CHICAGO -- Deep down, beneath that famous competitive fire, Michael Jordan is just an old softie.
Preparing for what probably will be his last game in Chicago, Jordan acknowledged Friday how hard it is for him to play here. The memories wash over him before he even enters the United Center, and he can't look up at those six championships banners without getting wistful.
"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," he 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."
That tangle of emotions played out one more time Friday night, when Jordan's new team, the Washington Wizards, visited his old one, the Chicago Bulls.
With Jordan insisting he's retiring after the season, the game gives Chicago fans a final chance to show their love and appreciation for the man who gave them their only NBA titles during one of the most eras the city has had.
And judging by the lovefests that occurred the other two times Jordan came to visit, the game was setting up as a doozy. It was sold out, with ticket brokers getting as much as $1,200 for a courtside seat.
Jordan made it clear he didn't want a traveling retirement party this season, and the Bulls have tried to respect his wishes. But there will be a video tribute on the scoreboard.
Also, the pregame ovation will be allowed to go on for a "reasonable" length of time. How long that will be isn't clear, but it's sure to be longer than 2 minute, 10-second ovation he received 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 wonder. Though Jordan is 4-0 when playing against the Bulls, he's been overwhelmed by emotion the two times he was a visitor to the United Center, fighting back tears during the ovations.
The homecomings have taken a toll on his game, too. In his first game back last January, he had a career-high nine turnovers and shot just 7-of-21 from the floor for 16 points. He fared a little better on Jan. 2, finishing with 10 points, five assists and five rebounds.
"It's very sensitive to play in front of people that you love, and they love you," he said. "I know that it's not death. I still live here.
"I'll do my best not to cry."
Still, Jordan has a big stake in this game. 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 Friday night's game.
"Because," he said, "it's here."
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