Knicks fans can rest easy — Michael Jordan did not school New York for 55 points last night like the last time he came out of retirement. In fact, Jordan was not even the center of attention at Madison Square Garden. He had to share the limelight with members of the Fire Department, Police Department, EMS and postal service — a tough act to follow these days.

The best thing about Jordan was not his outstanding play or his ability to carry the lowly Wizards on his back, because he certainly did neither, but the sense of normality his return brought to last night’s basketball game. Jordan’s less-than-stellar performance does not foreshadow how he will play the rest of the season, but is only an indication of his rustiness. His 19 points led the Wizards, but more noticeable was his air ball in the first quarter and his inability to capitalize on good looks at the basket down the stretch.

With less than 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Jordan took an open three to tie the game, but it bounced off the front of the rim. This came only seconds after he missed a chance to put the Wizards up by one with a jumper from the top of the key that would have been reminiscent of his championship winner in 1999.

For once in his career, Jordan did not get to write the perfect story. The stage was set for the biggest sports moment of the year, but Jordan didn’t follow through. We can’t really fault him for this; all his critics had warned us he might not be the Jordan of old, and it might actually do us some good to remember that he is human.

But he did bring a new dimension to an already meaningful game.

Everyone talks about how New York needs something to celebrate — a World Series title, the election of a new mayor, or even the chance to host MJ’s first game back. The Knicks organization did a wonderful job of celebrating New York during the pregame ceremony. Instead of foam fingers, stadium workers gave out American flags, the honorary ball boy was the son of a deceased firefighter, and each starting player was introduced alongside a member of the Fire Department, Police Department, armed forces or postal service.

But as a New Yorker, I was also happy to see that in spite of everything that’s happened, Knicks fans are still Knicks fans.

It was only 17 minutes into the NBA season when fans began booing the Knicks for being down 11 points. When Charlie Ward was ejected for committing two flagrant fouls, they booed him too. New Yorkers may have a new sense of city pride, but it does not mean they can’t spot lousy basketball when they see it, even when it is the fault of New York’s own players.

It’s important that none of Knicks fans’ little quirks change after Sept. 11. People should still be rude, should still arrive late, and should still leave early. So I was heartened, not appalled, to hear a “shut up,” “no, you shut up” exchange in the middle of the moment of silence. Nor was I amazed when fans headed for the exits with 3:25 left to play and the Knicks only up by one.

Michael Jordan is a part of the New York basketball tradition. New Yorkers live to love MJ for his talent and to hate him for his ability to be the perennial thorn in the Knicks’ side. Why do Knicks fans play the highlight of John Starks’ “The Dunk” from 1993 over and over again? Because it’s about the only highlight a Knicks player has ever had against Michael Jordan.

Maybe it would have been more fitting if Jordan had waltzed into the Garden — No. 23 on his back, Air Jordans on his feet, his tongue on the floor — and wiped the hardwood with the likes of Sprewell and Houston. But he did something better. Just his presence alone allowed New Yorkers to be normal basketball fans for one night; they didn’t have to remember, memorialize or honor, they could just scream obscenities at Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, as they love to do.

In difficult times it is not about realizing how trivial sports are in the grand scheme of things, but about realizing the importance of sports as an outlet and a catharsis.

Like my free opening night T-shirt said, “One Team, One New York.”