No Cheering in the Press Box is the title of an old book by former Tribune sportswriter Jerome Holtzman, and as something of an old-school sportswriter myself, I follow that edict. My record is exemplary but for the odd groan when Jose Valentin boots a grounder or an oooh for a Sammy Sosa homer, not to mention the ohmigawd! I remember uttering in the auxiliary press box in the rafters of the old Chicago Stadium when Michael Jordan executed his famous tomahawk-dunk-transformed-into-a-left-handed-layup in the second game of the 1991 NBA finals against the Lakers. I know I’ve worn an uncontrollably goofy grin as a member of the working press–as when Jordan climbed the Stadium’s scorers table in ’92 after the Bulls won their second title–but clapping is definitely out.
So when my buddy Boom-Boom offered to pull me off press row and into the stands for Jordan’s final Chicago appearance as a player last Friday, I leaped at the chance. Like many Chicagoans, I wanted an opportunity to say thanks in the only appropriate way–through sustained applause. As strongly as I felt that Chicago’s reporters should pay their respects in some fashion–sort of like the White House press corps bidding adieu to a president–that wasn’t likely, not with writers on duty like Sam Smith, who has always begrudged Jordan the special treatment he’s been accorded, and others like WSCR hosts Dan Bernstein and Terry Boers, who have railed (in some cases quite rightly) against “the Jordan ass-licking society.” Understand, I’m as intolerant of those sycophants as anyone. I’m not suggesting Jordan is anything more than a flawed human being who is unnaturally talented at basketball. But he has provided the city with so many memorable moments, moments the fans took great pride in, while providing the writers and reporters with so many memorable quotes–I think especially of the night Jordan and Scottie Pippen played miserably but emerged triumphant in the playoffs, then gloated over it by calling one another “doodoo” and “shit”–that it seemed to me a note of appreciation was in order.
So Friday night I stood at my seat in the back of the mezzanine level, deep in the bowl of the United Center. I was a few rows behind John Stroger and a few more behind Ed Paschke and in the same row as Tom Boerwinkle, with old Bulls like Bob Love and Cliff Levingston down to the left and almost every seat above us filled and standing room likewise crammed–23,215 in all. And when Jordan was announced as the last Washington Wizards starter I applauded with everyone else (everyone not on press row, that is, where they were busy looking at their watches to time the ovation). The applause rose and fell through a series of crescendos, and when Jordan offered a couple of claps in return the fans went wild. It rolled on with no sign of abating until Washington coach Doug Collins ran a mike out to Jordan so he could quiet the crowd with a few remarks. He spoke, but he didn’t quiet the crowd. He obviously hadn’t prepared anything on the order of Lou Gehrig’s “luckiest man on the face of the earth” address, but he spoke eloquently and emotionally, thanking the fans and saying, “I love you all”–not the sort of thing one often hears from an athlete. Fans responded with even more applause, and only grudgingly allowed the game to begin.
If Jordan found himself in an uncomfortable position, think of the Bulls. In recent years Chicago fans have treated them with a disdain befitting their win-loss record, which stood at a not-quite-respectable 15-27 going into the game (even so, a substantial improvement on recent seasons). They’re an erratic, aggravating bunch–especially on the road, where they won the first game of the season and then lost 18 straight–and not only because of the youthfulness of premature draft picks like Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, and Jamal Crawford. They had to appreciate the applause showered on Jordan–who can deny his achievements on the court?–but at the same time they had to feel like the spurned brother, Cain to Abel or Esau to Jacob. Almost to a man, they stood throughout the applause with their hands deep in the pockets of their warmup jackets.
They’d been burned twice before by the hype brought on by Jordan’s return. Last year the Bulls lost Jordan’s only game in Chicago during his injury-shortened comeback season, and they embarrassed themselves earlier this month at the UC with a tentative performance against the Wizards. Coach Bill Cartwright, Jordan’s old teammate, had made it clear he wasn’t feeling sentimental about Jordan’s farewell and wanted it over–preferably with a victory. This attitude seemed to have been impressed on all the Bulls, especially Jalen Rose, who guarded and was guarded by Jordan most of the night. The fans, I think, wanted a few glimpses of the Jordan of old, but most of them also seemed to want the current Bulls to prove their worth by stymieing him. Rose covered Jordan like a film of soap all night long, and enough of the other Bulls followed his lead to make the difference. This time it was the Wizards who seemed distracted.
Jordan is nowhere near the player he once was, though he can still show flashes. Warming up, he displayed that familiar lithe, pantherish grace, his sweatpants, partly opened up the sides, flapping about his legs. Yet even as he practiced his turnaround jumper his shot was noticeably off, and when the game began he missed his first long shot over Rose–it was flat, as his shots would be all night. Still, he had his moments. Sauntering where he once soared, he coasted down the lane, halted, faked Rose ever so slightly into the air, and hit a high, arcing shot. Later he drove around a screen, losing Rose, and confronted by Curry simply stepped back and popped the shot. More impressive was his astute court sense. He made a one-handed cross-court pass, straight off the dribble, to Brendan Haywood for an open basket.
