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Lift Off In the first week of his comeback Michael Jordan shot poorly, passed deftly and launched a new era for the young Wizards

Nov. 12, 2001
Nov. 12, 2001

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Nov. 12, 2001

Lift Off In the first week of his comeback Michael Jordan shot poorly, passed deftly and launched a new era for the young Wizards

Here we are trying to figure out how to keep sports in
perspective, and along comes the Michael Jordan One-Man
Traveling Band Magical Mystery and Coronation Tour. How's a
nation supposed to remember that pro athletes aren't really
heroes when Ol' 23 has returned again--pate glistening, tongue
wagging, eyes blazing--to rekindle memories and rewrite history?
No second acts in American life, F. Scott? If last week's
sellout crowds, transglobal media turnouts and pregame hosannas
normally reserved for players on the home team were any
indication, the Air Dude is off to a helluva start on a third.

This is an article from the Nov. 12, 2001 issue Original Layout

Despite shooting poorly (38.9% from the field) but often (22.5
attempts per game), Jordan used his myriad skills and masterful
presence to help the Washington Wizards to a 2-2 record at week's
end, their best start since the 1997-98 season. Suggestions that
Congress confer a special commendation should be put on hold,
however, considering the Wizards' 100-78 loss to the Pistons in
Detroit on Sunday. So decisive was the drubbing that Jordan
played only 22 minutes, scoring 19 points and grabbing eight
rebounds.

Still, Washington appears to be better than last season's 19-win
team--make that much better lest it be damned with faint
praise--and Jordan is the reason. He is the main man for the
Wizards ("a guy who's down there in the foxhole with us," as
backup center Popeye Jones puts it), yet he is not really of
them. He travels with his own trainer, his own security staff and
a Wizards p.r. man of his own. He even has his own Washington
Post writer, Michael Leahy, whose beat for at least the next six
months is Michael Jordan. "Could you tell us, please, what it is
like to be on the team with Mr. Michael Jordan, world's most
famous athlete?" a Japanese television reporter inquired of the
other Wizards last week.

Hmm, that's not such an easy question. These latest Jordanaires
can give chapter and verse on the benefits of Michael's
competitiveness and how their scoring opportunities have
increased because he draws double and triple teams. On the other
hand, they have no clue about what's going on inside the man's
head. At 38 MJ is older, wiser, richer and inclined to keep
company with a select few who are under orders not to spill beans
of any variety.

"I'll talk about Michael when he tells me I can," says Tim
Grover, the Chicago-based trainer who whipped Jordan back into
shape and is now on Washington's payroll solely to take care of
him. "Can't talk about him yet," says Fred Whitfield, a longtime
friend whom Jordan, in his former capacity as team president,
hired in May 2000 as assistant legal counsel and salary-cap
expert.

Indeed, while we have seen a lot of Jordan over the past few
weeks, we still know little about what he's thinking. He deftly
orchestrates the huge, postpractice and postgame group gropes
with journalists--he does not talk to reporters, by the way; he
addresses the media--saying not quite nothing but not quite
something, offering pronouncements that sound vaguely Biblical:
If you put forth the effort, then success will be bestowed upon
you.

At this early juncture the portrait that emerges of the suddenly
captivating Wizards is one of a monarchy rather than of a hoops
squad. Superstars in all sports are accorded special status, but
Jordan's goes way beyond what even he enjoyed with the Chicago
Bulls. He had already ascended into the rare air of
legend--twice--and here he comes swooping back to earth again to
lend a hand to a team whose second-best player is...who? The
quick answer is third-year swingman Richard (Rip) Hamilton, who
dumped 29 points on the Philadelphia 76ers in a 90-76 Wizards win
last Saturday evening in Washington, but until then one could
have made a case for journeyman Jones.

It doesn't much matter who Jordan's dance partner for the night
happens to be, though. There is Michael and there is Everyone
Else. Wizards coach Doug Collins, as knowledgeable a basketball
man as there is, admits that he bounces pregame plans and in-game
strategy off Jordan and credits Jordan's halftime rant last
Thursday in Atlanta as being "100 percent responsible" for
Washington's 98-88 win over the Hawks. Everything is viewed
through the prism of Jordan. Of Wizards point guard Chris
Whitney, for example, Jordan says, "He's my John Paxson and my
Steve Kerr." Nice identity, eh, Chris?

One wonders: Won't a team with such a top-heavy structure
eventually fall?

The answer: maybe not.

Although it would be premature to conclude the degree to which
Jordan's skills have deteriorated, some things are obvious.
Because of his strength and savvy, he can still get his shot
wherever and whenever he wants to. Collins has used three sets
that put Jordan at three positions: at the top of the key, on the
wing and back-to-the-basket on the elbow (the corner of the foul
line). This Wizards offense may be even more Michael-centric than
the Bulls' triangle was during Jordan's halcyon days, because he
now plays so many positions, often changing roles on the fly.
"Michael is like our point guard even when he's at small
forward," says Collins.

