Michael Jordan's Tenure With the Washington Wizards Has Been Mostly Forgotten as He Prepares for Induction Into the Basketball Hall of Fame
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Six years after Michael Jordan left MCI Center for the final time, driving that convertible Mercedes with Illinois plates, his celebrated but unfulfilling stint with the Washington Wizards remains a sore subject that he and the team would just as soon avoid. The man regarded by many as the greatest to ever play basketball will enter the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame on Friday, an honor that would have taken place years ago had he never come to Washington to scratch an itch to play again.
The first two installments of Jordan's career were an unmitigated success -- with him winning six NBA championships, five NBA most valuable player awards and 10 scoring titles with the Chicago Bulls and becoming a global marketing icon who made kids want to "be like Mike." But Jordan's third and final installment, with the Wizards, remains a blip on his otherwise illustrious career, partly because his game bore little resemblance to that legendary figure and mostly because of an acrimonious split from the organization.
"I think Michael feels very bad about the two years he spent playing here," Jordan's Washington-based representative, Curtis Polk, said in a recent telephone interview. "It's not something he wants out here, but obviously, it's part of history."
Jordan has rarely spoken about his final two seasons with the Wizards and declined to be interviewed for this story through a spokesman. Former Washington Sports and Entertainment president Susan O'Malley and Wizards minority owner Ted Leonsis, who was instrumental in helping lure Jordan to the organization, both declined to comment.
Wizards owner Abe Pollin also declined to be interviewed, but released a statement congratulating Jordan on his upcoming enshrinement. "In my opinion, Michael was the greatest player to ever play this game, and there is no one more deserving of this honor," Pollin said in the statement.
That is the extent to which the Wizards will acknowledge one of their former players entering the shrine in Springfield, Mass. Jordan's time in Washington hasn't exactly been redacted from the Wizards history books, but it is hardly glorified. His jersey has been retired by two franchises, but Washington isn't one of them. (The Bulls, who have also honored Jordan with a statue in front of United Center, is one. Miami is the other.)
Aside from a few mentions in the team media guide and the occasional sight of a fan in a Wizards No. 23 jersey at games or on the street, that period in franchise history is mostly ignored. You certainly couldn't purchase his jersey in the team store.
"The people who ask why the Wizards don't celebrate Michael Jordan, my question is, 'How do you do it?' We had the greatest player of all time playing in our uniform and it was great. Did we sell out the building? Yes. Did we win? No," said a Wizards official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the individual was not authorized to make public comments. "How do you celebrate it appropriately? I don't think it's something we sweep under the rug. In some ways, we'd get criticized if we did celebrate it."
Arrival in D.C.
Jordan didn't retire from the Bulls in 1999 on his own terms. Former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause had informed him that he planned to start anew after Chicago won its third consecutive NBA championship, and Jordan wanted no parts of rebuilding. He had no intention of playing basketball for the Wizards when he joined the franchise as part owner and president of basketball operations in January 2000.
Jordan teaming up with Pollin appeared to be a strange marriage from the start. The two had a highly publicized rift during the lockout in December 1998, when Pollin complained of rising player salaries during a meeting between owners and players. Jordan yelled across the room, "Sell your team." Pollin, the league's senior owner who purchased the Wizards for $1.1 million in 1964, shot back, "You or no one else is going to tell me to sell my team."
They were able to smooth over the relationship after Leonsis, whose Lincoln Holdings purchased a 44 percent minority stake in the Wizards in July 1999, enticed Jordan with a piece of Wizards ownership and persuaded Pollin to give Jordan an executive role. All along, Jordan expected Pollin to sell the team to Leonsis, something that has yet to occur more than nine years later. "We expected Ted to become the owner in a short period of time," said longtime friend and former agent David Falk. "That was the hope. We recommended [Jordan] come here because of Ted. Not because of the team."
There was always uneasiness about Jordan's arrangement with the organization, the Wizards official said. After evaluating the team for little more than a year, Jordan started seriously considering making a second comeback during the 2001 all-star break in Washington, Polk said. Jordan had seemingly put the perfect cap on his career with a pull-up jumper over Utah's Bryon Russell in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, but he believed that his return would help players understand the work ethic and commitment needed to be successful -- and make a once proud but now moribund franchise relevant again.