When Michael Jordan retired from the game on January 13, 1999, an era ended for the NBA. The greatest player of all time was hanging up the signature shoes, and the rest of the league was suddenly contending again.
In the years following his retirement, Tim Duncan entered the NBA and immediately become a star, and the Los Angeles Lakers won another championship. Also, perhaps most notably, Kobe Bryant had taken Jordan's role as the game's greatest perimeter player.
Unable to stay away from basketball, Jordan had moved into a job as the general manager of the Washington Wizards. It appeared as though Jordan would continue to influence the game from the front office. However, that perception changed on September 25, 2001.
During the month of September, the 9/11 terrorist attacks were the major news story. However, in the sports world, the major story were the rumors surrounding Jordan's potential return to basketball. On September 25, he confirmed those rumors to be true.
While Michael's return may not have been successful for the Washington Wizards franchise, it was certainly successful for Jordan and basketball fans everywhere. A new generation of fans, who had only known the dominance of Kobe Bryant, were treated to the greatest player of all time.
These are the 10 greatest moments of Jordan's return to basketball.
On October 30, 2001, the Washington Wizards played the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. It was the first NBA game for Michael Jordan since Game Six of the 1998 NBA Finals.
Jordan was cheered wildly during the introductions. That was the highest point of his night, as he struggled in scoring just 19 points. It was not the performance, however, that made this game memorable.
Jordan had played some of his finest games at Madison Square Garden, often while talking trash with Knicks fan Spike Lee. Despite his consistent dominance of the World's Most Famous Arena, the Knicks fans cheered him. It was a surreal moment, just the first of many in the return of Michael Jordan.
Just as quickly as he returned to the game, he was gone. Michael Jordan's final game, while not quite as memorable as Game Six of the 1998 Finals, was a sight to behold.
Despite scoring just 15 points in a blowout loss, this game was all about Michael. After going to the bench early in the fourth, chants of "We want Mike!" began to rumble through Wachovia Center. With 1:44 remaining in his last game, Jordan returned to the court for a final time.
After receiving a lengthy ovation as he re-entered the game, Jordan was intentionally fouled by Eric Snow, under Larry Brown's orders. The greatest player ever hit two free throws, the final points of his brilliant career. After connecting on the second, he checked out of the game at hand, as well as the game of basketball.
Sitting on the bench following his final points, Larry Brown called time out, and led the stadium in a standing ovation that included every person, coach, and player in the building. The ovation would last for over three minutes, with Jordan the only person sitting in the arena.
After years of providing unbelievable moments to fans everywhere, they provided him with an amazing moment of their own.
Michael Jordan had made Madison Square Garden his home-away-from-home throughout his Bulls' career. From the many defeats of New York in the postseason, to his "double-nickel" in 1995, Jordan had long been the unofficial owner of the famous arena.
Despite reaching the age of 40 and playing on an inferior team, Jordan scored 39 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Leading a massive charge in the fourth quarter that would ultimately come up one point short, Jordan displayed the clutch ability that he had so often tapped into at the Garden.
During Jordan's late-season farewell tour, he visited many former stomping grounds. However, at no arena did he provide a more impressive final performance than at Madison Square Garden. The 39-points effort was the final 30-point game in a career loaded with them.
Game Six of the 1998 NBA Finals. That was the last time that Michael Jordan faced off against the Utah Jazz. In the final sequence of events in that game, Jordan stole the ball from Karl Malone and hit a shot over Bryon Russell with 6.1 seconds remaining. As the buzzer sounded, Jazz point guard John Stockton missed a three-point attempt for the win.
Fast forward three years. Malone, Stockton, and Russell were still pursuing the championship that Jordan had twice robbed them of. Their latest opponent: Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards.
This '98 Finals reunion would, aside from the result of the game, be a near-mirror image of that famous Game Six. Jordan, for the first time since that Game Six, scored over 40 points. He finished with 44 on a scintillating 17-of-33 shooting performance.
Karl Malone, also turning back the clock, answered with 30 points of his own. Stockton, the oldest player on the court, dished out 17 assists. Even Russell got in on the action, creating a buzz when he guarded Jordan for the first time since Michael's last shot as a Bull. It was more of the same in that matchup, with Jordan again abusing Russell offensively.
Perhaps more than any game in the early stages of his return, this performance displayed Jordan's ability to raise his game to a level few in the league were capable of, while at the same time showing off his competitive fire as he attempted to repeat history against the Jazz.
Two of the early game-winning shots on the resume of Michael Jordan came at the expense of the New York Knicks. The second of the two came in 1986. From that point on, despite dominating the Knicks numerous times, Jordan would not defeat his rivals with a last-second shot.
That changed in a mid-season game during Jordan's return to basketball. Michael had not played at the Garden since his poor performance in the season opener. He responded to the challenge by shooting 10-of-21 for 24 points entering the final seconds of the game.
Trailing 86-85 as with time winding down, the ball was predictably in Jordan's hands. Playing one-on-one with Knicks' star Latrell Sprewell, Jordan rose up and hit an 18-foot jumpshot with 3.2 seconds to play.
