'I AM not a god,'' Michael Jordan insisted on Sunday, after playing with the Chicago Bulls for the first time since ending an 18-month retirement from basketball.
In Chicago, this seems to be the only expression by Mr. Jordan that his millions of devotees hold in doubt.
Chicagoans seem enthralled in a rite of tribal exaltation as they prepare for Jordan's homecoming tonight, a game against the Orlando Magic.
The city is dizzied and entranced. Strangers riding the ''El'' assume correctly that they are grinning about the same thing and begin rhapsodizing together about the second coming of His Airness.
The fire from ''Michael-mania'' apparently warms lightly clad pedestrians against the early spring chill. Many of them wear replicas of the red Bulls basketball jersey emblazoned with No. 23 and ''Jordan.''
Jordan came back to the basketball court in part because he stumbled on the baseball diamond. Playing on the farm team for the White Sox last year, he batted just .202 for the season.
But Chicagoans, in their fawning, disregarded Jordan's lackluster performance against the Indianapolis Pacers on Sunday.
Jordan made just seven out of 28 shots from the field and the Bulls lost in overtime, 103-96. Just as important, Jordan did not execute his trademark slam dunk, but meekly dropped the ball into the hoop with the ''finger roll.''
Against the Celtics on Wednesday, Jordan sank nine out of 17 shots from the field and came away with 27 points. The Bulls won, 124-107.
The flighty euphoria over Jordan in Chicago seems out of character for the down-to-earth natives of the ''city that works.''
Rather than deification, Chicago is known for unseating the vainglorious with a wisecrack and poke in the ribs. It's less prone to adulation than its two rival cities: New York, with one eye cast toward Old World romanticism; and Los Angeles, forever entranced by Hollywood's glitz.
But Jordan upends Chicago natives' Midwestern pragmatism and prudence. More than anyone else, he brings together the most segregated of America's big cities.
Without Jordan, Chicagoans are left to differ over the value of their city's other distinct features: deep-dish pizza, a bumper crop of Nobel Prize winners, and a peerless array of architecture.
Jordan transcends all debate. When he rises from the basketball court, mounts the sky, and executes a two-point flourish, he unites fans -- black and white, bookish and unlettered, dwellers of North Shore mansions and South Side tenements -- in awe and appreciation.
''Michael brings Chicago together. He should run for mayor. He's better than [Mayor Richard] Daley -- both Daleys,'' said Carley Jenkins Wednesday after dinner at Jordan's shrine to himself, a three-story red brick edifice called ''Michael Jordan's Restaurant.'' (Indeed, Jordan's return has completely overshadowed campaigning for an April 4 mayoral election.)
Still, the only tangible gain from Jordan's return has fallen to the local economy and investors in ''Jordan Inc.'' For each game Jordan dons his jersey, residents will spend $16 million more than usual, says Jerry Roper, Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce president.
Cabbies, ticket sellers, and owners of restaurants, hotels, and souvenir shops are likely to take in much of the otherwise idle cash.
Sara Lee Corp., based in Chicago, is one of the handful of Jordan's corporate patrons cheering his comeback; Jordan has endorsed two Sara Lee products, Hanes underwear and Ball Park franks.
Another Sara Lee company, Champion Products, Inc., has added an extra shift and raised production by 40 percent to meet orders for a total of 240,000 jerseys featuring ''Jordan'' and his new number, ''45.''
''Consumers seem to have a love affair with Michael Jordan,'' says Theresa Herlevsen, a Sara Lee spokeswomen.