Jordan's passing skills, always underrated, are sharper than
ever--he had nine assists against Philadelphia--partly because he's
delivering the ball from so many places on the floor. In the
second quarter against Atlanta, for example, he was triple-teamed
along the baseline. He had a bailout opportunity to Whitney at
the top of the key and another to center Jahidi White in the
post, but he somehow saw Hamilton sneaking along the baseline on
the other side of the basket and found him for a layup.

Jordan's instincts, his ever-improving conditioning and his
know-how will continue to make him one of the league's best
defenders. Watch him retreat, keep his head up and lurk behind
other players, "a predator," as Washington assistant John Bach
puts it. Then watch him spring forward to intercept a casual pass
intended for his man on the weak side, as he did on two occasions
in the Wizards' opener, a 93-91 loss to the New York Knicks at
Madison Square Garden. No one has ever "slapped down" as well as
Jordan either. As the player he's guarding goes into the final
preparation for a driving layup--the "gather"--Jordan can still
reach in and cleanly knock the ball out of his hands.

What has slipped? He does not elevate around the basket as well
as he did three seasons ago, a fact that's less significant
aesthetically--we have enough pictures of the man dunking--than it
is practically, because it makes him less inclined to take the
ball to the hoop. (At week's end he was averaging 6.0 free throw
attempts compared with 8.8 three years ago.) Jordan's right knee
is also a concern. He consults with Bulls team doctor John
Heffron, who last week recommended he take medication to reduce
pain and swelling that appears from time to time in that knee.
Jordan did not practice in the four days before the season opener
because of the swelling, and there's no reason to think that the
knee will get better as the season progresses--especially if he
continues to play the 38.3 minutes he was averaging before the
blowout at Detroit.

The big question about the Wizards, however, centers on Jordan's
supreme competitiveness and ego. Will he lobby Collins to stay in
the game even if the coach wants to rest him? Jordan already did
that, late in the third period in Atlanta. After 30 seconds of
debate, Jordan patted Collins's knee and said, "You're right,"
then sat down. Will future discussions go so smoothly?
Notwithstanding some tough times when Collins coached the Bulls
during their mid-1980s run, Jordan and Collins have an excellent
relationship. With the exception of Phil Jackson, Jordan, who
hired Collins when he was team president, would not have
entrusted the development of this young club to anyone else.
Nonetheless, Jordan is a de facto co-coach, and by midseason that
arrangement could create tension if Washington struggles.

If the Wizards don't win often--and even if they do--will Jordan
feel compelled to take over the attack, creating what Bach calls
"offensive retrogression"? There were signs of that in the
victory over the Hawks, when Jordan launched 30 shots (albeit
only 10 in the second half). Will Jordan go bonkers on his
supporting cast if things don't go well, and will he do so
publicly, instead of in the locker room, as he did in Atlanta?

Every Jordan team has Michael Guys. In Chicago, even talented
players like Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant went through rough
times before they earned that tag. Paxson and Kerr were Michael
Guys because their deadeye jump shooting perfectly complemented
his game. Cliff Levingston, Ron Harper and, yes, Dennis Rodman
were Michael Guys because they were tough players who knew their
roles. Already there are signs of Michael Guys on the Wizards,
the hardworking, 31-year-old Jones (9.0 rebounds per game through
Sunday) and the cocky Whitney (unafraid to take big shots) being
the prominent ones.

Power forward Christian Laettner, by contrast, is not a Michael
Guy, appearing more likely to finish a Himalayan ascent than a
play near the basket. Nor, at this point, is 19-year-old rookie
forward Kwame Brown, the No. 1 pick in the draft. He's been too
passive, too hardheaded, too easily sidelined by minor injuries.
Like Pippen in his early Chicago years, Hamilton hasn't endeared
himself to Jordan, mostly because the former UConn star couldn't
guard a pot of Earl Grey at an afternoon tea. However, Hamilton's
talents on offense, though not as variegated as Pippen's, dictate
that he is a major piece in this Wizards puzzle, and Jordan will
do everything to bring him along.

And you know what? Standing in the reflected glow of Jordan,
Hamilton and the other Wizards performed well last week, until
laying an egg against the Pistons, when only one of them scored
in double figures. They show proper respect to their captious
co-captain (who is now not only ultracompetitive but also
ultradidactic) while trying to carve out identities of their own.
"We're no type of Jordanaires," says Hamilton. "We're all
professionals, and we all know what this game's about, but
playing with Michael is probably the best experience I'm ever
going to have."

Some of the Jordanaires, er, Wizards, have the perspicacity to
see past this early-season maelstrom of attention and contemplate
the great unknown. "If we start losing, the hype and interest
will all go away, even with Michael Jordan on the team," says
Whitney. "No way we want that to happen."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO SWEAT EQUITY Jordan did a little of everything in a pair of wins, delivering on the court and in the locker room against Atlanta.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO AIRWORTHY? Teammates (from left) Etan Thomas, Tyrone Nesby and Jones are learning what it takes to be Michael Guys.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY BOB ROSATO UPSTART Jordan's strength and savvy make it possible for him to get his shot wherever and whenever he wants.
The portrait that emerges of the captivating Wizards is one of a
monarchy rather than a hoops squad.