NEW YORK, February 8 -- The big question entering Sunday's All-Star Game, whether or not illness would stop Michael Jordan, was answered only 15 seconds into the game. The question as to whether or not anyone can stop Jordan ... that one is still being asked.
Jordan, whose Most Valuable Player performance overshadowed the impressive All-Star debut of Kobe Bryant, led a balanced East attack, scoring 23 points, grabbing six rebounds and also dishing a team-high eight assists, including three during a 20-1 run early in the fourth quarter that blew the game open and led to the East's 135-114 win.
"Give it to Michael and get out of the way," explained Larry Bird, the Eastern Conference coach, of his team's strategy. "That is the way it usually happens."
For awhile, it looked like that strategy might not be possible. It was reported early in the day that Jordan might not play, but he was in the starting lineup and received the loudest ovation from the Madison Square Garden crowd of 18,323. On the East's first possession, Jordan exploded from the left wing to the middle of the lane, and drained a running jumper. They were off and running. The East never trailed, and frequently held double-digit leads even before their decisive fourth-quarter flourish.
"I've been in bed for three days, basically," said the three-time All-Star Game MVP. "I didn't really expect to come out here and win the MVP. I just wanted to fit in, to make sure Kobe didn't dominate me. The hype was me against him. I was just glad that I was able to fight him off."
From the outset, the game looked like a mano-a-mano duel between Air and Heir, as Jordan and Bryant took turns firing it up with varying degrees of success. The 19-year-old Bryant, eager to live up to the hype that has followed him around all week, attacked Jordan offensively. He hit a 17-foot jumper early, but misfired on several circus shots. He finally drew praise from the Garden crowed when he let his athleticism take over.
Midway through the opening period, Bryant took a pass from Shaquille O'Neal, went skyward and performed a 360-degree spin before slamming the ball through the cylinder. On the West's next possession, Bryant found himself on the receiving end of a Kevin Garnett alley-oop, which he retreived in midair and buried.
Bryant found his stroke in the second half. He hit three shots, including a pair of long three-pointers, and finished with a team-high 18 points on 7-for-16 shooting from the field.
"We were in the locker room before we ran out there. I was a little nervous. I was shaky," said Bryant. "I had butterflies because I wanted this moment to come. Once I went out there, I was comfortable."
As comfortable as Bryant looked on offense, he was no match for Jordan. Early on, Jordan hit a pair of high-arching turnaround baseline jumpers over Bryant, and scored seven straight points for the East as they built their lead to 25-15 in the waning moments of the first.
"That's all about competitive nature," Bryant said of Jordan's first-quarter surge. "I came out aggressive, he came back at me aggressive. That's what it's all about. All I want to do is get a hand up, try to play him hard ... he hit those two turnarounds, and I was like 'Cool, let's get it on!' "
The 34-year-old Jordan, who also won the MVP award in 1988 and in 1996, thought the youngster showed remarkable poise. "He came at me early, which I would have done if I were him. If you see someone who's sick, or whatever, you've got to attack him. He attacked. I like his attitude."
When Jordan exited the game, the East relied on the three-point shooting of Tim Hardaway and Glen Rice to maintain a double-digit lead. Hardaway's back-to-back bombs from well beyond the line gave the East its biggest lead of the first quarter, 33-19. Rice hit three straight bombs in a 1:25 stretch midway through the second quarter as the East extended a seven-point lead to a 51-39 advantage.
The East lead hovered near double digits throughout the second and third quarters. Early in the fourth, the East broke it wide open. With the East up 103-95, Jayson Williams put back an offensive rebound at the 9:54 mark of the fourth to begin a run of 12 straight points for the East, which got a pair of free throws from Rik Smits, a three-pointer from Jordan, then consecutive jumpers from Reggie Miller (both assisted by Jordan) to go up 115-95.
The West continued to struggle from the field, where it was only 10-for-32 in the final quarter. After a free throw by Eddie Jones, the East continued to run toward easy buckets. First Jordan converted a driving layup, then after Smits blocked a pair of Vin Baker shots at the other end, the 7-4 Dutchman sped down the lane and fired a behind-the-back pass to Williams for the slam. A 17-footer by Smits and a dunk by Antoine Walker put the game well out of reach at 123-96.
"Rik told me, 'Man, thanks for catching that ball, man!' " Williams said. "I didn't know what he was going to do with it. I knew he was running full speed. He ain't got no brakes!"
Smits, who finished with 10 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two blocks, was one of seven East players in double figures, joining Jordan, Rice (16), Grant Hill (15), Miller (14), Steve Smith (14) and Shawn Kemp (12).
"I thought Rik played especially well today," Bird said of Smits. "He was active he moved well. I was very proud of him. He made a lot of great plays and was very instrumental in helping us win this game."
The other three representatives from the Los Angeles Lakers joined Bryant in double digits for the West. Jones scored 15, Nick Van Exel had 13 and O'Neal finished with 12. David Robinson (15) and Garnett (12) also hit double figures. Gary Payton had a game-high 13 assists, including three feeds to Bryant, his partner in the starting West backcourt.
"I just wanted to help him relax," Payton said. "I told him I'd get him the ball. He was rushing a lot of his shots ... He did a good job. I think he's going to be great."
Bryant's road to greatness is paved with a spectacular tutor.
"I looked at tonight as a learning experience," Bryant said. "As far as carrying the torch for the years to come, I don't know. I just want to be the best basketball player I can be. If that happens, that will be fine."