ATLANTA - Isiah Thomas does not deny a certain weirdness about his role in the 2003 NBA All-Star Game. His Indiana Pacers are kings of the Eastern Conference and Thomas is the right man for this honorary coaching job.
But what about that bald guy down at the end of his bench; the old man who turns 40 later this month and who promises, really, this time it's for real: At the end of this season, I'm gone, forever?At some point in the first quarter tomorrow, Thomas is going to nod toward that guy and do the right thing. Rip off the sweats. Go check yourself in. It's time. And this most famous All-Star reserve will nod back.
Michael Jordan will walk to the scorer's table, flashbulbs popping and the crowd on its feet. He'll check in for Allen Iverson or Tracy McGrady, young star/guards who both volunteered to give up their starting spots. Or he'll check in for Vince Carter, the most downtrodden and maligned All-Star in Atlanta, who did not volunteer to make way for the real Tar Heels legend yesterday, saying, "I've got to look out for myself, too."
In front of a couple billion people watching on TV around the globe, the old Detroit point guard, Thomas, will share a strange, historical moment when his most bitter Bulls rival, Jordan, makes his All-Star finale.
"I want to make his last All-Star Game as enjoyable as possible. However many minutes he wants, however many shots he wants. I think it should be the same as Magic's last appearance," Thomas said yesterday.
"But if someone had told me back in 1991 that I'd be coaching him in this All-Star Game, I wouldn't be able to say anything because I'd be laughing so hard. I would have laughed it off. I would have never thought this would happen, but here we are today. I think it's a good thing."
Welcome to Planet Middle Age, where the passions and grudges and hard-wired suspicions of youth have mellowed.
For a compulsively driven competitor whose greatest showdowns were against the few great ones who could match that Jordanesque intensity, Jordan is inspiring something unusual these days: reverence that verges on the funereal.
Where's the smack talk, fellas? You know Jordan was a master at that, too.
"Except he'd do it on the sneaky-tip," Gary Payton said yesterday. "With me, I let you see what I was talking, but [Jordan] would just whisper something in your ear. But he could talk some trash."
It is a strange world where rivals - young and old - want to be nice to Michael Jordan, the legend against whom young guns like Iverson wanted to make a stand, a defensive stop, a fadeaway in his tongue-wagging face.
Even Payton, the normally snaggle-toothed, 13-year Sonics veteran, said he was sad to see Jordan go.
"He's the greatest player I've ever seen, but he's going out the right way. All the things he did for basketball and he's got those rings - six of them. I wear all his Nike stuff. I'm going to give him his props," Payton said.
"I got to play against him a lot. I played him in the championships, in the Finals, and he's the one who didn't let me win one. He's the reason. Him. If he wasn't in there, [the Sonics in 1996] probably would have won. But he was the difference. Now it's time to say goodbye."
The Jordan tributes will know no bounds - especially with a five-octave serenade by Mariah Carey.
"Not too many people get to say they played with Michael Jordan in his last All-Star Game," said Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal, adding: "I'm going to honor him. I'm going to wear some Air Jordans to let him know how much we appreciate the way he paved the way for all of us."
Jordan's goodbye tour has rendered the mood around Atlanta way too melancholy - especially for someone like Jordan, where sentimentality, empathy, vulnerability are rare or nonexistent. This is a guy who thrived on challenges, who took every perceived slight and used it as motivation. This is a man who beat up little Steve Kerr in practice, for God's sake. Bad blood and barking and even some alleged back-stabbing were integral parts of Jordan's rare game.
You remember The Jordan Rules. They were tactics designed by Daly to prevent Jordan from doing anything - anything - to beat them. Daly scribbled them up and Thomas and his band of Bad Boys executed them - with relish. They worked so well that the Pistons denied Jordan and his Bulls a pair of NBA titles in those early years. No wonder Jordan's unyielding determination was to do anything to eliminate Thomas and the Bad Boys so he could claim his NBA crowns.
Yesterday, Thomas said he wouldn't mind getting the call to guard Jordan one more time.
"That would make a good show," he said, laughing - but meaning it. "If I had one regret, that would be it. I would have liked to have continued playing so that I could have never looked back. I knew soon after I retired that I had a lot of basketball in me," said Thomas, 41.
But times have changed. Boy, have they. Thomas does not expound upon the bad blood that used to boil between him and Jordan, who felt he was a freeze-out victim at the 1985 All-Star Game, courtesy of Thomas. In 1992, it was alleged that Jordan helped keep Thomas off the 1992 Olympic Dream Team - a rumor that Jordan denied and that Thomas takes to be the final word.
"My job back then was to beat him. I did. My job [tomorrow] is to coach him and help him. And I will," Thomas said.
Makes you long for the old days.