For the first time since he defeated the Utah Jazz on a final shot, the game's best had beaten a team with just the latest in a career full of game-winners.
Nearing age 40 and in his final season, Michael Jordan had seen his minutes per game diminished to save his tired legs. However, for one night in January, Michael found new life in a remarkable performance.
Thirty-three games into his final season, the all-time leader in points per game had scored over 30 points just twice. That made his performance against Indiana all the more incredible.
Jordan had set his career-high of 56 minutes played in a game against the Utah Jazz in 1993. In this game, approaching age 40, he played an amazing 53 minutes in a double-overtime thriller.
On the strength of unbelievable shooting from all over the court (14-of-26 field goals, 3-of-4 threes, and 10-of-12 free throws), Jordan scored 41 points. During the fourth quarter, with Washington trailing, Michael was at his best, scoring 16 points to help send the game to overtime.
Another amazing aspect of this performance was Jordan's rebounding. Up to this point in his final season, Michael had not eclipsed double-digit rebounds in any game. In this one, however, he pulled down 12 boards.
Michael Jordan had made a career of breaking the hearts of Cleveland's fans. With shots over Ehlo and Wilkins, he had almost single-handedly destroyed basketball in Ohio.
As mid-season approached in Jordan's return year, Michael again had an opportunity to take out his personal rivals. Obviously looking to take over the game as he had so often against Cleveland, Jordan struggled with his shot throughout.
Despite entering the final two seconds of the game having shot just 10-of-26, there was no doubt that Michael Jordan would get the final shot. With the ball in-bounded to him at the free throw line, Jordan took one dribble to get open and fired his jumper as the buzzer sounded.
For the third time in his incredible career, Michael Jordan broke the collective heart Cleveland with a shot at the buzzer. However, in the ultimate show of how things had changed around Michael, the Cavalier faithful would explode in celebration as the legend's shot ripped through the net.
Four days after reaching the milestone age of 40, Michael Jordan turned in one of the finest performances of a sensational career. Against the New Jersey Nets, he became the oldest player in NBA history to score over 40 points with his 43 point, 10 rebound performance.
After scoring 41 points as the game wound down, Michael's Wizards still trailed 86-85. Taking the ball as he always had in the clutch, Jordan sliced through the New Jersey defense, scoring a layup to give Washington a 87-86 lead with 34 seconds to play.
While many great athletes suffer through their twilight years, Michael Jordan showed against New Jersey that the greatest athlete of all time does not have to.
It didn't matter that he only scored 11 points. It didn't matter that he failed to lead his team to victory in the building where he had done that so often. The only thing that mattered on January 24, 2003 was Michael Jordan's last game at the United Center in Chicago.
Michael had specifically requested that the Bulls not give him a ceremony. The Bulls obliged, but they could not go entirely without paying homage to Jordan. Instead, they brought in former public address announcer Ray Clay to provide one last stirring tribute to Michael:
"From North Carolina, at guard, six-six, Michael Jordan!"
The United Center erupted. They would continue to erupt for four minutes. Finally, Jordan made his way to center court for an impromptu speech, thanking the city of Chicago and the Bulls.
Only Michael's request that the applause stop could end the longest and most thunderous ovation in NBA history. Not since Game Five of the 1998 Finals had the United Center been so electric.
It didn't matter that he played for the other team. It didn't matter that he was opposed to the whole ceremony. What mattered this night is that the Chicago Bulls fans showed their appreciation for their greatest player.
As a Chicago Bull, Michael Jordan became universally known for two skills: dunking and scoring. While he was undoubtedly gifted in other areas, these were the two most widely known.
Entering his comeback season with the Wizards, Jordan sat in the second all-time position in 50+ point performances with 38. The last of these came in the 1997 Playoffs. In that game, against, coincidentally, the Washington Bullets, Jordan dominated with 55 explosive points.
As he worked his way back into form as a Wizard, Jordan showed that he was certainly still capable of scoring. However, he had only one explosive effort: the 44-point game against Utah early in the season.
Michael had scored in double figures in an NBA record 866 consecutive games. That streak ended on December 27, 2001, as Michael scored just six points. After playing one of the worst games of his career, Jordan answered with one of his finest.
In the last truly dominating effort in his career, Michael Jordan scored 51 points against the Charlotte Hornets. In one of his most greatest individual quarters, Jordan poured in 24 points in the opening period, including the first 13 for Washington.
Michael's first half total stood at 34, as he set Wizards records for points in a first quarter and points in a half. The onslaught continued into the second, with Jordan leading a Washington blowout with 17 second-half points. Had the game not been such a rout, it is likely that Jordan could have surpassed 60.
In what was Michael's only 50-point effort as a Wizard, he shot an unreal 21-of-38 from the field, and 9-for-10 from the line. It should also be noted that, in the following game, Jordan scored his second highest total as a Wizard, with 45 points.
After scoring just six points and ending his incredible streak, Michael answered with games of 51 and 45. Those three performances were definitive of Michael Jordan's career as a basketball player. Competitive to the end, he answered perhaps his worst game as a player with two of his best.