WASHINGTON -- For more than a dozen games now, he's been one of the very, very best players in the league again; for the last couple he's been positively great. The one thing we hadn't seen from Michael Jordan, though, was something spectacular, a play born of anger, the kind of rage that we've never quite seen from anyone else on a basketball court.
But Friday night against his old team, Jordan gave us something jaw-dropping, something we weren't really ready for. Congested and wheezing from a cold, trying to sit out as much of the fourth quarter as possible after the Wizards ran up a big lead, Jordan was angry over a foul not being called at one end.
Angry Jordan is always the best Jordan. With Ron Mercer about to pull the Chicago Bulls within four points with about 15 seconds left, Jordan raced the other way and waited for Mercer to let go of what was supposed to be a layup. Jordan, old man, skyed, snatched Mercer's shot out of the air with both hands, pinned it against the glass and brought the ball back to earth with him.
Even more than winning, it's why you come to the gym to see Jordan, hoping he'll show you something nobody else has. He won the game, elevated his teammates, deflated the opposition and put something else on video for upcoming opponents to ponder.
"I don't know where he came from, I really don't," his coach, Doug Collins said. "But it's what he's done his entire career. ... He saved it for the last play. He was mad. That was an angry play."
Actually, it was a sick and angry play. And that's when Jordan's at his best. He'd immersed himself in steam earlier, had no legs after scoring 19 of his 29 points in the second quarter. And he'd been wrestling young, bullish Ron Artest most of his 38 minutes on the court. Artest, in case you forgot, is the 250-pound kid who broke Jordan's ribs in that Chicago pickup game over the summer, the injury that set back the comeback a month or so. Artest isn't anybody's superstar, but he guards Jordan as hard, as physically and with more aggression than almost anybody since the Bad Boy Pistons.
"It was like being in a fight," Collins said of Artest's strength of willingness to push and shove Jordan. "Michael was fighting like heck just to get the ball."
"I think he's one of the best," Jordan said, handing out quite a compliment. And Artest is just wacky enough to not care what Jordan thinks, or to foul Jordan hard when necessary. Jordan felt he should have gotten a call with less than 20 seconds left, and after he didn't, it wasn't time to leave matters to the refs. Losers and whiners do that.
"Anger just gave me more energy to go up and get a block," Jordan said.
Jordan, over the last couple of days, tried to play down how excited he was about playing the Bulls. I didn't buy it. Neither did Doug Collins, who said, "It was the first time all season I had a knot in my stomach. Not because of my time in Chicago; I played (the Bulls) when I was in Detroit. But I knew how important it was to Michael."
The more emotional game against Chicago will come Jan. 19, at United Center, the palace Jordan built. He has the date memorized.
But the Bulls have time to be a better team by then. Charles Oakley, Jordan's one-time Bulls teammate, one-time nemesis in New York, and always his close friend, is back on the Bulls. You know what Oakley, always frank and darn-near always accurate in his assessments, says of Jordan's Wizards. "I think," Oakley said, "he'll have them playing well enough to get one of the top four seeds in the East. The East is weak, man. I told you, though, he could do this. I'm not surprised."
It's now 12 out of 14 victories for the Wizards, with a bunch of home games coming up. I'm thoroughly convinced that if Jordan had been able to trade the No. 1 pick to the Bulls for Elton Brand, the Wizards would be in perfect position to win the Eastern Conference. This year. I'm serious. Think about it. If the Bulls were willing to trade Brand to the Clippers for the No. 2 pick, which was Tyson Chandler, of course they would have traded the pick to the Wizards for what turned out to be Kwame Brown.
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