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Jordan wins duel with Laker pup

NBA Commissioner David Stern said he wouldn't hand over the All-Star Game's MVP award unless Michael Jordan promised to come back and do it again.

The Chicago Bulls star, who has threatened to retire at season's end, scored a game-high 23 points as the East hammered the West 135-114 at Madison Square Garden Sunday.Broadway couldn't have penned a better script. It was so good that Jordan himself called it a fitting end.

"I didn't really expect myself to come out here and win MVP," said Jordan, who missed practice Saturday because of a 101-degree temperature and an upper respiratory infecton. "I just wanted to fit in."

It took exactly 15 seconds for Jordan to assimilate. First he shook off defender Kobe Bryant, then he drove past Kevin Garnett for a running 8-foot jumper to tally the 48th annual game's first score. The shot set the tone for what may be Jordan's final All-Star appearance. He refused to speculate but reiterated a previous stance that if Bulls management followed through on its plans to sever ties with coach Phil Jackson after this season, he would indeed retire.

"How many times do you want me to say it?" Jordan said. "If Phil is not in Chicago, I'm not playing."

He did play Sunday, however, and the East All-Stars never trailed.

"Give it to Michael and get out of the way. That is the way it usually happens," East coach Larry Bird said. "The guys put on a good performance. Obviously, they wanted to win the game."

Eight players scored in double figures as Bird's squad cruised after building a lead as large as 27 points. Glen Rice finished with 16 points, and Grant Hill added 15. The East led 33-25 after one quarter, 67-58 at halftime and 101-91 at the end of three periods.

"The East team played a very fundamentally sound - more consistent - game and won because of it," West coach George Karl said. "We might have had the more exciting plays, but they go home with the victory."

Kobe Bryant, the 19-year-old from the Los Angeles Lakers, led the West with 18 points. His most spectacular score was a third-quarter move that had the sellout crowd of 18,323 buzzing.

On a drive to the basket, Bryant dribbled the ball behind his back before softly laying in an 8-foot hook shot from the right baseline. The youngest player ever to start an NBA All-Star Game said it was something he picked up on the playground in Philadelphia.

The play had no impact on the outcome - it merely closed the gap to 91-76 with 4:26 remaining in the third quarter - but it did add fuel to game-long speculation that the NBA's torch was being passed from Jordan to Bryant. The two were engaged in a tit-for-tat scoring race for the better part of three quarters. Each attempted 11 field goals in the first half.

"It was a good battle, actually. It was fun," Jordan said. "I wasn't trying to take as many shots. I was trying to fend him off as much as I could. He came at me pretty early. . . . He attacked. I like his attitude."

The generation gap maintained its distance when Bryant failed to play in the final 14:44 of the game. Karl justified the move by noting it was a blowout and he felt obligated to distribute the minutes.

Bryant understood. He then paid homage to Jordan.

"Mike is incredible. He's an incredible basketball player. He knows how to keep the defense off-balance - spectacular," Bryant said. "I look at tonight as a learning experience. . . . As far as carrying the torch for years to come, I don't know. I just want to be the best basketball player that I can be. If that happens, that will be fine."

Not so fast, kid. Nets veteran Jayson Williams thinks Jordan will be back.

"Michael will be here again next year and win the MVP again," he said. "I don't know why Mike needs so much drama in his life."

Jordan's third MVP award (he also won the award in 1988 and 1996) moves him just one behind Bob Pettit's All-Star record of four. He also became the all-time steals leader with 33 and moved into third on the All-Star scoring chart with 234 career points.