WILMINGTON – Michael was there, so they came.
Michael Jordan, who grew up in Wilmington and attended Laney High School, played his first structured basketball game in his home town since his Buccaneers were eliminated 56-52 by New Hanover in the 1981 conference playoffs and the locals got their money's worth of the greatest hardwood star ever.
"This is too cool," said Carl Thayer, a longtime North Carolina fan and admirer of Jordan. "To think he is actually here – in Wilmington – and playing an NBA type of game is just the coolest."
The coolest? Perhaps.
But cool and smooth? Definitely.
Jordan looked very much like his old self at times and made believers out of most in attendance that this whole comeback thing isn't a giant itch being scratched with unreachable claws.
The man can still play.
Jordan played 18 minutes in the opening half of the Washington Wizards' first public scrimmage with their new star. The halves were broken into two 20-minute segments but Jordan didn't play in the second half.
"I didn't think he'd play that much," said Justin Gerhart, a 22-year-old self-proclaimed hoops freak. "But I am glad he was on the floor as long as he was. He looked good… real good."
The former Tar Heel excelled and gave the fans a glimpse of what might lay ahead.
He scored his team's first basket on a beautiful drive to the basket, displaying his Michaelesque delayed crossover on former Virginia Cavalier and Fresno State Bulldog Courtney Alexander for an easy layup. The desperate Alexander fouled Jordan in the process and MJ's conventional three-point play gave the "white" team a 3-2 advantage and giving the fans what they wanted: Classic Jordan..
During his 18 minutes, MJ showed off his driving ability and outside shooting touch, even though a few pretty shots didn't fall. But it was his defense, court savvy and passing that raised the more enlightened eyebrows.
In his time he registered three steals, a gorgeous blocked shot from behind and numerous passes that eventually led to scores, including a purposely missed layup off the glass that first-round pick Kwame Brown rammed in for a thunderous, crowd-pleasing slam.
Jordan also had a wonderful no-look bounce pass to former DePaul Blue Demon Bobby Simmons for an easy layup that drew a mass of "oohs" and "ahhs."
Overall Jordan scored 13 points in 6-13 shooting from the floor and 1-1 from the free throw line. He missed his only three-point attempt.
However, Jordan wasn't the only UNC connection playing in front of the capacity crowd of 6,100 at Trask Coliseum at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington tonight.
Brendan Haywood, who graduated last spring, and Hubert Davis, class of 1992, also were in uniform for the Wizards and both represented themselves well.
Haywood, who started at center on the "blue" team, had a solid game defensively and may well be the team's starting center when the regular season begins in two weeks.
For the night, Haywood had four points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes. But his presence in the middle altered a few moves and forced the ball to be kicked back out to the perimeter numerous times.
Haywood looked comfortable in the middle but is clearly not an offensive weapon for the Wizards. One of his baskets was a follow-up dunk and the other was a nifty slash to the basket from the right baseline for a difficult layup he made look easy.
Davis, who played 33 minutes for the "blue" team, had a rough night shooting scoring eight points on 3-8 shooting from the field (1-3 from three-point range) and struggled with his ballhandling at times. But he had a nice floor game and there is a spot for him on the roster with his outside touch and veteran presence.
As exhibition games will go, there was little excitement other than Jordan's presence and the fans' constant noise of appreciation every time MJ touched the ball. However, the player introductions may have produced the most interesting story, from a UNC perspective, than anything else.
The public address announcer introduced every player in uniform so when Haywood was introduced he got a huge roar of approval. There were a few boos from a smattering of Duke, N.C, State and ignorant Carolina fans. But the approval was loud nonetheless. Davis got a louder applause with few if any boos.
Of course Jordan, who was the last player introduced, got a thunderous roar. But it was the reception a former Duke Blue Devil got that would make most baby blue types grin from ear to ear.
When former Duke star, two-time national champion and ACC legend Christian Laettner's name was announced he was greeted with a chorus of boos from the capacity crowd that included 1,800 UNCW students.
"Heck yeah I booed him," said UNCW student Thomas Williams. "He is a Dookie. He beat the Heels. He won that K a couple of titles. Heck yeah I booed him. Who wouldn't?"
Overall, the three Heels looked as expected. However, Jordan clearly doesn't appear like a 38-year-old and certainly doesn't play like it. He looked more like a 31 or 32-year-old.
The Washington media that cover the Wizards all agreed that MJ is not only easily the best player on the Wizards, but will likely be one of the top ten or even five players in the NBA this year.
Jordan is defended by former Heels Hubert Davis (left) and Brendan Haywood (right) at last night's Wizards scrimmage in Wilmington, N.C. (AP/Bob Jordan)
Andrew Jones is in his sixth year covering football and basketball for Inside Carolina. He also in his fourth year as a copy editor and staff writer for the Wilmington Star-News and hosts a nightly radio show on WAAV-AM980 in Wilmington. He has also written for ACCNews and once published The College Game and the former Total Sports. He can be reached via e-mail at: AJWAAV@aol.com.