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|| News Item: Posted 2001-11-26

Lift Off: Michael Jordan is Back!
His Airness Returns to the NBA

By Eileen Blass, USA TODAY

Photo by Eileen Blass/USA Today

Photo by Eileen Blass/USA Today
There was a night in October when having two big televisions side by side would have been a sports fan's dream. Only one TV? Bet the "picture-in-picture" button on the remote got a good workout.

Perhaps you just flipped back and forth with the remote - Game 3 of the World Series - flip - Michael Jordan's return to basketball - flip - Game 3 - flip - Jordan - flip - Game 3 - flip - Jordan.

Fortunately (and I do mean that) I got a chance cover Jordan's return.

It's nice and warm in Madison Square Garden. I didn't have to worry about rain gear. Security was tight, but President Bush was going to Yankee Stadium, so I couldn't complain about security at the Garden. I'm sure Yankee Stadium was tighter. And although a basketball player can always land on your lap, that's probably not as bad as getting bonked on the head with a foul ball. More about this later.

A few days before the big night, I was standing on the sidelines at my 8-year-old daughter's soccer game. One of the other parents approached me and asked what I had coming up. Quietly, very quietly, I said, "I'm covering the return of Michael Jordan".

It doesn't matter if you say it quietly or scream it from a mountaintop, it sounds like you're bragging. If, by chance, you put the accent on "I'm", it sounds like you have a major ego problem. So I said it quietly, and evenly, no accents. And then my husband John walked around and said... Hey, Eileen is going to cover Michael Jordan's return this week! much for being low key. There were a lot of "Wows", a few "reallys?" and a couple of "no way's!"

I stood on the sidelines while my own little sports hero imitated Mia Hamm, my heart pounded with the thought of how I was going to cover this basketball game.

Would I have one remote, or two? What time should I get there? Security is going to be a nightmare! I hope my credential will be there waiting. There's only one of me, I hope my position is good.

Dang, the light is terrible in there.

I need to pack, no I need to make a list of stuff, and then I'll pack!

Ugh, I was driving myself nuts.

My daughter stole the soccer ball and began to move downfield, my heart pounded louder. You know that Huey Lewis song with the heartbeat? That's what it sounded like.

What train should I catch? Can't drive, traffic will be a nightmare, and I won't find a parking spot near Madison Square Garden, I better take Amtrak. Jeez, I'll have to come home on a 2:45am train. Ugh!

A little voice inside of me said "STOP IT! Concentrate on your kid's soccer game and forget about the much-anticipated return of the greatest player in the game. Just chill out." Yeah, right!

And October 30th came.

I drove the half-hour from my home in Kennett Square, PA (the Mushroom Capital of the World, by the way) to Wilmington, DE and boarded an Amtrak train to Penn Station in New York. My cart was loaded with enough equipment for three photographers: cameras, remote gear, and computers.

I looked like I was heading to the NBA Finals!

Security would be tight and remote camera space limited. I decided to arrive 5 hours before game time. All the equipment had to come out for the security guard at the press gate, much to the chagrin I'm sure, of the folks behind me carrying just laptop bags. The line of media grew behind me.

You know, a few months ago, I might have been on the receiving end of an impatient comment like "Hey Lady, what are you, movin' in?" There was none of that. I sensed a new era of patience, thank goodness.

Once through security, I picked up my credential and headed down to the court to put up remote clamps. I was surprised to find plenty of room for my remotes. Well, I guess I was REALLY early.

The place buzzed with activity even at that time. This was no ordinary opening night for basketball. The media credentials numbered around 550. It FELT like an NBA Finals game. And there was still much to be doneset up computers, put away cases, tape down wires, test everything, talk to the editors what's everybody writing about, find the early features.

How is it that no matter how much time you give yourself, you always end up rushing around one minute before game time!? Why is that?

That night there was another wonderful story to be told...something I needed to make a picture of early for first edition. A 12-year-old named Jessica DeRubbio was attending her first Knicks game. Filmmaker Spike Lee auctioned one of his courtside seats to benefit firefighters. The highest bidder, who remained anonymous, requested that the seat be given to the child of a firefighter who perished in the World Trade Center.

