Monday Morning Point Guard
Gilbert Arenas finally put an end to the all of the "will he/won't he?" speculation and came back on Saturday night, posting a double-double with 15 points and 10 assists in a 98-96 loss to the Detroit Pistons. There certainly was some electricity in Verizon Center, but Arenas's first game in more than 11 months pales mightily in comparison to some of the more celebrated and highly-anticipated comebacks in NBA history.
I decided to reflect on some of the most notable comeback games in the past 20 years. You probably can guess that this list is all about Magic and Michael, the two players who would form the backcourt of my all-time NBA starting five.
Feb. 9, 1992
I cannot think of any news involving a sports figure that shook me more than Magic Johnson's announcement on Nov. 7, 1991 that he had to retire from basketball because of the HIV virus that he "attained" (as if it were some trophy or something). I remember nearly getting in a fight with my friend, Marlo, who broke the news to me. Then, I cried as I watched him make the announcement on television. Yes, I cried because Magic is my favorite basketball player ever and at the time, I thought he was announcing a death sentence.
Being a huge Lakers fan, it was difficult to watch them that season, but I was so excited when I found out that Johnson was still going to participate in the all-star game in Orlando, three months after he left the NBA. My eyes were glued to the television as Johnson had an awesome storybook performance, earning most valuable player honors, finishing with 25 points and 9 assists in 29 minutes of memorable play at the Orlando Arena. He capped the game with a classic, 28-foot jumper over Isiah Thomas and provided me with my lone moment of unbridled joy of the NBA season. I'm serious. I was that crushed to see Magic leave. And I was that happy to see him play for one game.
March 29, 1995
The classic double-nickel game. Michael Jordan actually came back wearing the four-five on March 18, 1995. He didn't quite look like the same player who retired from basketball in 1993 to play baseball for the Birmingham Barons.
But in his fifth game since returning from his retirement, Jordan reminded New York, Spike Lee, and the whole world that he was still a bad, bad man.
Jordan tortured the Knicks with 55 points and he capped off his performance by drawing a double-team from Patrick Ewing and John Starks and setting up Bill Wennington with the game-winning dunk with 3.1 seconds left of a 113-111 victory. Jordan's record for most points scored by an opponent at Madison Square Garden stood until this February, when Kobe Bryant scored 62 points for the Lakers.
Jan. 30, 1996
After suffering through some lean years with the Lakers, I wasn't exactly thrilled when I heard that Johnson was going to return to the team after missing more than four seasons. But I figured it would be better than the alternative. Johnson tried to make a comeback bid after the 1992 Olympics, but that was shut down when he got cut in a preseason game and scared the snot out of several players in the league. But he came back as a sixth man supreme against the Golden State Warriors, posting 19 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds in 27 minutes as the Lakers won 128-118.
Rick Reilly described the scene for Sports Illustrated with one of my favorite ledes of all time:
"As usual, life made no sense last week in Los Angeles, where the Lakers signed a 36-year-old has-been point guard, has-been announcer, has-been coach and has-been owner who has been off NBA courts for almost five seasons; is 30 pounds over his playing weight; runs like a man with bunions; couldn't leap a tall juice glass; favors a James Naismith-era, flat-footed, shot put heave for a jumper; and, oh, yes, is HIV positive."
I remember watching the game in my Tallahassee apartment and laughing almost every minute Johnson was on the floor. I couldn't believe how big he was. He was muscular and had a slight belly, looking nothing like the player who led the Lakers to five championships. I spoke with my brother on the phone a few days later and he told me that the game showed him what it would've been like if Heathcliff Huxtable was a baller. We still joke about that to this day.
Nov. 4, 2001
The Verizon (MCI) Center never had a bigger, more anticipated game than Michael Jordan's home debut with the Washington Wizards. When Jordan announced his return to the NBA at age 38, almost a few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, he immediately reinvigorated a dormant franchise. Jordan had played two other games in New York and Atlanta, but he brought hope -- albeit unfulfilled -- to Washington in his first game in home whites. R&B singer R. Kelly even sang "I Believe I Can Fly" at halftime.
Jordan didn't have the best shooting night -- he missed 14 of 21 shots -- but he scored 20 points with nine assists as the Wizards beat the defending Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia 76ers, 90-76, in front of 20,674 fans and a national television audience. At his advanced age, Jordan relied on his savvy and skill instead of his once-incredible athleticism. He went from being Air Jordan, to, as Big John Thompson liked to say, "Floor Jordan."
Funny thing about that game was that the player most responsible for the leading his team to victory that night was Richard Hamilton, who had 29 points. It shouldn't have come as a surprise that it was Hamilton who upstaged Arenas with 31 points on Saturday night.
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