The crowd was wonderful, the reception warm and the victory special. Now Phil Jackson will gladly get out of town, thank you very much.
"It's really nice to have played it," Jackson said Tuesday night after his first game at the United Center as an opposing coach.
"But it's good to be over."
Chicago fans might disagree, even if Jackson's Lakers did beat the Bulls 88-76.
Like a jilted lover still carrying a torch, fans packed the United Center as if one of the most sordid breakups in NBA history never happened. They gave Jackson a standing ovation when he walked in, cheered him at halftime and gave him more love as he left.
"I told Phil that game was for him," said O'Neal, who went an astonishing 11-of-12 from the free throw line and scored a total of 29. "We have an excellent relationship, and I'm real glad he decided to come out of retirement."
Fox scored all 11 of his points in the fourth quarter, including a 3-pointer as part of a game-closing 26-9 run.
After back-to-back 3-pointers put the Bulls up 67-62 with 8:41 left in the game, Fox hit a layup and a 3 to tie the game. O'Neal followed with five free throws he didn't miss a free throw until 4:47 left in the fourth and a baby hook to give Los Angeles a 74-72 lead.
Fox drilled the decisive 3-pointer with 4:15 left, giving Los Angeles a 77-72 lead.
"The difference in the game came late," Bulls coach Tim Floyd said. "Rick Fox was the difference."
Kobe Bryant added 21 for the Lakers, who shot just 40 percent from the floor. It was Los Angeles' first victory over the Bulls in Chicago since March 11, 1995.
"It is special for me," Jackson said. "And special for Shaq. He was really glad to help contribute to that win, and I thank him for it."
But this game wasn't about hacking Shaq, no matter how amazing his stats were. This was all about Jackson, as big a part of Chicago's championship run as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
Chicagoans have a special place in their hearts for the quirky coach, even if they don't always get what he's saying. They supported him when he zoomed off on his Harley-Davidson in June of 1998, weary of the circus that surrounded the Bulls and tired of the sniping with general manager Jerry Krause.
And they backed him when his "retirement" gave way to the Lakers job after only a year. Ticket scalpers were actually working the sidewalks before the game, trying to grab extra tickets. Fans made it sound like the glory days when Jackson walked on the floor, filling the arena with cheers.
"Thank God for all the photographers. I couldn't see any of the people," Jackson said. "It was a warm welcome, a friendly welcome. And the pre-game ceremony, I thank the Bulls for not doing anything extraordinary. Otherwise I might have broke down and cried."
OK, so that last part might not be so sincere. But Jackson was moved as he walked onto the floor, smiling sheepishly before acknowledging the crowd with a wave. He hugged Bulls assistant Bill Cartwright, a player on the first three championship teams, and made his way down to the Lakers bench.
That's when things really got weird. The Lakers, who have the second-best record in the league, came out looking more like the Bulls. They shot a dismal 36 percent in the first half and trailed 39-36 at halftime.
After trailing the entire third quarter, the Lakers finally took the lead thanks to when's the last time you saw this? O'Neal's free throws. O'Neal, who came into the game shooting just 48 percent from the line, made two free throws to give Los Angeles a 54-53 lead with 1:07 left in the third.
Though they trailed into the fourth quarter, there was no doubt they were going to win, Bryant said.
"We've been in worse situations," he said, smiling.
Now the Lakers are off to Charlotte, Phil-Fest behind them. At least until he comes to town again.
"You've got to remember, we went through the whole Dennis Rodman mania," Bryant said. "This is pretty calm right now."
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