triangle set comes off the fast break. The team's most potent offensive threat nestles into the low post, hoping to get the ball there and make a move before the defense can entirely establish itself. During Jordan's absence, forward Scottie Pippen usually played this role, called post-up sprinter, but in Chicago's pregame meeting Jackson told Jordan to take up in the hub of the Chicago offense. "Everything else is pretty much a moot point if he can make his shots," Jackson will say afterward. "And we knew within a few minutes that he was making his shots."
His first, a short pull-up jumper in transition, comes on a pass from forward Toni Kukoc, the Croatian émigré who arrived after the Bulls' third title and had so looked forward to playing with Jordan that he broke down in tears the day Jordan announced his retirement. Jordan's second shot comes after he has set up as the post-up sprinter, and the Knicks are called for an illegal defense. He takes the subsequent inbounds pass and shows John Starks, who's attempting to guard him, a little mambo with the ball and a left-to-right rock before leaping up to shoot and score.
During the first quarter he'll do this again and again, having his way with the 6'5" Starks. Sometimes Jordan doesn't so much as show his face to Starks before spinning into a fallaway. The first time he feels Starks rest a forearm on his back Jordan spins past him and along the baseline for a layup. The next time he spins in the same direction, only to fall back and unspool another perfect jumper. Starks, with no recourse now, is whistled for a hold. As if to highlight the defensive quandary they're in, the Knicks are cited for their second illegal defense violation five minutes into the game.