- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 25, 2003

CHICAGO With every wave and smile, the thunderous ovation for Michael Jordan got louder. One minute passed, then two, then three.
Chicago fans just didn't want to say goodbye to the man who gave them six NBA championships and one of the most magical eras the city has seen. This was likely his last game in Chicago, and fans at the United Center applauded loud and long, as if hoping to delay his departure just a little longer.
"MJ You're Irreplace-A-Bull," read one fan's sign.
Jordan had been through similar lovefests the first two times he came to the United Center as a visitor, so he had an idea of what to expect. Instead of being overwhelmed by emotion as he was the other times, he drank this one in.
He smiled and waved, blowing a few kisses to the crowd. He mouthed "Thank you" several times, savoring the fans' love for him.
But he looked sheepish the longer the ovation continued. Finally, after three minutes and 20 seconds, Jordan grabbed a microphone and headed to center court.
"Thank you," he said, drawing a scream of delight from the crowd. "It's truly been a pleasure. You guys have given me great pleasure to play in the city of Chicago.
"I love you all. You're still supporting the Chicago Bulls. Thank you for supporting them over the years.
"Thank you all. I love you very much."
With that, he trotted back to the Washington Wizards bench. Fans continued to applaud, booing loudly when the lights were turned on to introduce the Bulls.
But if the lights hadn't been turned out, the ovation might have lasted until next week. The sold-out crowd people paid as much as $1,200 for a courtside seat wasn't there for the game. The fans came to pay their respects to Jordan one last time.
"I don't think anybody ever gets tired of Michael being recognized," Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "It's something he's earned and deserved."
Jordan insists he's retiring at the end of the season, and he's made it clear he doesn't want a traveling retirement party with every road game. Chicago is a little bit of a different story, but the Bulls did their best to respect their wishes.
"There's a lot of sentimental things here, and I don't have the killer instinct that I probably normally should have, because it's here," Jordan said after Friday morning's shootaround, glancing up at the banners that hang from the rafters in the United Center, including one that bears his name.
"I want to win," he added. "But I'd like to do it where I'm not killing the other team, killing Chicago."
Jordan arrived with the rest of the Wizards about 1 hours before the game to little fanfare. There were camera crews waiting for him, as usual, but none was allowed to follow him down the hallway.
He walked quickly to the Washington locker room, hugging former teammate Bill Wennington before ducking inside.
The Bulls didn't honor him with a pregame ceremony as they originally planned; a video tribute was planned instead. But the pregame ovation, that was up to the fans. The Bulls said they would let it go a "reasonable" length of time, certainly longer than the two minutes and 10 seconds it lasted Jan. 2.
"They're going to have to end it somehow. We've got to play the game," Jordan said. "I would love for it to be short."
No such luck. The sold-out United Center was already packed by the time the Wizards took the court for warmups 10 minutes before the game, and there were fans in all vintages of Jordan jerseys. North Carolina. Chicago. Washington.
They carried signs, too. "Thanks for the memories, MJ," read one. "We will never forget," read another.
"It's very sensitive to play in front of people that you love, and they love you," Jordan said earlier yesterday. "I know that it's not death. I still live here.
"I'll do my best not to cry."
He didn't cry, but he was clearly moved. And no wonder. Unless he does another about-face and makes a third comeback, he'll never again play in Chicago, the city that embraced him and where he established himself as one of the greatest the game has ever seen.
"This is where everything began. This is not Chicago Stadium, but it's Chicago, and this is where things started for me," he said. "I wish, in all honesty, that things don't have to come to an end, but they do."
There will be other emotional milestones over the next few months. His final regular-season game will be among them and perhaps one last trip to the playoffs.
But nothing will top last night's game.
"Because," he said, "it's here."


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