The Chicago Bulls tipped off the 1996-97 NBA season proving they still possess everything they need for yet a fifth championship: that good old number 23, Michael Jordan.
In the team's opening game, played on the road in Boston, the Bulls came from behind to beat the Celtics Friday night, 107-98. And in their first home game on Saturday night, after receiving their 1996 championship rings in a pre-game ceremony, they trounced the Philadelphia 76ers, 115-86.
Jordan was, well, just Michael - the incredibly talented, four-time most valuable player who led his team to NBA championships in 1991, '92, '93, and came out of a self-imposed retirement to help his team claim the 1996 championship.
As the National Basketball Association celebrated its 50th anniversary opening day by announcing its top 50 all-time players, Jordan, of course, was among them. Many sports analysts argue he is the best ever to ply the parquet.
He definitely has as much fan (and media) appeal on the road as he does before his hometown crowd. It was difficult to tell here which team the fans wanted to win Friday. The Bulls received as much (or more) applause during introductions as the Celtics, especially Jordan and the Bulls' new center, Robert Parish - who was a Celtic for 14 years and is beginning a record-breaking 21st season.
After the game, the door to the Celtics locker room was wide open to the media - but no one was standing in line waiting to get in. A pack of reporters and cameramen, however, thronged the door to the Bulls' locker room, and mobbed the players when Bulls coach Phil Jackson finally opened it.
Maybe in a throwback to his days playing at the University of North Carolina for coach Dean Smith, who stresses team play and not star worship, Jordan was one of the last to make himself available to the press.
After giving his teammates an opportunity to speak first, Jordan, impeccably groomed in a black tweed suit and tie, demurely brushed aside talk of himself to point out the importance of coach Jackson and the other players on the Bulls' roster.
"We've got some other talent on this team," he said. "We've been a well-balanced team now for four or five years, and we're getting better all the time. This is a team that can compensate for me or Scottie [Pippen] not being on our game."
Jordan went on to heap praise on the Chief (Parish), who he says "came out in the fourth and gave us some good minutes." He says Chief is "easy to play with," and tells lots of locker room tales about the old days playing with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Dennis Johnson when the Celtics were winning national championships. Jordan says - with that mischievous twinkle in his eye - he remembers playing against those guys, but loves having the "inside scoop" now.
But Jordan didn't stop with his own team. He credited the Celtics for jumping out with an up-tempo game that threw off the Bulls' rhythm and put them behind 59-48 at half-time.
"You've got to give them credit," Jordan said after the game. "They were playing in front of their home crowd, and they played with a lot of energy. You've got to give them their respect."
But it was all Jordan in the second half. He led, and his team followed. The Celtics could only watch.
"We didn't get out of the block quick," Jordan said. "Those young, quick guards just about ran my legs off. I didn't feel I had my legs in the second quarter. When you haven't seen a team before, it takes a while to make adjustments."
Jordan says he expects the Bulls - with the oldest average player age in the league now - to see a lot more action this season like they encountered from the Celtics Friday night. "Most teams are going to try to run us like that," he said. "If our defense is active, we can slow the game down. We have got to control the tempo [to win]."
If the first two games of the season are telling, with Jordan posting 30 and 27 points consecutively, the Bulls may be in for another record-breaking year. (They broke one other record last year, posting a 72-10 winning season.)
Jordan may have lost a step over the past few years, or an inch or so on his high-flying routines, but he has not lost his thirst for good competition. He has just about all the awards, esteem, and world renown a championship player can gain (not to mention money), but he says it's the pure competition of the game that keeps him motivated.