Michael Jordan’s 55-point game still transcends Knicks-Bulls rivalry

He spent so many days and nights tormenting the Knicks. He spent so many springs hijacking the championship aspirations of New York City with his brilliance. Michael Jordan faced the Knicks five times in the playoffs. He went 5-for-5, all of them excruciating affairs. Jordan may have been universally beloved everywhere else.

In New York City, he was feared. In 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993 and 1996, he imposed his will and the Knicks succumbed to his sword, the blood of New York’s broken heart splashing against his Air Jordans.

Which is why the Double Nickel Game was so different.

And why it remains, 25 years later, so essential to the story of Jordan as the great basketball villain of New York City. Saturday marked the silver anniversary of Jordan’s forever return to Madison Square Garden. He was barely a week out of retirement, he looked more in baseball shape than basketball shape, he wore an unfamiliar number — 45.

Most of the people who came to the Garden, most of the 19,763, had come as much out of curiosity as anything else. They had never been given the chance to offer Jordan a fitting goodbye since he’d left so abruptly in October 1993, off to mourn his murdered father and chase a baseball dream and recharge his basketball batteries.

The Knicks had actually beaten the Bulls the previous spring, finally, but that series featured one sad absence (in Jordan) and one sadly prominent presence in Hue Hollins, the official who all but rescued Game 5 of that series for the Knicks by detecting a foul that nobody else in the building saw.

The night of March 29, 1995, I sat in the very upper portion of the Garden, in an auxiliary press box that was almost never needed during the regular season. This night, it was overflowing. This night, everyone wanted to see Jordan. We had no idea that within a year he would regain all of his old magic and all of his old tricks, that he would lead the Bulls to 72 wins and the start of a second Chicago three-peat.

Everyone just knew: Michael was back.

At the Garden, the reaction across all three hours, from layup lines to final buzzer, was unique. The Knicks were a better team than the Bulls, still coached by Pat Riley, still harboring hope they’d get another crack at a title. Patrick Ewing was brilliant that night: 36 points, some key blocks of Jordan, whose legs still weren’t back yet.

But everywhere else, Jordan was stunning. He made everything: jumpers, drives, free throws. He took 37 shots, made 21. He was 10-of-11 from the free-throw line. At first, inspired by nostalgia, the Garden crowd almost seemed cheerful at the early brilliance. Then, as was his wont, he turned the crowd surly. And worried. And, of course, by the end, with the score tied 111-111, the feeling inside the Garden was sheer terror, as it generally was late in a Bulls-Knicks game.

The Bulls had the ball. Surely Jordan would take the final shot. Surely he would make it.

Surely he would kill the Knicks. Again.

And the funny part, of course, is that he did. He killed the Knicks all right. But it wasn’t how you expected it. Driving to the basket — everyone expecting him to get a friendly whistle, at least — he did something else. He saw Bill Wennington — formerly a Garden favorite, when he played at St. John’s. Wennington, smartly, dunked it with two hands. It was 113-111. There were 3.1 seconds. The Bulls weren’t going to lose that. They didn’t.

And it really was a game for the ages, because of the perfect symmetry of Jordan’s point total (55) but also as the middle of an important trilogy that defined Jordan’s career. For while he will forever be known as an acrobatic scorer, he had already clinched one NBA title by opting to pass off for a key shot (John Paxson against Phoenix, 1993) and would do so again (Steve Kerr, against Utah in 1997). And this one, in the middle.

Twenty-five years ago, that filled the Garden with something beyond a roar, something that felt like sheer wonder. If you were lucky enough to be there that night, you can feel it still.

Vac’s Whacks

By now, we’ve all been touched in some way by COVID-19. Around here, it’s taken a few swings at Anthony J. Causi, whose photographs in these pages you’ve enjoyed for years, whose engaging personality has been a backbone of our section for just as long. If you have any prayers, thoughts, good vibes or positive mojo you’re looking to offer, please direct them all to Anthony, his wife Romina and their two daughters.

Keeping it in the family, since you certainly have the time to plow through a pile of books right now, may I suggest both “Seven Days in Augusta” by Mark Cannizzaro, which is available right now, and “Golf’s Holy War: The Battle for the Soul of the Game in an Age of Science” by Brett Cyrgalis, which is coming May 5. Both books reflect their authors well, and since you already know them from their work here … well, enjoy!

Discouraging news that the terrific Chris Moore is off WFAN’s airwaves for the foreseeable future. He’s probably the smartest and most eloquent sports voice we have in town — reasonable, rational, measured and always thoughtful. We need more of that right now, not less.

Not to be an alarmist, but: Who comes back first — Noah Syndergaard, Chris Sale, Luis Severino … or the rest of the sport?

Whack Back at Vac

Kim Soriano: Watched the new season of “Ozark,” first episode. Incredible show, any better actors than Jason Bateman and Laura Linney? (And, yes, Julia Garner.)
Vac: Have to admit, it almost lost me at the very end of Season 1, but I’m awfully happy I gave it a little more time than that.

Robert Feuerstein: So disappointing that March Madness was canceled, but aren’t we all playing the same game, Survive and Advance? I don’t know what the line is, but I’ll take the over!
Vac: I am always a big fan of optimistic thinking.

@metsfan73: I saw the Globetrotters a few times in the ’70s at the Nassau Coliseum, and what has always stood out was before the second half, when the teams were warming up, Curly Neal would lay down at the foul line and sink shot after shot. Great memories.
@MikeVacc: There have never been greater ambassadors in sports, any sport, than the Globetrotters. I was at a few of those Coliseum games too. Priceless memories.

Bill Guterding: I was at MSG for the Ken Norton-Jerry Quarry fight followed by a closed circuit broadcast of Muhammad Ali-Chuck Wepner. I recall being totally bored and then when Ali went down jumping for joy.
Vac: That fight is a worthy find on YouTube, for a lot of different reasons.

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