Photo by Eileen Blass/USA Today

Photo by Eileen Blass/USA Today
On September 11th, Engine Company 226 in Brooklyn responded to the World Trade Center. Firefighter David DeRubbio, Jessica's dad, and three others from that engine company died. So, on this night of Jordan's comeback, Jessica DeRubbio sat courtside next to Spike Lee.

She beamed.

To me, Jessica's presence was inspiring. As the mother of two, an eight-year -old daughter and a ten-year -old son, I can't bear to imagine the pain that Jessica has felt. Seeing her reminded me that so many children lost parents on September 11th. At that point I really didn't think basketball was all that important. But looking at her smile, it was obvious that basketball was important, and this night was pretty special to her.

And for many others too.

Whether you were at Yankee Stadium for Game 3 of the World Series, at Madison Square Garden to watch Michael Jordan return or were at home flipping between the two on television, it was important. It had to take your mind off things for just a moment. It was much needed entertainment, something we all needed a whole lot more of.

So I made a frame of Spike and Jessica early but somebody told me that they thought Jordan might go over and greet the little girl, perhaps during pre-game. Unfortunately, my shooting position was on the other end of the, so I had to spend a lot of time parked on the wrong side watching Spike and Jessica until the very last minute.

That 's the problem of working alone. You have to give up something and take a chance and you may end up with nothing. This meant that I needed to make a decision to not photograph Jordan coming out of the tunnel. If Jordan came onto the court and went right over to Jessica, I was in the right place. If he didn't, well, I had a frame of Spike and Jessica and that would be fine. Jordan came out and went down to the opposite end to warm up. I stayed put for as long as I could and a few minutes before player introductions, I went back to my position.

Then I saw Jordan move to the center of the court. Oh GOD! I thought, he's going to go over there! Oh, GOD! So I made a beeline from my position down the side of the court to see where he was going. There were still lots of people milling around the sides of the court. I figured I'd just snake around to see if I could see anything from across the court. It wasn't game time yet, it wasn't even player intros yet.

That's when the "MISS!"started.


Whoops, the security guards were on me now. Keep your head down, Eileen, and keep moving I muttered to myself. It was getting louder. There were a few of them. "MISS!!! Any minute now, I was expecting Jerry Lewis to come running out of the stands screaming "HEY LADY!"

I was stopped. The security guards made me go back to my position the long way ... up through the crowd. I wanted desperately to say something like "Hey, I'm workin' here", but I decided it wouldn't go over very well.

I guess to walk around like you owned the place, you needed a red armband. I didn't. "S'cuse me","pardon me" through the crowd I went. As it turns out, I never did see Michael Jordan go over there. I don't think he did. But it was time for introductions.

Photo by Eileen Blass/USA Today

Photo by Eileen Blass/USA Today
The PR folks said we could line up along the side of the court opposite the benches for player introductions. We crouched down in front of the fans and along came Jordan. He stood between two members of the armed forces during player introductions and the National Anthem.

Right in front of us, about a foot away. I was almost too close. In fact, I think he might have been chewing "Juicy Fruit" gum. Nah, I'm kidding, but any closer and I would have needed need a fish-eye lens! Jordan was introduced and produced a polite, unassuming wave, to the crowd. Hmmmm, that wasn't much of a picture. What was I expecting, anyway!

I met Jordan once during a one-on-one feature shoot. He seemed quiet, modest, and polite. You know, a regular guy. Not the kind that would need to show off. Why, he wouldn't need to he's Michael Jordan. So, I shouldn't have been surprised that he didn't thrust both arms in the air and scream "I'm Back!" It was a modest wave.

And so, the 2001 NBA basketball season began.

Jordan walked up alongside the scorers table, stepped on the sticky mat and thrust his right foot onto the court at Madison Square Garden wearing a smile that could light up the whole house.

He looked to be in great shape. Here's a man who doesn't have to wear a jersey that says he's a Wizard. We all knew that already. He's been a "wizard" for a long time. Harry Pottershould have such magic. And from the moment of tip-off on, I heard no crowd at all.

