By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist

When the Celtics played in the old Boston Garden, my family owned season tickets alongside the tunnel at midcourt, right where the teams entered and exited during every game. Our seats hugged the metal barrier that separated fans from the tunnel, so when the players and coaches sauntered by us, we could listen to their conversations and even exchange high-fives. For a young NBA fan like myself, it was an amazing perk.

Michael Jordan
The minute Michael Jordan enters the arena, every eye in the place is on him.

I mention this only because, during the entire time we owned those seats (1977-1995), Michael Jordan dwarfed every other player who walked through that tunnel.

He was a walking EF Hutton commercial. Remember those ads, when somebody would say, "My broker is E.F. Hutton" and everyone else in the room would freeze? That was MJ. Seeing him that close disoriented just about everybody. People unhinged. I'm not kidding. People unhinged. This was "Beatles-in-the-mid-'60s"-caliber stuff. He melted everyone within a 50-foot radius.

Certain superstar athletes resonate with a crowd, and you can't really describe it unless you have seen it happen, unless you were there. The sight of MJ emerging from that tunnel, the way people's expressions instantly changed, the sounds people made ... you don't forget those things. Ever.

So when I found out Jordan was returning this season, I worried that those memories would fade for me, that they would get clouded by everything that happened with Jordan and the Wizards, the fact that he was re-inventing himself as a borderline All-Star on a dreadful basketball team. Fortunately, I caught MJ in person on Wednesday night in Boston, 10 days after I watched him in an exhibition game against the Celtics in Connecticut, and I'm telling you ... he still has "it."

It still feels like an experience.

And that's the greatest compliment you can give him. Jordan still possesses what an old Boston columnist named George Frazier dubbed as duende -- that charisma, that Eastwood-ian swagger, that sense of self-importance that can't even really be defined. Quite simply, MJ swallows up the room. When he enters the building, he immediately becomes the most important person there. You can't take your eyes off him. The most famous person on the planet. And he knows it.

Michael Jordan
Any question about who this woman came to see?

I'll go this far: You could drag somebody off the street -- let's say, a homeless person who doesn't follow sports and couldn't pick MJ out of a police lineup -- bring him into the arena before a Wizards-Celtics game, sit him somewhere close to the floor, have him watch the layup lines and ask him, "Which person stands out?" And he would pick Jordan. He just would. There's something about him, an instinctive posture that says two things: "I know everyone's looking at me right now ... and they should be."

When MJ comes to town, before the game, people have a collective hop in their step. You can sense it. You look around 15 minutes before game time and realize that 75 percent of the fans have already arrived (it sounds like the crowd before a rock concert, waiting for the lights to turn off). Every male patron exudes a glazed, giddy, "I'm important because I'm attending this important game" glow. Every female patron seems to have spent an extra 10 minutes getting ready. Little kids look like ready to self-combust. Wide-eyed teenagers stand in the first few rows, rocking back and forth, holding pens, pathetically desperate, praying against 1,000,000,000-to-1 odds that MJ will inexplicably leave the lay-up line, vault the press table and glide into the stands to sign autographs.

And when MJ comes out, he stops the place cold. All eyes shift to him. Fans start making strange sounds. You hear squeals and cries mixed in with appreciative applause, and then a slow-developing roar emerges, almost like a chain reaction: "hhhhhhhhrrrrrrrrrrrHHHHHHRRRRRRAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!"

MJ's in the house.

When he meets the referees before the game, they laugh at his jokes and look like they might invite him over for tea on Sunday. When he turns to discuss something with a teammate, he could be talking to them in Portugese and they would still be nodding intently. When he sheds his warmup suit and walks towards the scorer's table, every conversation in the first few rows comes to a screeching halt. When he stands on the free-throw line for the first time, readying himself to launch his first shot, thousands of camera flashes click at the same time, trying to capture the moment.

  You look around 15 minutes before game time and realize that 75 percent of the fans have already arrived (it sounds like the crowd before a rock concert, waiting for the lights to turn off). Every male patron exudes a glazed, giddy, 'I'm important because I'm attending this important game' glow. Every female patron seems to have spent an extra 10 minutes getting ready. Little kids look like ready to self-combust. 
  

It's all part of the MJ Experience. If he were embarrassing himself on the court, none of these things would resonate like they do, but Jordan has displayed enough ingenuity, ability and flair to keep us interested, to keep us hoping, to keep us pining for more.

Remember, when he first announced this comeback, we were haunted by the possibility that "MJ, Part Three" would resemble Elvis Presley's final Vegas comeback in the mid-'70s -- the perversely absorbing "Fat Elvis" stage, highlighted by those ghastly sequin suits, a grotesque pot belly, a goofy bouffant hairdo, a forehead caked with sweat and an over-the-top performance that ranked a 15 out of 10 on the Unintentional Comedy Scale. We worried that this would be "Caddyshack 2," "Another 48 Hours," "Ali vs. Holmes," "Eddie and the Cruisers 2," "Rocky 5," "Beverly Hills Cop 3" and "Godfather 3" all rolled into one.

