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55
Alexander Wolff
November 13, 1995
Last spring, the newly unretired Michael Jordan lit up Manhattan, the Knicks and the NBA itself with what may have been the most thrilling performance of his career
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November 13, 1995

55

Last spring, the newly unretired Michael Jordan lit up Manhattan, the Knicks and the NBA itself with what may have been the most thrilling performance of his career

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Thus the city must get all it can out of its single world-class celeb. Two nights after Jordan's New York epic, SportsChannel Chicago will air 24 hours of highlights and documentary footage of, and interviews with, the man himself. And a Windy City radio station will poll its listeners on the pressing matter of whether Jordan should be named King of the Universe.

It's a wonder that only 41% say yes.

In the second quarter Jordan seems to slip the bounds of the Garden and reinvent his surroundings—to pull asphalt under his feet and the spirit of New York's playgrounds into his bloodstream. Fifteen of the Bulls' 19 points this quarter will be his: his 28th and 29th of the game on his staple, the simple fallaway over Starks; his 30th and 31st after jabbing with each shoulder, then spinning into another fallaway that beats a dying shot clock. In a glimpse of foreshadowing, up for a jumper near the end of the half, he passes up the shot, pitching instead to a 7-foot teammate, end-of-the-bencher Bill Wennington, who pitches it right back.

Jordan's tongue comes out often as he makes these moves, of course. But at one point he flashes a trace of a smile. His mirth is evidently contagious; later in the game Starks will head downcourt unable to suppress a laugh at the ridiculousness of what he has become a victim of. "In a game like this," the former supermarket checkout clerk says later, "you just have to hope he starts missing."

Jordan hardly has missed as he leaves the court at the half. The Bulls trail 56-50, but Jordan has sunk 14 of 19 shots. As he files through the tunnel an adolescent girl reaches over the railing above, risking getting singed as Jordan's hand meets hers.

A Garden basketball crowd is famous for its ability to make the syllables of the word defense sound like invective. Yet Jordan and his 35 points have reduced 19,763 people to disorganized murmuring. Going back nearly four decades New Yorkers have been quick to root for the home team, but they've also been appreciative of the great opponent. The Knicks sucked rotten eggs during the early 1960s, but the undercard of an NBA doubleheader back then might have featured the Boston Celtics or the Philadelphia Warriors, and fans would fill the old Garden for a 6 p.m. tip-off to behold the conjurings of a Cousy or the majesty of a Chamberlain.

Yet through the 1990s Jordan haunted the Garden in part because some of that connoisseurship seemed to spill from the loges and infect the Knicks themselves. From power forward Charles Oakley, the team's enforcer and an ex-Bull who adores his former teammate, to Starks and that laugh he'll let slip, the entire Knick family seems to have a streak of the fan in it.

Not that anyone in the stands is going to take the Knicks to task for falling under Jordan's spell, least of all tonight, anyway; they too are his hostages, suffering from a sort of Stockholm syndrome. "More than anything else, the fans wanted to see him have a great game," Jackson will say. "It was like they'd gone to a Broadway show."

Intermission over, Jordan scores points 40, 41 and 42 on a three-point shot. Forty-seven, 48 and 49 come on another trey. No one in the NBA should be able to jump-shoot his way to a total like this, least of all against a team of bogarters like the Knicks, least of all Jordan, whose J is a jumble of knocked knees and limbs akimbo even when it's clicking, and it hasn't been clicking since he returned. Yet here he is, on his way to scoring 55 the way Larry Bird might have scored 55.

The Bulls' Steve Kerr may be the best three-point shooter in the league. Yet friends will tell him later that he looks starstruck as he sits on the bench, watching as Jordan sends shot after shot whispering through the net. The reaction of players like Kerr worries Jackson. The Bulls were so dependent on Jordan prior to Jackson's taking over the team in 1989 that then assistant coach John Bach referred to the team's "archangel offense." To transform Chicago into the group that won three straight titles, Jackson took on twin missions: to jawbone Jordan into involving his teammates more through the triangle offense, and to persuade the "Jordanaires" that the team's goals weren't being served if they stood around gawking during number 23's levitations. Jackson's membership on the 1973 Knick title team, a squad founded on balanced scoring and a commitment to finding the open man, established his bona fides as he made that sale.

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