Jordan returns to United Center for first basketball game since retiring

Wednesday, October 18th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHICAGO (AP) _ He wore a suit and sat 30 rows off the court, lounging in a luxury box with friends as he watched the action on the floor below him.

It's not the view Michael Jordan is used to having at the United Center. But a lot has changed since he last laced up his sneakers and stepped onto the court.

``I still have emotions,'' Jordan said. ``Just driving in, the lights out, just all those things. It brings back a lot of memories. It seems like so far away, but yet it was just yesterday.

``Sure, I still miss it.''

For the first time since he retired on Jan. 13, 1999, Jordan was back at the United Center on Tuesday night for a basketball game. But he wasn't there to play, he was there to watch.

And he wasn't there to root for the Chicago Bulls, either. As president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards, his loyalties are with another team now.

``I am very loyal to the fans here in Chicago and I want them to have a reason to cheer and a reason to come out and support the team,'' Jordan said. ``I just don't want it to happen against my team.''

No need to worry about that. After trailing almost the entire game, Laron Profit's tip-in with two seconds left gave Washington a 104-103 victory over the Bulls.

Juwan Howard led the Wizards with 16 points and Rod Strickland had 15. Chris Whitney and Richard Hamilton added 14 apiece. Ron Mercer led the Bulls with 20 points and Elton Brand had 19.

Jamal Crawford's 3-pointer put the Bulls ahead 95-79 with 8:52 to play, but the Wizards came roaring back with a 19-2 run sparked by Mike Smith's two 3-pointers. Whitney followed a jumper with a 3 of his own to give the Wizards the 98-97 lead, their first of the game, with 4:13 left to play.

The Bulls had a 103-102 lead with 11 seconds to play when they were called for an offensive foul. Washington got the ball and, after a scrum under the basket, Profit tipped in the game-winner.

``We wanted to win it for Michael and for (assistant coach) Johnny Bach,'' Howard said. ``They both have a lot of history here and we wanted to win one for them. Also, we didn't want Michael to kill us when we got back to D.C.''

Though Jordan saw the Chicago Bulls play twice on the road last season _ once in Atlanta and once in Washington, D.C. _ and went to one of their practices, he had stayed away from the United Center. He didn't even show up when the Wizards came to Chicago last April.

In fact, his only trip back to the United Center since his retirement news conference was in April 1999, and that was for a Chicago Blackhawks game.

But it's been almost two years since Jordan hung up his Nikes, and maybe the time was finally right.

He's not as bitter as he once was at chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause, whom he blamed for driving Phil Jackson away and breaking up the Bulls dynasty long before its time. He's moved on with his life, just as Jackson and his former teammates have.

``I have no animosity, believe me,'' Jordan said. ``I can honestly say I wasn't happy about the whole breakup and retirement, but it happened. I can't blame anyone in the organization, especially when I realized Phil wanted to move on.

''... The organization had to make a call based on where they were, and they did.''

So back to the United Center he came. Dressed in a gray suit and accompanied by former Chicago Bear Richard Dent and Rod Higgins, the Wizards assistant general manager, Jordan arrived about a half-hour before the game began.

He stopped to say hello to former teammate John Paxson, now the Bulls radio analyst, before heading for the visitors locker room and then upstairs to the luxury box.

Afterward, he came back downstairs to that familiar hallway. He greeted old friends with hugs and handshakes, and playfully walked up to the door next to the Bulls locker room _ a back entrance to the locker room.

But he didn't go in, continuing down the hallway to the visitors locker room instead.

``Great memories,'' he said, smiling. ``But things have changed. The atmosphere has changed. Names, jerseys, outfits _ everything's changed. That happens over a period of time.''