- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2001

NEW YORK The stars were out in force: firefighters, police officers, emergency medical technicians, postal employees, relief workers, military personnel.

Oh, and Spike Lee. And Michael Jordan.

Against a backdrop of prizefight-esque hype and the ongoing specter of national tragedy, Jordan made his eagerly anticipated debut as a Washington Wizard last night against the New York Knicks before a sold-out, glitterati-strewn crowd at Madison Square Garden.

From the start, it was no ordinary or even run-of-the-mill extraordinary evening in Gotham. Jordan's return, Game 3 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and the still-smoldering remains of the World Trade Center downtown ensured otherwise.

"This is a circus," said Turner Sports NBA analyst John Thompson, surveying the scene more than two hours before tipoff. "It's a championship-like environment, especially when you see the two teams and cities playing against each other."

Indeed. Along with the usual Garden standbys the Knicks, a 550-strong media throng, Lee reminders of the September 11 terrorist attacks on Washington and New York were everywhere.

Around the arena, American flag and ribbon pins were the fashion accessory du jour. Outside, a formerly unobstrusive security perimeter extended into West 33rd Street.

During pregame ceremonies, Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis performed "America the Beautiful," while two members of the New York Police Department sang the national anthem. President George W. Bush, in town to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Statidum, gave a video tribute on the overhead scoreboard.

"We prove every time we show up at an NBA game that we are determined to live our lives," Bush said.

NYPD snare drums rolled as each Knick was introduced with a uniformed EMT, rescue worker, police officer, firefighter or postal worker. The Wizards were joined by members of the U.S. military, and Jordan welcomed back by New York Gov. George Pataki received a warm round of applause when introduced.

"We dedicate this game and our entire season to our heroes," said league commissioner David Stern.

Courtside, Garden fixture Lee sat next to Jessica De Rubbio, a 12-year-old Knicks fan from Brooklyn. De Rubbio's father, David, was a firefighter in Brooklyn's Engine Company 226 and perished in the WTC attacks.

Lee, who netted $101,300 from an Internet auction of the ticket to De Rubbio's seat, donated the money to the FDNY's Widows and Children Fund. The anonymous winning bidder then gave the ticket to De Rubbio.

Likewise, the NBA will donate money raised from a web auction of 29 red, white and blue basketballs signed by both teams at each opening game to the Twin Towers Fund.

"I just thought about what I could do to help, and went over it with my wife," Lee said. "It's her ticket."

In the stands, a number of firefighters guests of the league and the Knicks mingled with the usual top-dollar crowd. Danny Murphy, a firefighter with the 74 Engine Company of the city's Upper West Side, said the game was a welcome diversion from the gruesome work at Ground Zero.

"There's about 30 of us here," said Murphy, who spent Monday at a wake. "In my engine, eight guys were killed [in the WTC attacks]. It's a time to take a break, come to a ball game and get away from the real world. And it's Michael Jordan."

As is the case in Washington, Jordan's return from a three-year retirement has been the talk of New York, a welcome reprieve from the terror warnings and anthrax reports that dominate the evening news.

Some tabloid columnists even speculated that the evening was the biggest in the Gotham's storied sports history larger than Muhammad Ali's comeback fight against Joe Frazier in 1968, greater than a Saturday in 1999 that featured the Belmont Stakes, a Yankees-Mets interleague matchup and a Indiana Pacers-Knicks playoff game.

Television crews from 23 nations broadcast the game, which was carried by 139 stations for 210 countries. The BBC showed the game in the United Kingdom after a 90-minute preview show focused on the role of sports in America during times of crisis.

"It's [Jordans] first game back at MSG," said former Wizards guard Tim Legler, now working with WTEM-AM (980). "The World Series is down the street. This place is buzzing. New York has never been buzzing like this."

Lloyd Daughtry, a 35-year-old Knicks fans from Chappaqua, shared Legler's sentiment. Sitting next to his brother, Clarence, he recalled Jordan's famed "double nickel," a 55-point outburst delivered in the fifth game of Jordan's 1995 return from minor league baseball.

"I've been to playoff games, to the finals," said Daughtry, who was lucky enough to purchase a ticket at face value from a coworker. "The electricity here seems more than in those games."

Huddled in an off-court holding area before the game, members of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy's Regimental Color Guard the unit that presented the American flag at the Mets' first game at Shea Stadium following September 11 buzzed with anticipation.

"We both play Division III hoops," said Llex Landreth, pointing to fellow cadet Aubrey Murdock. "So this is really exciting."

And on the same day a Manhattan hospital was shut down because of to a possible case of inhalation anthrax one evening after Attorney General John Ashcroft warned of potential forthcoming terror attacks exciting was more than enough.

"The timing of this couldn't be better," Thompson said. "It's a quick fix, based on everything that's happened. But it's better than no fix at all."

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