With only minutes remaining in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals in Utah, the press room under the bowl at Delta Center was packed with writers on deadline.
That’s when it occurred to me that if this was the end for Michael Jordan, I best get back into the arena to observe the final few minutes of his career, the last moments for the greatest of all time.
The layup, the strip of Karl Malone and the shot over Bryon Russell.
Sometimes even the crustiest take a step back and understand the significance, to witness rather than merely bear witness.
That Jordan eventually returned for a forgettable stint with Washington is less important than the memory, and this was on my mind Sunday morning at Medinah when Tiger Woods teed off early in the final round of the BMW Championship.
Out of contention, the massive galleries and earsplitting roars for Woods were evidence that he holds the fans’ attention no less now than when he was ripping apart the PGA Tour, no less so than when he won the Masters in April.
Perhaps some were wondering if this was the last time they would get to see the best ever play golf in Chicago.
Do the math and that feeling might be right.
Woods played in only 12 tournaments this year, in three of those events playing only one or two rounds.
Struggling to stay limber and get in enough reps and rounds in the new condensed schedule — with the Players, Masters, PGA, U.S. Open and Open Championship in consecutive months — Woods started only seven times the last five months.
That’s not much of an opportunity to pick up FedEx Cup points, and had he not won the Masters this year, he would not have been in the Top 70 and qualified for the BMW Championship.
With that in mind, it’s fair to wonder if he’ll make it to Olympia Fields and the BMW next year if he struggles again to find a rhythm, something that didn’t occur last year when he played well all summer.
In 2021, the BMW is expected to be played somewhere other than Chicago, though there has been no public declaration of such yet.
So it could be 2022 before he gets another chance to play here if he doesn’t make it back next season. By then, he’ll be 46 and his fused back will be that much closer to breaking down again.
So, yes, it’s reasonable to wonder if he will ever play here again.
Now, this is assuming a lot of bad luck and poor health, along with a lack of results, but what this year has shown is that it’s difficult for even the greatest of all time to play well when he’s not getting enough work on and off the course.
“I didn’t have a feel for what I needed to do this week,” Woods said Sunday afternoon following an even-par 72. “Right now the most important thing is fitness. I need to get a little bit stronger in certain body parts.”
Last year he played great with a win, two seconds and seven Top 10s in 18 events, playing a schedule that he admitted was too heavy, but nonetheless doable before the PGA was crammed into the May portion of the schedule.
Given the circumstances, I thought it best to walk another 18 with him, having long ago lost track of how many times I’ve done it.
The number is upward of 50 rounds.
Sunday wasn’t anything like the seven times he’s won in Chicago, the two PGA Championships at Medinah and 5 victories at Cog Hill in the Western Open or BMW Championship.
Nothing like when he pulled off the Chicago double in ’99, winning the Western at Cog and then the PGA at Medinah, or the ’97 Western at Cog when he got the British Open treatment down the 18th fairway.
Nothing like when he fired a 19-under at Cog and won the BMW by a pleasant 8 shots in 2009, his last victory in Chicago.
Nothing like the many coronations here.
If Sunday marked the last game here — and that’s far from a certainty — it was still special for those who lined up and waited hours in the rain and ankle-deep mud just to get a glimpse of the Sunday red, to see him walk by, flip a wedge or drain a putt.
Parents watched their kids watching Tiger, documented every step with photos, roared for his 3 birdies on the front and just as loud when he lipped out a 67-foot chip on the 16th.
His long clubs were very good Sunday, but his short game was nowhere to be found, and to those in attendance it didn’t matter.
And while his Saturday round was his sharpest since the U.S. Open in June at Pebble, Sunday was evidence that he simply needs to play.
With so few reps the last few months, Thursday and Friday were like practice rounds, and by Saturday when he got it together, it was too late to get back in the hunt.
Going forward, there’s no way for even Woods to predict if he can peak for Augusta as he did in 2019, or play an entire summer of good golf, as he did in 2018.
“It’s just one of those things where some days I feel better than others,” Woods said. “I’m going to have some difficulties here and there. I have to fight through it and be patient with it.”
Finishing 42nd in the standings after a 7-under week at the BMW, there was no Top 30 and there will be no Tour Championship for Woods, no repeat of the now famous walk down the 18th at East Lake a year ago.
“I wanted to get back there,” Woods said. “That’s where the entire summer of work finally culminated in a win. Having a chance at the British Open and PGA … things were trending in the right direction and I put it all together for one week.
“Just the way it all ended, coming back and winning on the last hole, the last event of the year, it was a pretty cool ending.”
There would be no such ending this year. That came with a 6-foot par putt on 18 at Medinah two hours before winner Justin Thomas made his final stroke.
Woods will next play at the Zozo Championship in Japan on Oct. 24, then his own tournament in the Bahamas the day after Thanksgiving, before heading straight to Australia to captain the USA Presidents Cup team, unlikely to add himself as a wild-card pick when so many others are in form and deserve the honor.
As for the next opportunity to see him in Chicago, maybe it will be next year. Maybe in 2022. Maybe never.
Sometimes you just have to take a step back, breathing in the opportunity and understanding that the significance can’t be summed up by pushing nouns against verbs.
Sometimes you just have to watch.