Pat Riley was out near the hash, motioning for Patrick Ewing to help the helpless John Starks. Everyone inside Madison Square Garden knew what was about to happen. Everyone knew Michael Jordan, the 32-year-old man who had already dropped 55 points on the New York Knicks, was about to shoot for 57.
These were the final, frantic seconds of March 28, 1995, the fifth game of Jordan's comeback to the NBA, the first in his favorite arena outside Chicago's city limits. He'd hit .202 playing fantasy baseball with the Birmingham Barons before ending his 17-month vacation and finally landing here, dribbling across midcourt and toward the Knicks' bench, stopping on a dime, nearly breaking Starks' left ankle on a crossover, and then spinning back toward the right elbow and into the paint, where he rose up with 4.8 seconds left in a tie game with the sole purpose of winning it.
A three-time champ who had long dispelled all notions of him as a conscience-free scorer, as a star who could get 63 against Larry Bird's Celtics in a playoff game (inspiring Bird to call him "God disguised as Michael Jordan") and still lose it, Jordan had no intention of turning team-centric in the air.
He'd made 21 of 37 field goal attempts, three of four 3-pointers, 10 of 11 free throws. Only a fool with those numbers would throw the ball to another guy in a red jersey, especially a guy who would average fewer than five points per game over his professional career.
"Bill Wennington," said Dave Checketts, then the Knicks' president and a witness sitting above a Garden tunnel. "A guy who couldn't score in an empty gym."
At the apex of his leap, the moment of endgame truth, Jordan was never in greater command of a rival and its audience. These were sort of his people, too, New Yorkers who despised this Brooklyn-born Bull for the glory he'd stolen from their Knicks, and yet appreciated him for the way he elevated the city game.
This sellout crowd of 19,763 didn't pay its money to watch Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason throw elbows under the rim. The fans wanted to see if Michael II could measure up to Michael I. The old-timers among them wanted to see if his four quarters of basketball could replicate Elvis' four Garden shows in '72, or if his second NBA act could match Sinatra's Main Event comeback to the Garden in '74.
What they wanted, above all, was a performance, the kind no member of the home team could give them. Jordan had conquered the Knicks in four different playoff series. He'd cracked 40 three times against Rick Pitino's team in the 1989 Eastern Conference semis, dunked on Ewing's head in the '91 sweep of John MacLeod's team, scored 42 in a Game 7 blowout of Riley's team in '92, and overcome an 0-2 deficit and the disclosure of his gambling misadventures in Atlantic City in the '93 conference final to ring up 54 points in Game 4 and close out Riley in six.
But Knicks fans didn't have to sweat any postseason stakes on March 28, 1995, three nights after Jordan nailed the winning buzzer-beater in Atlanta, moving the Omni crowd to stomp and cheer as if Steve Smith had made the full-court dash and shot.
The Garden crowd had a 44-23 team to enjoy, a runner-up to Houston during Jordan's time in the minors and a credible threat to return to the Finals. The Knicks could afford a Tuesday night loss to Jordan and his 36-33 Bulls, allowing the fans to sit back and admire a visiting artist at work.
And Michael felt very much at home in the Garden. "Those people there really know basketball," he once said. He liked how they demanded box-outs and ordered defenders to force right-handed ball handlers to their left. Jordan was quoted calling the Garden "the place to showcase your basketball talents."
In his rookie debut there in 1984, Jordan scored 33 to Bernard King's 34, blocked a Ken Bannister dunk attempt and turned a steal into a fast-break slam that started with him cupping the ball against his right wrist and ended with him windmilling it home, his forearm high above the goal. It was the first time the Garden buzzed for him, and it wouldn't be the last.
On opening night, 1986, Jordan broke the new Garden record for opponents with 50 points. In April 1988, on the verge of winning his first of five league MVP awards, Jordan scored 47 in the Garden and sent home one of his several signature poster dunks at Ewing's expense, kneeing the center in the face as he hung on the rim. Knicks fans could almost savor these magical Michael moments, if only because they didn't unfold in the playoffs.
So they eagerly awaited another one. "And if that offended you," Checketts said, "you were in the wrong business. The only other buzz I ever felt in the building close to Jordan happened in the Stanley Cup finals in '94 and in the big fights we had, like [Evander] Holyfield and Lennox Lewis [in '98]. I don't think Kobe (Bryant) ever generated it, and LeBron [James] might be approaching it now, but LeBron doesn't have the same elegance and grace to his game."
Stripped of some of his athleticism, Jordan relied on that elegance and grace the second time around. He arrived in the Garden as something of a reinvented jump shooter, reliant on pull-ups and turnarounds and fallaways. But Michael never doubted that his refined ground-game skills could conspire with muscle memory to again take down Riley's Knicks, who were loath to double-team him.