But the Bulls weren’t in awe this time. Donyell Marshall epitomized their scrappy attitude when he lost the handle on the ball, scrambled to get it back, and with the shot clock running down threw it in off the backboard like someone banking a pair of socks off the far wall and into the hamper. “Oooh, look what I found!” yelled the guy next to me. The Bulls led 21-19 at the quarter.
When Jordan went to the bench early in the second quarter, the Wizards having pulled ahead 26-25, the crowd seemed to wilt into its seats. The players’ shoes squeaked audibly on the floor. “You know it’s quiet when you can hear the ball go through the net,” said the same guy to my right. But then someone burst through traffic on a fast break for a lovely lay-in just like the Jordan or Pippen we used to know: it was Eddie Robinson, brought in by general manager Jerry Krause as an offensive threat before last season only to suffer from injuries and uneven play. Robinson has a way of hurtling his jump shot, his elbows acting like a catapult, that’s almost as ugly as the red-and-white saddle-shoe sneakers he favors. But he was on in the first half, and point guard Rick Brunson–replacing injured rookie Jay Williams and supplying some veteran savvy–made sure to get him the ball.
During a second-quarter timeout, a Jordan highlight reel played on the scoreboard. Not only did the crowd go crazy, but every player on both teams–and even Washington assistant coach Patrick Ewing, who was victimized in more than one of those clips–craned his neck to look. When the Wizards came out of this break they missed several easy shots, even muffing a couple of fast breaks, and Robinson kept pouring in points. Halted by Jordan on a drive, he turned and hit a jump shot–all elbows–to put the Bulls up 43-34. Minutes later Fred Hoiberg missed an open three, but Robinson snatched the rebound and tossed in a rainmaker over the defense to make it 47-38. That nine-point lead held, 52-43, at the half.
Cartwright put his starting lineup back on the floor to open the second half, with Robinson on the bench and Rose on Jordan. Rose was determined to deprive him of any new poster moments, and Jordan got frustrated. He faked Rose into the air, drew a foul, and jabbed a pointed elbow for punctuation. Midway through the third quarter came a vision from yesteryear. Christian Laettner, looking particularly addled, dropped a Jordan pass in the lane, and Jordan swooped in, scooped up the ball, raised it in his left hand, and in one smooth, soaring motion floated it off the backboard and in. If Marshall’s early basket had been a guy heaving dirty laundry, Jordan’s was a Bernini sculpture come to life. The crowd oohed its appreciation, as if to say, “There it is! What we came to see!” and there was both dread and delight at the thought of him dropping one of those game-turning quarters on the Bulls. Moments later, however, Jordan took a long turnaround over Rose and the ball clanged off the back rim. The Bulls led 74-71 through three quarters.
That’s when Marcus Fizer dropped a game-winning spurt on the Wizards. On the Bulls’ first possession, in a play seemingly drawn up by Cartwright in the huddle, Fizer came around a baseline screen for a pass from Robinson, made the short shot, and was fouled. He added the free throw, then two more gritty baskets in the lane, then another, then another. He scored the Bulls’ first 11 points of the quarter and led them back out to an 85-75 advantage. Fizer missed two free throws midway through the quarter with the score 91-83, but he got the lead back to double digits by forcing a fast break through two defenders to put the Bulls up 97-87. Then Jordan rallied the Wizards one last time. He drove the baseline through traffic for a layup that closed the score to 97-93, was fouled on Washington’s next possession, and made both foul shots–guiding them through a curtain of flashbulbs–to make it 97-95 with 1:46 to play. I felt an old excitement–that Jordan might seize a win he wasn’t entitled to.
Luck, however, turned him away–or more realistically, it was the Wizards playing uglier than the Bulls. Fizer let a pass go through his hands and Laettner jumped out to get it, only to trip over the ball trying to start the break. Fizer scooped it up and drove straight to the hoop. The Bulls led 99-95, and the rest of the game was a foul-shooting contest, with Marshall putting it away at the line. Jordan was pulled from the game with eight seconds left, but at this point the crowd was more intent on cheering the Bulls than in giving him one last salute. Noticeably miffed at the outcome, he was hurried out through the nearest gate to the locker rooms. “The loss was not fun,” he admitted afterward.
There was no ovation after Jordan talked to the media, and maybe that’s as it should be. Sports reporters are like dogs in many respects and are best held to set standards of behavior; allowing any latitude on a case-by-case basis opens the system to abuse. Before long, they’d probably be dancing to Sammy Sosa’s boom box after Cubs victories.
Outside, as the Boomer and I sat in his car waiting for it to warm, I looked over in the distance and noticed a horde around the Jordan statue, where flashbulbs continued to pop. All night I had relived images from his career–the Shot and the Shot II and the Last Shot that wasn’t the last shot, and the way the red sweatband on Jordan’s forearm would rise out of a crowd, ball held aloft, like a banner rallying the troops in battle. Finally there was a personal moment I’d captured on press row, Pippen turning to a ball boy and whispering “Watch this” before tossing Jordan an inbounds pass for an alley-oop. As Jordan said afterward, “We both had a chance to say ‘bye”–he had and so had the fans. The statue will always be there; Jordan is gone for good.