WASHINGTON - Michael Jordan beat the Chicago Bulls and scored his 30,000th point on the same night. Those were special moments, yes, but a bigger one is coming in less than two weeks.
"I imagine it will be a little different in Chicago," Jordan said, "playing in front of the fans that I've played in front of for years."
On Jan. 19, the Wizards go to Chicago, where Jordan still lives and where his statue outside the United Center is a tourist attraction. The game will be one of the most-anticipated all season, but it won't be easy to match the drama of the Wizards' 89-83 victory over the visiting Bulls on Friday night.
"Thirty-thousand points is a lot," said Jordan, who became the fourth NBA player to reach the mark when he made a couple of free throws in the second quarter. "That was more or less the highlight of the game, but any time you can beat your former team, that's always a plus, too."
The first plot twist was Jordan's sinus infection, which had been sapping his energy all week. He started slow, then dominated the second quarter by scoring 19 of the Wizards' 25 points. His good friend, Ron Artest, violently punched the scorer's table three times when he realized he had committed the foul that would allow Jordan to reach 30,000.
"I guess he got some on other people like (Larry) Bird and everybody else, but it happened on me," Artest said. "I fouled him and he got his 30,000. That's what I did not want tonight."
After that scene, it seemed not surprising that Artest was the one who accidentally broke two of Jordan's ribs in a pickup game over the summer, nearly derailing Jordan's comeback.
The Wizards led by as many as 26 in the third quarter, but Jordan's growing fatigue and Artest's physical defense started to take their toll. Jordan's teammates, who had played so well in the first quarter, couldn't handle the Bulls' pressure.
Chicago made a huge run in the fourth quarter, but there wasn't enough time to make up the deficit. Jordan was 1-for-9 with just four points in the second half, but he somehow found the energy in the final seconds to pull off perhaps his most spectacular play of the season.
With about 15 seconds to play and the Wizards leading by six, Jordan grabbed Ron Mercer's layup out of the air with both hands, pinning it against the backboard.
"I don't know where he came from," Washington coach Doug Collins said. "He was really dead on his feet. He was mad. That was an angry play.
"He was flying. John Thompson said he is Floor Jordan now, but he was flying on that one."
Jordan finished with 29 points, but individual statistics weren't on his mind. And he didn't just want to beat Chicago - he wanted to put them in their place.
Or, more specifically, he wanted to show that the Wizards are no longer in that place - the cellar of the standings, where opponents come for easy wins.
"This is special in a sense that we're trying to claw our way out of the basement of losing teams," Jordan said. "If we have to step on other people to move up, then that's what we do."
The mission seems already achieved. The Wizards (17-14) are three games above .500 and have won three straight and five in a row at home. The Bulls (6-25) are again among the worst in the league and are 0-17 on the road, the only NBA team yet to win away from home.
"That's the importance of it more than anything," Jordan said. "I like to think that we're moving in the right direction and Chicago may not be moving in the right direction, and I don't want to be compared with them. I want to show some separation."
Come Jan. 19, he'll have another chance to drive that point home.
"I'm pretty sure Chicago is going to be sitting there waiting for us because they gained some momentum and they feel they can beat us," Jordan said. "But it's back home, so obviously it's going to be a little more emotional."
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