I've never spent an entire game watching one person. It was weird. Everywhere that Michael went, lenses followed.

He missed his first shot.

He was double -teamed.

Photo by Eileen Blass/USA Today

Photo by Eileen Blass/USA Today
I was so focused on Jordan that I didn't realize that comedian Richard Lewis and actor Kevin Bacon were seated behind me. Any other night and I would have known what was going on around me. The place was full of celebs.

I looked over during a TV time-out and saw a man step out of his courtside seat and shadow box to the music over the PA. The crowd cheered. It was Joe Frazier! TV time out over, Michael's back, and, again, I heard nothing except the squeaking on the basketball court. Before I knew it, the first period was over.

I didn't have anything of Jordan that I thought was that exciting. Enter loud heartbeat again.

Fortunately, pictures were better from the second period on. I dunno, perhaps I was suffering from rust. From then on, the game just flew by as if in fast-forward. And then with 17 seconds left, Jordan sent a three-pointer up that could have tied the game.

It missed. It was pretty exciting though.

The game seemed to be over in an instant. There were no grandiose moments that said to me "I'm back". Oh, the tongue came out as usual, but I didn't see Jordan flying through the air. He played so-so. For God sakes, it 's the first game of the season! What were we expecting?! Was I expecting too much? Was I expecting "His Airness'" feet to never touch the ground?

The first game of the season? Jordan played for 37 minutes, went 7 for 21 from the field and had 19 points. The next day, when I looked at my local paper, the headline read "Michael Jordan's return to the NBA: Zzzzzzz". I guess everybody was expecting more, eh? This is entertainment, folks.

As a lover of the classical guitar, I regret that I never got the chance to hear the great Andres Segovia perform in person. He lived into his nineties . No matter what age, I would have loved to see him in concert. He was Segovia! There was only one.

I'm sure his hands were not as agile as they were when he was younger. I'm sure he made mistakes, but I would have welcomed even his mistakes. It would have said to me that he was human. As for Michael Jordan, he's 38. Some people might say he's a bit on the old side for this. That he's not playing like he used to. But he's a legend. I'd be excited to see him at any age, and I'm sure some other folks would too. This is, after all, entertainment.

The television was broadcasting Game 3 of the World Series as we were wrapping up the editing. I hear that a foul ball went into the third base photo box. The TV announcer says that someone's been hit, someone's hurt. They're calling for a trainer. I think to myself, God, I hope it's not one of our guys! An instant message pops up on my computer from one of my editors. It IS one of our guys! My colleague, Darr Beiser, was the one in the third base photo box who got hit. Oh No!

"How badly hurt?" "Don't know."

Photo by Eileen Blass/USA Today

Photo by Eileen Blass/USA Today
It reminded me how unsafe I feel covering sports sometimes. I'm thankful I wasn't standing in that third base box! I'm sure Darr wishes he hadn't been standing there too. I'm glad you're ok, Darr. Perhaps yours is a story for a future Sports Shooter.

So Jordan made his return. The job was done. I headed out with my buddy Tim Shaffer of Reuters for a nightcap a couple of pints of Guinness. Shaffer, who covered the Jordan comeback too, was positively delighted when he heard that he'd have company on the 2:45am southbound train.

Me too. It was the only train available. What can I say? I'd rather sleep in my own bed over a hotel room even if it means travelling at a ridiculous hour to get there. Tim and I had a few hours to kill, so we dragged our stuff out of the Garden and down the road a bit to an Irish pub, the Harp Bar on 32nd street. As I polished off the second pint of Guinness, I thought, I'm going to have a hell of a headache in the morning. And then I thought of Darr, who likely WOULD have a hell of a headache in the morning.

I felt worse for him.

(Eileen Blass has been a staff photographer at USA TODAY since 1989. From 1983 to 1989 she was on the staff of the Lansing State Journal. She lives with her husband John Walston and their two children, 8 year old Katie Rose and 10 year old T.J. in Kennett Square, PA. She is also fiercely passionate about t studying the classical guitar and travels everywhere with a "Soloette", a practice guitar that comes apart and fits nicely in the old suitcase.)

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