Jordan never had this problem in the NBA.
Two years after his last stop in basketball’s big leagues, the most successful coach in the Washington Wizards’ recent history is back on the floor, coaching the freshman boys’ team at Carroll High, his alma mater. He is not getting paid — though he still has $3 million remaining on his contract with the Philadelphia 76ers — and the team looks much different from the professionals to whom he is accustomed to leading.
There are no 6-footers, let alone a 7-footer. At 6 feet 1, Jordan towers above his players. The assistant coach — his former high school coach and Carroll Athletic Director George Leftwich — drives the bus so that the players can get to practice.
It’s a far cry from the chartered jets of the NBA, where Jordan coached from 1992 to 2010, including five seasons with the Wizards from 2003 to ’08. His 197 victories rank third on the franchise’s all-time list and he guided the team to four straight playoff berths before getting fired after a poor start to the 2008 season. The Sixers hired him a year later and fired him in April 2010 with a year left on his contract.
Now 56, Jordan is his own equipment manager. And yet, he is enjoying each day on the court — even if it is a luxury to get two hours in his team’s own school gymnasium on a weekend morning. With only one gym, the boys’ and girls’ varsity and junior varsity teams get practice time while the freshman team hits the road.
“I just felt, to be in a gym and helping kids, I wanted to see what kind of group I will get,” Jordan said. “It’s my high school. It’s Carroll. . . . I wanted to give back.”
Leftwich starred at Carroll 50 years ago and had his own successful coaching career before returning to his Northeast Washington alma mater three years ago as an administrator. Since Jordan was fired by the 76ers following the 2009-10 season, Leftwich had joked with Lions Coach Reggie Williams that Jordan was available to help out.
“He came to me and said Eddie was interested, but I didn’t believe it,” said Williams, the former Georgetown star who played 10 seasons in the NBA and is entering his second season at Carroll. “A couple months passed and he said he was serious about Eddie wanting to get involved. So I got in contact with Eddie and he wanted to do it. I couldn’t tell him no.”
Jordan’s presence on the sidelines during tryouts created a small stir among the players, but they were unaware that Jordan, who was a standout at Rutgers and averaged 8.1 points per game in seven seasons in the NBA, was going to be their coach until a team meeting.
“Me and my dad were like, ‘Woooo,’ ” said Johnathan Beckett Jr., a 14-year-old shooting guard who stands 5 feet 3. “At first it was [different] but you come around to it. At the end of the day, he’s still your coach and practice is pretty much the same. We’ve got to do what he says and work on fundamentals and play together as a team.”
After a recent practice, Jordan acknowledged his squad of teenagers can test his patience. He reiterated the need to drill the basics. He sees this — and his time coaching his 13-year-old son Jackson’s youth-league team — as an opportunity to mold his players.
“My eighth-grade coach was very instrumental with me and other kids in Southeast and I saw the guidance and discipline and structure and saw how it changed kids’ lives, not just basketball, but other qualities of life,” Jordan said. “Whether you’re good at basketball or not, you can help kids at the level establish discipline and structure and teamwork.”
With the NBA and its players association reaching a tentative end to the lockout, Jordan has an eye on the future. He wants to return to the NBA, but does not presently have an opportunity. San Antonio Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich invited him to attend the team’s training camp scheduled to begin Friday, but Jordan said he was unlikely to go.
“That’s a heck of an opportunity,” he said. “But even if George forces me to go, I might not go. I want these kids to be committed. This is their first team to be committed to.”
It is a long ways from the NBA, where workout habits and training regimens are especially important. At the end of a recent practice, with players gathered around him, Jordan asked the group, “Are you going to be on the team or are you just going to come when it’s convenient?”
There was no time for extra shooting practice or ballhandling work. There wasn’t even a locker room for the players to change, they had simply gotten into their practice gear and shoes on a bench two feet from the baseline. Jordan had to retrieve his ball bag and a stack of orange cones.
“I don’t know an NBA coach that would touch the high school level, let alone the freshman team,” Williams said. “But he loves what he’s doing.”