Wearing No. 45 in place of his iconic No. 23 and a black wristband pulled up to his left elbow, Jordan didn't waste any time tormenting his old friend Starks. He had 20 points in the first quarter and 35 at the half, compensating for his reduced hang time by twisting his way free for midrange jumpers and layups, giving the people what they came for. Ewing flattened Jordan on a baseline drive, knocked him hard to his back as Jordan's right leg buckled beneath him, but nothing in the game plan mattered on a night when Jordan even felt compelled to wag his tongue.
Some 325 credentialed news media members looked on with a measure of disbelief, as did a record TNT audience. Jordan had 49 after three quarters when the cable network's sideline reporter, Craig Sager, approached Earl Monroe to ask how he would've guarded the Bulls star. "Well, first of all," Monroe said, "I'd make sure that he didn't get off the bus to get in the building."
Seated near the scorer's table, Bernard King, holder of the new Garden standard of 60 points, turned to a reporter and said, "It doesn't look good." He was talking about the record, not the game.
"It was like Jordan had never left, and I just couldn't accept it," Checketts said. "Over time my feelings for him turned from hate to awe. I sat there and watched it, but I couldn't believe it. It was as if he was truly superhuman at that point. The Garden wasn't cheering for him, but it was a buzz, just people asking, 'What is he going to do next?'"
Only Jordan didn't hunt down Bernard King; he was too busy figuring out how to beat the current Knicks. The score was 107-107 when Jordan decided the time was right to do something he hadn't done all game -- deliver an assist to a teammate. With Michael sitting on 53 points, Scottie Pippen's banker gave the Bulls the lead.
Jordan broke the next tie with his last basket over Starks, who answered with the two free throws that set up the deciding sequence, the final Bulls inbounds pass to the one and only with 14.6 seconds to go. If the Garden didn't always feel like the world's most famous arena, it did right then and there. This was Game 7 in March.
Jordan dribbled up the floor against a crouching, retreating Starks, before accelerating into his move near one of the Garden logos on the court. Riley waved his right hand for Ewing to abandon the post and rush to his teammate's aid, leaving the Eighth Avenue basket unguarded.
As Jordan left his feet, Starks ran into the onrushing Ewing. Wennington moved a couple of steps northward toward the goal, into the void, and Jordan fired a perfect pass by Ewing and into the hands of the center's former rival at St. John's. Knicks forward Anthony Bonner had to stay home on the Bulls' Steve Kerr, stationed in the corner, and was too late in his scramble to cover Ewing's back. Jordan was about to secure his second assist.
Wennington's two-handed stuff with 3.1 seconds left sent the passer into a celebratory hop and dash toward Phil Jackson's bench, dropping to a knee and pumping his fist on the way there. After the timeout, an overwhelmed Starks would fumble away the Knicks' last possession, and just about everyone watching went home happy.
"This is why you're all here," Riley told reporters.
The losing coach tried pumping up Ewing's 36 points, seven rebounds and blocks blocks, but the storyline was just as it was in the 1982 NCAA title game, when the skinny freshman from North Carolina made the play to vanquish the skinny freshman from Georgetown.
Jordan would say Starks "forgot how to play me," as if Starks or any Knick ever know how to play him. "It was almost like Michael was paying us back for beating Chicago and winning the East in '94," Checketts said, "and reminding us that it would've never happened if he wasn't playing baseball."
Checketts made a wild move for Jordan in the first minutes of free agency in the summer of '96, calling his agent, David Falk, just after midnight and offering him every cent the Knicks had under the cap. Jordan could win a ring with the ring-free Ewing. He could end the championship drought in New York. He could call the Garden his home sweet home.
Michael slept on it before saying thanks but no thanks. He eliminated Jeff Van Gundy's Knicks from the playoffs in '96, and scored an angry 51 in the United Center in '97 after Van Gundy described him as a con man for buttering up Ewing and others in pregame encounters. Jordan screamed at the Knicks coach, "Calm down, you little f---," as he left the court.
Jordan was named MVP at the '98 All-Star Game in the Garden (with Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez sitting side by side in the stands), and, before the likes of Bruce Springsteen the following month, went for 42 points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals in his last appearance in the building as a Bull. He wore his original Air Jordan shoes in tribute to the Garden crowd, which gave him a standing ovation on exit.
"Some of the moves," Jordan said then, "seemed to be coming from 1984."
He wouldn't speak so enthusiastically near the end of his third NBA act in 2003, when he played the Garden for the last time. He was finishing his career with the Washington Wizards, and some fans came dressed in his Wizards jersey, some in his Bulls jersey. Jordan scored 39 at age 40, and yet his sub-.500 team lost to the sub-.500 Knicks.
Jordan had smacked his chin on the floor while diving for a loose ball, and he was angry that his younger teammates hadn't rewarded him with the same blood-and-guts effort. But when the conversation with reporters turned to Madison Square Garden, Jordan's tone softened.
"It's unfortunate," he said, "that we can't play here every night."
Sometimes it seemed like Michael Jordan did.