Just as the lost souls in Harry Hope's saloon wait hopefully for
Hickey, so do the Washington Wizards live for every appearance
of their bald-headed, earringed savior. The Mike Man Cometh. The
world seems a little brighter, a little more intense, a little
more meaningful when MJ is around. He may be in town for only a
day or two, but that is enough--enough time to impose a dress
code; to microwave a rookie in a postpractice, one-on-one
session; to get a commander in chief to come to a game at the
MCI Center. The Wizards don't exactly disappear when MJ's not in
the house, but they become once again pedestrian, the sports
equivalent of, say, the Department of Agriculture: Everyone
knows it's located in the nation's capital, but no one really
On Jan. 19 Michael Jordan bought an estimated 10% of the Wizards
(for between $20 million and $30 million) and became the
moribund franchise's director of basketball operations. As of
Monday he had been with the team in D.C.--at a practice, at a
game or huddling with team officials over possible personnel
moves--for seven of the 19 days since he took over. The Wizards
were 3-6 during that period, better than their .307 pre-Mike
winning percentage but not suggestive of a McCain-like surge.
The team was 1-1 with Jordan watching, pontifflike, from suite
102, the owners' box at the MCI Center. Jordan had yet to take
in a game on the road, though he said he was trying to see every
one by satellite at his Chicago home or at some
celeb-sympathetic refuge. On the evening of Feb. 1, for example,
at the Shark Club in Bethesda, Md., he watched the
Wizards-Cleveland Cavaliers game until the gaga factor got a tad
high. "I think some people there made a few phone calls," Jordan
However seldom he showed up in D.C., no one was complaining.
"I'm sure Michael will figure out the right formula to do this
job," said coach Gar Heard. Well, Heard said that on Jan. 28,
the day before Jordan fired him and assistants Butch Beard and
Mike Bratz, making Heard the third Wizards coach to plunge into
the Potomac in the past nine months. Jordan did not inform Heard
of the decision; that was left to general manager Wes Unseld,
who showed Heard the door after a 103-98 win over the Cavs,
while Jordan was in Chicago. "I hired him," Unseld told Jordan,
"so I should fire him." Reluctantly, Jordan agreed. He
immediately regretted it.
"From this time forward," he told Unseld after a barrage of
criticism for his treatment of Heard, "I'm going to do the
hiring, and I'm going to do all the firing." Axing Heard in
absentia without ever having had a one-to-one talk with him was
a heartless act, never mind that it certified Jordan as a member
of NBA management, a fraternity that specializes in the
heartless jettisoning of coaches.
If one thing is clear from the early days of the Jordan-Wizards
marriage, it is this: MJ is in charge. This goes way beyond last
week's installation of a clothes rule for road trips--sport
coat, dress shirt, slacks, no sneakers. Unseld, who has been
with the franchise for 32 years as a player, coach, general
manager and surrogate son of majority owner Abe Pollin, has
stepped stoically aside, much as Jordan's fellow Chicago Bulls
did when he had the basketball and hankered to take it to the
hoop. Technically Jordan works for Pollin, who owns 56% of the
team, but the 74-year-old construction magnate and
longest-tenured owner in the NBA, whose franchise hasn't won a
playoff game since 1988 or a playoff series since '82, says
Jordan will have the last word on basketball decisions. Asked
last week for a scenario in which he would overrule Jordan,
Pollin said he couldn't think of one. "I will not make a move
that would stand in front of something Michael wants to do," he
Though Jordan has not established his credentials as a judge of
talent--his previous forays in that area consisted chiefly of
"Get me John Paxson!" or "Get rid of Bill Cartwright!"--His
Airness will also call the shots on trades and college drafts.
"I think he's open-minded and realizes he can't make himself the
standard for players," says Chuck Douglas, the Wizards' longtime
director of player personnel, "but he's quite clear and quite
opinionated about who he likes and who he doesn't."
Jordan reinforced the point last Thursday. "I won't rely too
much on outside influences to decide [on player moves]," he said.
