Without Saying So, Jordan Knows What's Expected

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, October 31, 2007

There were times during training camp when Eddie Jordan said nothing. He wanted to yell, but the words wouldn't come out. He finally settled his gaze on a mistake-prone rookie and started in, but even that felt strange.

"There were days when I felt like I didn't do much," said Jordan, who has been coaching pro basketball in Washington longer than anyone except Wes Unseld and Gene Shue. "Or I didn't teach much today. But as one of my assistants said, 'They already know it.'

"They know who I am, what we've done and where we want to go. So what's there to scream about?"

It's opening night for the Wizards, and the third-longest tenured coach in the NBA is out of words.

Jordan knows the landscape. It matters not that Utah's Jerry Sloan or San Antonio's Gregg Popovich are the only current coaches with more longevity with one franchise than Jordan, who was hired within a week of the team's architect, Ernie Grunfeld, in June 2003.

And it does not matter that Jordan is the first coach in 19 years to take the Wizards to three straight playoff appearances. Or even three straight .500-plus seasons since 1979. In this win-or-be-terminated league, Jordan guiding Washington to the best mark in the Eastern Conference through January of last season -- and being named the East's all-star game coach -- is viewed by most NBA executives as old news.

If he can't take Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler, Antawn Jamison and their teammates to perhaps the Eastern Conference finals this season, the Eddie-and-Ernie Show will lose one of its co-hosts not named Grunfeld.

And that's it. Finito. The charming tale about the kid from Archbishop Carroll, who came back to rescue his hometown team from further embarrassment, is scrapped before the happy ending -- gone before the parade down F Street.

Arenas and Jamison aren't the only Wizards headed for free agency this summer. Jordan might be right behind if the pieces don't come together quickly. If this team stays relatively healthy, the feeling here is the Wizards need to win the Southeast Division and thereby earn no lower than the fourth seed when the playoffs begin in April.

If the Wizards don't get to the conference finals, they probably need to be in a war of a second-round series in which Washington goes down in six or seven games to the eventual Eastern Conference champ.

Management can't come out and say that, but that's the reality. Jordan's main assistants are signed for just one year. Jordan is in the first year of a three-year contract extension. Yet the third season is a team option, which essentially would make him a lame duck heading into next season.

Some people might view this assessment as a harsh way to open the season. But look at it another way. The fact that Jordan's job security might be an issue is a good thing. It means he, Grunfeld and Arenas have raised expectations in a city whose NBA team once had none.

"That's for other people to talk about and speculate, play around with," he said yesterday at Verizon Center before his team left for Indiana for its opener tonight. He didn't speak about his own job security as much as he looked past the prove-it-or-lose-it theme encircling his team this season.

"I'm not even thinking about that, that's not even close to my mind," Jordan said. "It's about the beginning of the season. Everyone is healthy. Now we need to play the right way, play hard, share the ball and really be concerned like we have been about the finish."

Jordan has covered all the bases, done all he can to ensure his team goes to the next level. He spoke with Grunfeld often during the offseason, mostly by phone from his family's vacation home in New Jersey.

Whatever misgivings he may have had about the organization's total support, he burrowed in and did what he could to make things better. That included flying to North Carolina to visit and mend fences with the one player he wanted out of town more than any other last season, Brendan Haywood.

"It's part of my job," said Jordan, who took assistant coach Randy Ayers with him to meet Haywood. "I want to do my job to the best of my abilities, and I felt good about doing it. I'm glad we did it. Brendan is in a better place, he's a better player, and he's got a terrific attitude."

Jordan is bending in ways he probably never realized imaginable. After all, his playing career included checking Magic Johnson on a daily basis. His coaching career featured giving a driven Jason Kidd the ball and letting him work his game and take his team to another level. Johnson and Kidd are impossibly high standards for Arenas or anyone else to live up to, and Jordan seems to understand that now.

"We've been around," he said. "It's like my fifth year with Gil. They know what to expect and what we want. That's why I couldn't raise my voice. They knew they worked hard, they had done things right, and they are ahead of the curve for the most part. So I made an adjustment to my team."

Jordan said there will still be times "where I pick my spots to throw the speech at them." But not now. Not on the eve of the season opener. If they all want to come back together next season, they know what needs to be done. If they want a very good coach to still be part of the dream -- a man who has greatly helped reverse the franchise's culture in five years -- no words are necessary.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company