Sunday, March 9, 2003

Jordan to make final Garden appearance

The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

NEW YORK - While the NBA paused to pay tribute to Michael Jordan at the All-Star Game last month, Amare Stoudemire was asked what he might be doing at the age of 40. It required some thought.

There was silence until somebody asked the Phoenix Suns' rookie if playing basketball was a possibility.

"When I'm 40?" an incredulous Stoudemire asked. "No way."

That's why Jordan is unique. He defied the odds and continued building his legacy when few believed his aging legs or aging game would hold up.

And while no player in league history caused New York as much heartache, the Madison Square Garden faithful will rise and pay tribute Sunday afternoon to a legendary figure they view as more than a worthy opponent. The man has somehow become part of Knicks history.

Jordan is retiring again. When the Washington Wizards take on the Knicks, it will likely be his final appearance at Madison Square Garden.

"They always cheer for him anyway, so I don't mind," Allan Houston said in anticipation of a grand reception. "When he came back (from retirement) the last time, it was a circus. As long as we win, I don't have a problem."

As usual, Jordan chooses to focus on the game. Washington needs the win because the Knicks are creeping back into a tight playoff race.

"We've got to do the job and try to stay above them in that series," he said. "Me personally, I go there not knowing exactly what may happen. That's usually how I go into the Garden. I'm not going in there with any pre-conceived ideas. Whatever happens, happens."

Jordan has moved on twice before, so he's been through a series of goodbyes. He doesn't want his last run around the league to become a farewell tour and refuses to be a part of halftime tributes.

The Knicks have nothing special planned to mark this occasion, but that doesn't make it any less of a happening.

"Yeah, it felt like the Patrick Ewing retirement game every time when Jordan came to town," said Orlando Magic coach Doc Rivers, who spent a couple of seasons here. "He's been a killer for New York. He really has, and I hope they cheer him at the end of the game. I hope they boo him the whole game, and at the very end, they should give him a standing ovation. That would be fitting. He's the greatest player to ever play the game, and we were a threat to him and so he stepped up at the right times, unfortunately for us."

Jordan's glory years have faded. He turned 40 on Feb. 17 of this year. The heart remains strong, but other muscle groups don't recover as quickly.

However, the guy is still a threat.

"I guess I'm just a throw-back in terms of old-school work ethic, focusing on what it takes to play your best every day," Jordan said recently. "This involves eating right and physically preparing myself in the offseason as well as during the course of the season. When you get older, you tend to think of those things a little bit more than you did when you were young and vibrant and did a lot of things automatically without thought."

That devout preparation gets results. Before the smoke cleared from candles on his cake, Jordan went out and scored 43 points in a Feb. 21 win over the New Jersey Nets.

"He's got special genes," Latrell Sprewell said. "Not many have them. And you have to remember, Michael's not had many injuries. He's kind of blessed in that way. Plus he took a couple of years off."

All true.

Jordan is averaging 19.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.9 assists in 35.8 minutes. Those aren't close to his career averages, but only 29 players are putting up more points on a nightly basis.

That's not bad for a guy who is senior to every player in the NBA with the exception of John Stockton and Kevin Willis.

"I've also just been in tune with my body all my career," said Jordan, who hasn't missed a game this season. "I've listened to it quite often, gotten it in shape. And now at 40, barring any major injury, I feel I can finish out strong and be very productive. As the younger players understand how important it is to take care of their bodies, perhaps they'll take a page out of my book."

On that front, there's a group of insiders who've got serious doubts it will happen that way.

"They don't even have a clue," Indiana Pacers coach Isiah Thomas said of the next generation. "One major problem is that guys coming into the league today get the multi-million-dollar contracts just for joining the league and having potential. Jordan had to come up through the ranks to earn his. So the younger guys are denied a lot of incentive to work hard early on because they get the rewards without having to earn them."

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