As the team bus pulls up to Chicago's United Center tomorrow, the Washington Wizards won't be able to avoid his mythical status -- a 17-foot monument reflecting his electrifying, high-flying greatness is erected in front of the building. When the Wizards walk onto the court, they won't be able to escape his overwhelming shadow -- the six championship banners he helped win and his No. 23 jersey will be hanging above their heads.
Michael Jordan is the obvious link in the first-round series between the Wizards and the Chicago Bulls -- two franchises for which Jordan played, two young teams that have recovered from long postseason droughts to meet each other in the playoffs. (Jordan was also on the court when each franchise played its last playoff game -- he led the Bulls to a championship in 1998 and his Bulls swept the Bullets in 1997.)
Michael Jordan, here at Madison Square Garden on April 16, will have more than a rooting interest in the Wizards-Bulls playoff series.
(Julie Jacobson -- AP)
To one, Jordan is revered, leaving behind the image of him pushing off Utah's Bryon Russell and striking a pose after hitting the game-winning shot that clinched the Bulls' sixth championship. To another, he has been rebuked, leaving behind the image of him driving away, convertible top dropping on his Mercedes -- with Illinois plates.
He is a legend in Chicago, having provided the city with an endless stream of memories. He was a fading legend in Washington, discarded with a cold goodbye and $10 million check that went untouched. "He had a great history there," Wizards guard Juan Dixon said, "a so-so history here."
Jordan didn't generate much more than sold-out games at MCI Center and millions in revenue during his two-year stint playing for the Wizards. He is barely mentioned in the team media guide, where his photograph is nowhere to be found.
Before coming out of retirement for the second time -- at age 38 -- in 2001, Jordan spent 1 1/2 seasons as president of basketball operations. When his playing days were done, Jordan expected to move back up to the front office, but owner Abe Pollin wanted to move in another direction.
But while Jordan built a championship model for the Bulls to follow, he also helped build the foundation for the Wizards. He is responsible for bringing in half of the players on the Wizards' playoff roster: three starters in center Brendan Haywood, guard Larry Hughes and forward Jared Jeffries; and three valued reserves in Dixon, forward Kwame Brown and center Etan Thomas.
"We still have a link. He brought me here," said Hughes, who played one season with Jordan after signing a three-year deal with the Wizards in 2002. "He was part of a group that showed faith in me that I could play, that I could help a team win. I always talk to him, especially when I go to Chicago. I work out in Chicago. We always get together to talk about what I could do to be better."
Jordan was blamed for stunting the development of several young Wizards, but Haywood didn't see it that way. "He was such a dominant player over his career. Why not give the most dominant player in NBA history the ball?"
Haywood, however, admits that for two seasons, the Wizards were basically a side attraction in a one-man Jordan Show that failed to live up to its billing. There were no expectations that the Wizards would succeed this season, but they have created an exciting identity built around three stars instead of one. "I think the people rally behind us because we have our own style," Haywood said. "Sometimes it's easier when people don't expect you to do anything."
Brown had some well-publicized squabbles with Jordan and expressed relief when he left, but Hughes, Jeffries and Dixon credited Jordan with teaching them a level of professionalism.
"I watched how he handled himself on and off the court. I watched the sacrifices he made with a guy coming in, working hard, keeping his body where he needed to be to compete at the highest level every night, giving this team an opportunity to win. I just took in all of that stuff," Hughes said. "I really want to be half the player he was, and accomplish half the things he accomplished, that'd be a pretty good job."
When Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld took over in the summer of 2003, he signed point guard Gilbert Arenas to a six-year, $65 million contract but he didn't bother tinkering too much with the talent Jordan left in place.
"We gave everybody an opportunity, and we always say, eventually, the players tell us what to do by their performance," Grunfeld said. After one season, in which the Wizards won just 25 games, Grunfeld decided to swap two of Jordan's pieces -- Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner -- and a first-round draft pick to Dallas in exchange for forward Antawn Jamison. He also matched a six-year, $38 million offer sheet for Thomas, one of the first players Jordan acquired in an eight-player deal that sent Juwan Howard to Dallas in 2001. "It's sort of a combination of those two guys coming together," Hughes said of Jordan and Grunfeld.
"It was a situation where a lot of GMs would've come in and probably would've tried to disassemble what's been here. You have to give Ernie credit in knowing which pieces to keep, which pieces would be successful together," Jamison said. "You have to find a fine line as far as chemistry."
Although Hughes and Jeffries keep in regular contact with their former teammate, they don't have to think twice about which team Jordan will be pulling for in this series.
"Chicago -- definitely," Hughes said with a laugh.
"You already know," Jeffries said.