Venerable superstar Michael Jordan returned to the NBA hardwood under the brightest and most critical lights of Madison Square Garden for the 38th time in his career.

Jordan was there to battle his old nemesis, the hated New York Knicks, on his first trip as a Washington Wizard. Though Jordan settled for jumpers rather than defying gravity, and helping teammates get involved rather than dominating, Jordan was still Jordanesque.

The biggest difference for Jordan wasn’t the puke-blue jersey he shielded or the torpid nature of a decrepit Knick squad. The most glaring change for M.J. was that for the first time in His Airness’ glittering career, he is playing with an atrocious collection of NBA castoffs and novices who would have trouble hitting the tail of a donkey with a machete.

They’re crummy enough right now even with Jordan lifting them out of NBA purgatory.

Instead of being flanked by Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, Jordan has Courtney Alexander and Christian Laettner bumbling on the wings.

Alexander is a one-dimensional tool whose offensive game was nonexistent Tuesday evening. Jordan was pointing and scolding the Fresno State product throughout the game. When Knick Latrell Sprewell was abusing Wizard washout Tyrone Nesby in the third quarter, Jordan was pissed at Alexander for not coming over weakside to help.

TBS commentator and chronic whiner Danny Ainge blabbed that Laettner needed to hustle when he missed an easy shot. Yo, Ainge: Chrissy hasn’t busted his tail in nine years in the NBA.

The defense of the Wiz was confounded by the NBA’s new defensive rules, and looked like a high school squad scrambling around. The only reason they were in the game until the end was the Knicks’ inability to hit open shots.

But Jordan retained his magic. He hit a baseline jumper to twirl his defender and avoid the double team. Jordan scattered more turnaround jumpers throughout the night.

Yet his classic move is rocking back, dribbling twice with his left hand and pulling up for 18-foot pull-ups. Get used to that play, because that’s going to be Michael’s bread and butter.

With 16 seconds left in the game, Jordan gathers himself a good look for a three to tie the game at 91. Jordan misses. Knick Kurt Thomas makes two free throws to seal a New York win. Even with 7-21 shooting, Jordan showed glimmers of why he is still a force to be reckoned with. Last night was just the beginning – Jordan’s going to tear the league up soon. By January, he’ll be in top form and wrest the title of Greatest Player in the World again. Or he’ll make the Wiz Kids a stronger, fundamentally improved team.

But the night was not a total wash for the Wizards. Knick squirt-guard and anti-Semite Charlie Ward received his formal ejection from the game with 6:28 left in the fourth for tackling Jahidi White. Nice job, Ward. Football’s played at the Meadowlands, dipshit.