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Heartfelt words to fans part of Michael Jordan’s final act

“Thank you. It’s truly been a pleasure,” Michael Jordan — a member of the Washington Wizards — said before his last game at the United Center.

Wizards player Michael Jordan blows a kiss as he is introduced before his final game at the United Center on Jan. 24, 2003.
Wizards player Michael Jordan blows a kiss as he is introduced before his final game at the United Center on Jan. 24, 2003.
Stephen J. Carrera/AP

Originally published Jan. 25, 2003.

Tears don’t lie. And they were surfacing Friday night, about to ooze from Michael Jordan’s ducts, ready to explode down his face if he didn’t grab the house mike and interrupt a steady, graceful, three-minute-plus ovation that would have continued all evening if he preferred.

What followed sure sounded like goodbye, so long, a Babe Ruth speech. As Space Jam proved, Jordan isn’t a good enough actor to fake raw emotion.

“Thank you. It’s truly been a pleasure,” he said, addressing a captive audience of 23,215. “You guys have given me great pleasure to play here in the city of Chicago. I love you all. You still support the Bulls, and I thank you for supporting me through the years. I love you all. Thank you.”

This only could have been the last hurrah, the famous final scene in the house MJ built. If the pregame scene didn’t convince you that Jordan is definitely, positively and undoubtedly retiring at season’s end, his post-game words should cement the thought in all minds. “I am 100 percent sure this time,” Jordan said soberly in front of 200 media witnesses and a dozen TV cameras. “I’ve fulfilled my dream, and now I have an obligation to build this organization. Playing [again] is not an option. I still might play with my kids or friends, but as far as in an NBA uniform, it’s over.

“We both had a chance to say goodbye tonight, me and the fans. Let’s move on with the rest of the season and our lives.”

I am so happy he came out and SAID IT, at long last. Any more teasing, waffling and flip-flopping would cause permanent damage to his legacy, which already has been chipped as he tries to scale foothills in Washington after climbing so many mountains here. Having declared on Thanksgiving Day that he “definitely” is retiring after the season, he has been treated like The Icon Who Cried Wolf, with all sorts of reckless speculation suggesting he’ll play next season for the Wizards, or play two seasons from now in Charlotte, or hijack his way onto the franchise LeBron James ends up with, or move to Shanghai and join Yao Ming on the Chinese Olympic squad.

Enough with the b.s. You either believe Jordan is retiring or you don’t — and I do.

For those of us who have studied his poker game closely, he always has left a crack in the door and given himself leeway via his “99.9 percent” ratios. But this time, he is speaking definitively. Before and after the Bulls conquered him for the first time, rallying behind Marcus Fizer and Rick (The Brunson Burner) Brunson for a 104-97 victory, he said his retirement percentage is “100.”

That’s good enough for me. Even if it isn’t for Bulls coach Bill Cartwright, who won’t believe the retirement until he sees it and compared the saga to the Rolling Stones. Start me up, I’ll never stop? I can’t get no satisfaction? Whatever.

It was Michael’s wish that the standing ovation not last too long. He even tried sly tactics to shorten it — racing out when he was introduced, slapping the butts of his teammates and trying to push the game to tipoff. Fat chance. Once again, the fans wanted to make him cry. As they bombarded him with love, he waved, blew kisses, clapped, smiled, nodded, shook his head and finally, knowing everyone wanted to shake the unshakable athlete to tears, turned to old pals Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing and said, “I’m not gonna cry.”

When the ovation reached 3 minutes, 15 seconds, Jordan took control of the scene and talked to the masses. Once finished, the roar started again, but at Jordan’s request, the house lights were turned down and the Bulls were introduced. A few boos were heard, but Michael wanted to move on, for eternity.

Of course, this was the real Chicago speaking, drowning out the hollow, irrelevant echoes of embittered and conflicted locals who want to discard Jordan like an empty pizza box. It confounds me why people in a town of so many sports losers would want to distance themselves from the ultimate winner, the man who made us whole, but a few have been whining lately in the winter wind. The night was a love letter to Mike that silenced recent drivel on airwaves and newsprint.

Let’s get something straight right here: Jordan did more for Chicago’s image and feel-good quotient than any figure of the 20th century. That includes the architects, the politicians, the authors and, believe it or not, Da Coach. No one knows Da Coach in Iceland and Tanzania, but they know Jordan. He was the one to nudge aside common Chicago stereotypes — Al Capone, deep-dish pizza, dim-witted Superfans, nasty weather, crooked aldermen — and buff our worldwide perception like a diamond. Any dufus who doesn’t understand the Jordan effect shouldn’t live here.

Or, should travel the world a little more often.

“He’s the most beloved athlete in the history of Chicago,” said Wizards coach Doug Collins, who was here with Jordan in the early days and definitely gets it. For more than 10 years, the Bulls were a universal team, and Michael was at the hub of that. The people know what he means to this city.”

A few weeks from his 40th birthday, he is half the player he was. But he still gives us flashes, drawing familiar oohs and ahhs with a left-handed scoop layup around Tyson Chandler, who is almost half his age. For a brief late moment, it appeared he might cap his United Center life with a game-winning shot as the Wizards crept close and divided the crowd’s passion. But looking his age on an 11-point night, a storybook ending was not to be. “Good things come to an end,” he said. “This will not ruin what my career stood for. It’s just one game.”

Finally, the Bulls had beaten their ghost on the same side of town where he won the 1988 Slam Dunk contest, flipped in the switch-hand layup in the ‘91 Finals against the Lakers, accented his three-point barrage in the ‘92 Finals with The Shrug, danced and smoked cigars on the scorer’s table, and broke down in the locker room with the ball on Father’s Day, ‘96.

“There’s a lot of sentimental things here, and I don’t have the killer instinct here that I normally have,” he said. “It’s very sensitive to play in front of people that you love, and they love you. I know it’s not death, but this is where everything began.”

He grew wistful, wondering again why the dynasty was wrecking-balled before its time.

“I wish, in all honesty, that things didn’t come to an end,” he said. “But they do.” Neither Jerry was present, by the way, with Krause scouting somewhere and Reinsdorf hugging a cactus in Arizona.

Life moves on, as do the Bulls.