Nope. Jordan's skills have definitely eroded, but they haven't left him. He still roams the floor like a predator, hunting for loose balls, lazy passes, unattentive big men who bring rebounds down to their hips. He still has a knack for finding open teammates. He still files away the trends and tricks of his opponents, taking advantage of these revelations at opportune times. He can still create his own shot, beat people off the dribble and find enough space to launch his famous fallaway. Along with John Stockton, he's still one of the two savviest players in the league.

Maybe his greatest effect has been on his teammates, the way he rejuvenated Christian Laettner and Popeye Jones, the way Chris Whitney and Rip Hamilton have improved as all-around players, the way the Wizards bench responds to every Washington run. Even his opponents have been affected; Boston's Antoine Walker played the most cerebral, dominant game of his career on Wednesday night. Jordan brought the best out of him.

Michael Jordan
He might not soar as high as he used to, but the cerebral part of MJ's game is now fascinating.

If anything, Jordan's erratic play so far has been caused by lousy teammates and subpar conditioning. Forget about his advancing age; after suffering broken ribs this summer, he hasn't been able to work himself into NBA shape yet, much less Michael Jordan Shape. He also doesn't have a supporting cast who can carry him for extended stretches, the way Pippen, Kukoc and Rodman carried him during those final three years with the Bulls.

So as he works himself into shape, it's more of a mental game this time around, maybe the most fascinating aspect of "MJ, Part Three." From what I've seen, he paces himself for much of every game; if you didn't know any better, you would almost believe that he was dogging it. For instance, during the first three quarters on Wednesday night, he wasn't working hard on defense. He wasn't busting his butt to get ahead on fast breaks. He wasn't pursuing rebounds unless he happened to drift near the basket.

Watching at the time, I believed he was clearly pacing himself for an extended "OK, I'm trying now" session in the fourth quarter ... and that's exactly what happened. The fourth quarter kicked off, and suddenly MJ was digging in defensively, hounding Paul Pierce, soaring into the lane for rebounds, repeatedly beating people off the dribble to create space for open jumpers. And it took the Celtics by surprise; between Jordan and an unexpected hot hand from Christian Laettner, the Wizards rallied from a double-digit deficit and tied the score with five minutes remaining.

But it didn't last. The comeback drained Jordan; he couldn't make a shot over the last few minutes, even having one of his jumpers blocked by Pierce. When that happened, a weird sound bubbled up from the crowd, a combination cheer (because it was an enormous momentum play for the Celts) and gasp (because we weren't used to seeing Jordan embarrassed like that). Unchartered territory. Almost enough to make us wish he hadn't come back. Almost.

Michael Jordan
Jordan brings out the best in every player he competes against, including kids like Celtics rookie Joe Johnson.

On the flip side, there were a number of MJ moments that stood out, including two instances when he buried consecutive jumpers and the crowd started buzzing: Was he catching fire? Was it happening? In the words of Double Down Trent from "Swingers," "Was it on?" But he never could sustain one of those patented MJ streaks, when he rolls off 15 points in four minutes. Will it happen when he gets his legs and rounds himself into shape? Absolutely. As long as he can beat defenders off the dribble, keep defenders honest with his jumper and get preferential treatment from the referees, it's only a matter of time. Maybe Jordan won't outshine the Tracy McGradys and the Ray Allens this season, but they won't embarrass him, either.

One play on Wednesday night summed everything up: Near the beginning of the fourth quarter, right when it was becoming obvious that Jordan had turned on the "OK, I'm trying now" switch, one of the Wizards missed a jumper and it clanged off the rim, floating in the air toward Walker ... and then Jordan came flying in out of nowhere, the only time he really jumped all game. As he soared through the air and we realized what was happening, it was one of those breathtaking, "Holy s---!!!!!" moments that you just can't find in any venue other than sports. For some reason, I can still see it.

As for the MJ Experience, the duende, the indefinable charisma ... that's still intact, too. There was one moment when Jordan drained a jumper over Pierce in crunch time, right when it looked like he was heating up, and he spun around and hopped back to the other end of the court -- that distinctive Jordan gait, when his elbows swing back and forth like a guy using the Nordic Track. As the crowd roared, Jordan glanced over to everyone in my section at midcourt, his eyebrows raised, his face breaking into a happy, defiant smile.

And he melted us.

We started giggling and buzzing like schoolkids, and everyone was nudging one another, and the score was tied, and the Fleet Center was more alive than it has been in years, so electric that it gives me goosebumps just to describe it. MJ was back, MJ was on his game, MJ was feeling it ... and the possibilities were endless. Some people are just larger than life.

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.



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