I took a trip down to the Meadowlands on Tuesday to watch the New Jersey Nets take on Michael Jordan. Of course, the day after I bought my ticket, Jordan pulled himself out for the rest of the season because of a knee injury and so I only got to watch the New Jersey Nets.

At least that’s what it seemed like. The Wizards were pummeled in every sense of the word in a 101-88 rout, handing the Nets their first ever Atlantic Division title. Washington got dunked on repeatedly, and at one point it seemed the whole game consisted of Jason Kidd sprinting down the court and throwing ridiculously lofty lobs to some high-flying Net for a spectacular alley-oop.

Riding back to New Haven on the Metro-North, I wondered whether Mike would have made a difference in the game. Would he have drawn enough double-teams to give Rip Hamilton better shots? Would he have dropped 45 like he did when the Wizards beat the Nets on New Year’s Eve? Would he have been able to stop some of the Nets’ fast breaks?

Maybe, probably not, and definitely not.

Whatever Jordan could have done, the Nets would likely have won the game anyhow; its crunch time and New Jersey is looking to secure a home-court advantage in the playoffs.

But thinking about what kind of difference Jordan might have made in that one game begged the question of what kind of difference he has made over the entire season.

Is the Wizards’ improvement from a really bad lottery team to a better lottery team worth the tarnish on Jordan’s near-perfect career? Did an offense run by His Airness impede the growth of a young Washington franchise? Was No. 23 just a distraction who stole the limelight from the real NBA stars, those whose teams will still be playing after the regular season ends next week?

No, no, and no.

I didn’t enjoy watching Jordan push off Bryon Russell and hit the championship-winning bucket in the 1998 Finals. It hurt. Jazz devotees know this. But very few, if any, real basketball fans — myself included — would have wanted the greatest career in NBA history to have ended in any other way. Whether he returns next season or not, Michael Jordan’s career ended on that magical shot in Salt Lake City four years ago, not the two-point outing he posted nine days ago.

What Jordan took part in this season wasn’t so much a career as it was an experiment: a foray into the world of NBA basketball, 2002 edition. He never tried to widen the gap between himself and the rest of the pack, but he did so anyway.

Mike was out there to prove two hypotheses: First, that he could make a winner out of anyone. And second that he could still compete with the best in the world.

If there’s any doubt that he did both, check the stats. The Wizards are 16 games better than last season with a few more to play, and were a lock for the playoffs — the Wizards! — until Jordan’s knees buckled.

Jordan himself, meanwhile, had back-to-back games of 40 or more points twice this season, and on one occasion even blew up for 51. At 39, he is one of just five players who have averaged 20 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists a game this season. The other four are between the ages of 22 and 25.

If anything, the man’s legacy has been burnished, not tarnished. And in the process, a few young kids named Hamilton, Alexander, and Lue, along with a really young kid named Brown, learned how to play — and win — at the professional level.

Has Michael Jordan been a distraction? Yes, but together with Barry Bonds, the World Series, and the Patriots, he was a distraction we loved these last seven months. Admit it — if you weren’t rooting for him, you were at least interested in how MJ was doing. You waited to see him on SportsCenter, you picked up a magazine with him on the cover, and you checked his stats on ESPN.com. Maybe not as religiously as I did, but you did.

So if this is really it — if Michael Jordan never suits up for another NBA game, I will be sad. I was sad nine years ago, I was sad four years ago, and I will be sad again.

You should be too.