Heck, MJ is even an unofficial coach. In the final moments of
practice on Thursday morning, the day after a 103-93 win over
the Minnesota Timberwolves and the day before a 99-92 road loss
to the Miami Heat, the Wizards ran gassers, rare for an NBA team
at this stage of the season. It was Jordan, dressed in jeans, a
gold pullover and tan boots, who good-naturedly but relentlessly
pushed the team. "Come on, Rod," Jordan chided point guard Rod
Strickland. "Don't kill yourself, but push yourself." It was
Jordan who gave interim coach Darrell Walker, a former Chicago
teammate who was his second choice to replace Heard, a subtle
hand signal that the torture should be concluded. It was Jordan
who then ordered the team to the foul line to "shoot 'em while
But what does all this mean? Can a Jordan in mufti turn around a
franchise? Can he meet the demands of the job while commuting
from the Windy City? Is he committed? Does his mere presence
supercharge the league, as it did when he played? And why did he
take a job that everyone considers difficult and that the
Detroit Pistons' Grant Hill suggests is "beneath him"?
Some of those close to Jordan say that he was going stir-crazy
without basketball and needed the competitive fix of the NBA,
from which he retired as a player in January 1999. "I disagree
with that," Jordan, 36 and still in fighting trim, said last
week. "I didn't search out this opportunity." That's true. But
don't rule out that stir-crazy thing. The evidence is that
Jordan desperately wanted in somewhere, and that the league
wanted him in too. His unsuccessful effort to buy into the
Charlotte Hornets seven months ago had been brokered by
commissioner David Stern, and Jordan had also been mentioned as
a potential ownership partner of three other teams before the
Wizards came knocking.
If you're happy that Jordan is back in the league, say so by
E-mail (the Wizards' Web site is www.washingtoncaps.com) to Ted
Leonsis, the America Online executive who made the initial
overture. (Leonsis says he answers all E-mail, not just those
occasional ones from Jordan.) Jordan's 10% stake in the Wizards
comes through his share of Lincoln Holdings, the Leonsis-led
group that owns 44% of the team and 100% of the Washington
Capitals; Jordan, therefore, has a bigger ownership stake in the
NHL club than in the NBA squad, though to date he has expressed
no desire to tinker with the Caps' power play. Leonsis said it
was difficult making inroads with Jordan because MJ is "in
constant deal flow," but once Leonsis was able to break through,
the negotiations were, he said, "conducted at a high bandwidth."
That's how you talk when you rule the Net.
Team and league execs will be overjoyed to know that at a Nov.
20 meeting in New York City, David Falk, Jordan's longtime agent
and mouthpiece, had to pay dearly for repeatedly interrupting
Leonsis's discussion with Jordan. "Hit him where it hurts,"
Jordan told Leonsis in Falk's presence. Jordan then called room
service from the St. Regis Hotel suite where they were meeting
and charged a $3,000 bottle of 1961 Chateau Latour to Falk's room.
Only Pollin, however, was in a position to give Jordan control
of basketball operations, which he did after a dinner at his
home in Bethesda during which Jordan ate salmon for the first
time in his life. (Being the world's most famous athlete does
not automatically make one a world-class epicure.) Pollin has
long been perceived as a nice guy whose loyalty to certain
employees, such as Unseld, has hindered his chances of improving
the team. "I am not a nice guy," said Pollin last week. "That is
a misconception. I want to win. Giving control to Michael was a
way, I think, to accomplish that."
In Jordan's discussions with Pollin and Team Leonsis, the
subject of how much time he was willing to commit to the Wizards
was broached. All parties eventually were satisfied that Jordan
was eager to devote most of his celebrated energy to turning the
Wizards into winners. Jordan reiterated that last week when he
said, "This job is my priority now. I will take some of the
other stuff [endorsement deals, business ventures] away before I
will [shortchange] this." As proof, Jordan canceled his golf
date with Tiger Woods last week at Pebble Beach; no greater
devotion to a team hath one man than his willingness to abandon
six-irons on the Pacific coastline for the pleasure of watching
Ike Austin run wind sprints.
Surprisingly, there seems to be little doubt around the league
that Jordan can do the job without changing ZIP codes--which he
has no intention of doing. ("For now," he says, "myself and my
family are rooted in Chicago.") Indiana Pacers coach Larry Bird,
who commuted from Naples, Fla., when he was a scout for the
Boston Celtics, says living away from the team should present no
problem. Heat coach Pat Riley says being a general manager is a
"telephone job" and jokes that Jordan could probably do it "from
the 17th hole."
But there are fine points of the new job that Jordan has to work
on. He wanted to hire his good bud Rod Higgins, an assistant for
the Golden State Warriors, to replace Heard but didn't get his
ducks in a row before the news leaked. When the Warriors asked
for compensation--they wanted Washington to alter the provisions
of a '94 trade between the teams--the Wizards backed away. The
subsequent appointment of Walker, likable as he is and capable
as he might prove to be, looked amateurish. There is also the
matter of Jordan's learning the ins and outs of contracts
(setting incentives has driven many a general manager to
distraction) and, of course, the salary cap. Jordan's a smart
guy and a quick study, but the cap is to G.M.'s what organic
chemistry is to premed students.
Still, it's doubtful that Jordan can do a worse job of managing
than the Wizards have done of late. They are about $17 million
over the $34 million salary cap and probably can't clear
significant room until after the 2000-01 season. They also have
the NBA's sixth-highest payroll, which doesn't jibe with their
record, fifth worst in the league at week's end. Huge contracts
given to Falk clients Juwan Howard ($105 million over seven
years) and Strickland ($30 million over three) are major reasons
the team is hamstrung.
Incidentally, everyone who claims that the NBA should bar Falk
from representing Jordan in endorsement deals should consider
this: It's the players' association that should be crying foul.
Falk needs Jordan far more than Jordan needs Falk--"David Falk
works for me, not vice versa," Jordan said recently (adding
unnecessarily that "David can certainly be a pain in the
ass")--so it may be Jordan who has the extra leverage and Falk's
clients who are likely to get the short end of the negotiating
stick. The players' association bylaws, in fact, bar agents from
representing players in negotiations if those agents represent
the players' respective coaches or G.M.'s.
It also won't be easy for Jordan to go on scouting missions--an
absolute necessity, according to Bird. How will the world's most
famous athlete slip into the arena anonymously? (Afro wig?
Glasses and goatee?) "How about the players he's there to scout,
knowing that Michael Jordan is watching?" muses Dan Issel, the
Denver Nuggets' coach and president of basketball operations.
"It's not going to be a typical situation for them." Jordan says
that for the time being he is concentrating on the players in
Washington, deciding what, if any, moves should be made before
the Feb. 24 trading deadline. But Douglas says that Jordan has
already asked him for colleges' schedules and plans to attend
major-conference tournaments and postseason combines.
Oh, spines are beginning to tingle. Michael may be coming to
your town! His presence has already raised pulses in and around
the Beltway. The Wizards report that since Jordan came aboard,
250 season-ticket packages have been sold for 2000-01. Consider
the rapid response at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.: The press
conference announcing that Jordan had joined the team began at
4:55 p.m.; by nine a beaming Bill Clinton was standing beside
him in suite 102.
Here is a cautionary note, though. The Wizards must win for
Jordan's involvement to be truly meaningful, for both the
franchise and the league. "Michael needs to turn it around,"
says NBC president Dick Ebersole. "Being able to glance at
Michael in the owners' box [isn't] a story line." Russ Granik,
the NBA's deputy commissioner, agrees: "The guy is one of the
most popular figures in the world, and having him in the league
has drawn a lot of attention, but that's a short-term phenomenon
that doesn't necessarily help ratings and attendance unless the
Wizards become winners."
Don't think Jordan doesn't know it. For a brief moment last
Thursday, as he headed toward the locker room after practice, he
addressed the daunting task before him, one he can't overcome
with a penetrating jab-step dribble followed by a step-back
jumper, the last image we have of him as a player. "This is more
pressure than I've ever faced," he said with a rueful smile,
"and I'm feeling it."
THE HIRING, AND I'M GOING TO DO ALL THE FIRING"
MEANINGFUL, FOR BOTH THE FRANCHISE AND THE LEAGUE