Jordan's Greatest Fame Came Far From D.C.

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

"I wasn't sure that it was a great idea," NBA Commissioner David Stern said of Jordan's second comeback. "There is no question that he's such a competitor that he would be a great NBA player. He just wouldn't be Michael. But he wanted to do it, so I supported him on it."

Jordan averaged at least 20 points a game and made the all-star team both seasons with the Wizards. And, there is no denying the financial windfall that resulted from Jordan's return as a player: His jersey was among the five best-sellers, the arena sold out 82 consecutive games and the Wizards had the league's highest road attendance.

In its annual NBA team valuations, Forbes magazine estimated that after earning $81 million in revenue in the season before Jordan's second comeback, the Wizards earned nearly $99 million in 2001-02 and $98 million in 2002-03. Jordan's first season playing for the Wizards also resulted in the team's value increasing from $214 million to $278 million

The Wizards, though, finished just 37-45 in each of his two seasons, falling short of Jordan's goal to help the franchise return to the playoffs. The era was marred by dissension within the organization and ended with Pollin telling Jordan in a curt meeting on May 7, 2003, that his services with the organization were no longer needed.

Jordan, who donated his salary both seasons to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, felt as if Pollin blindsided him. He had expected to resume his role in the front office after his playing career ended. Jordan's camp claims that Pollin betrayed Jordan and broke his word. "There was no question that there was an oral commitment and understanding that Michael was going to come back and assume the same position when he came back," Polk said.

David Osnos, Pollin's attorney for the past 51 years, disputes the claim that Pollin promised Jordan his old position when his playing days were finished. "I feel bad that Michael was disappointed and discouraged, but there were no promises made to him. They were well aware of the league's insistence that there be no commitment to Michael. I remember being in a room where that was made very clear to Michael."

In an interview with "60 Minutes" in October 2005, Jordan said the Wizards "used" him and he never would have come back if he had known that Pollin wouldn't welcome him back to the front office. "I didn't have to" come back, he said. "But I did it with the benefit of trying to help an organization to get back on their feet. And the gratitude that was given? It was, 'Your service is no longer wanted or needed.' So I felt like I was used in a sense."

The Wizards official said Pollin made his decision to move in another direction because he was uncomfortable placing the future of the franchise in the hands of someone who hadn't proved that he could field a successful team.

Moves Questioned

Several of Jordan's decisions as team president left him open to criticism -- hiring Leonard Hamilton to coach, trading Richard Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse -- but he was also credited with giving the Wizards some financial flexibility when he bought out Mitch Richmond and Rod Strickland, and traded the albatross contract of Juwan Howard. Jordan has also been panned for selecting Kwame Brown with the No. 1 pick in 2001. Brown's career has been a disappointment, but few executives would have chosen otherwise that year.

Jordan's greatest mistake may have been moving from the front office back to the court -- a decision that generated considerable buzz but carried great risk toward his legacy and future with the franchise.

"Very much like when he played baseball, there was no upside for him," Falk said, recalling Jordan's decision to play minor league baseball after his first retirement from the Bulls. "I regret recommending a situation that had such a poor ending. If I had known he would've come back and played, I'm not sure I would've recommended it. It was fantastic having him here. It was a really fun time, but I regret it."

Pollin and Jordan have both moved on since the ugly split. Pollin hired Ernie Grunfeld to run the basketball operations and he built a team around Gilbert Arenas that made four consecutive playoff appearances -- the most successful run for the franchise since reaching the NBA Finals in 1979. Jordan has since become part owner and managing member of basketball operations for the Charlotte Bobcats.

"Michael is a good friend and Abe Pollin is a good friend and it upset me that it didn't end well between them at that time," Stern said. "I know that Abe only wanted to do the right thing, but somehow it ended in a way that couldn't have been to his liking."

"You could've done it differently," Polk said. "No matter what you might have thought as the owner or owners of the organization in 2003, when this happened; no matter what you might have thought was best for the organization; no matter what you might have thought about Michael Jordan as a player, general manager, person -- it was Michael Jordan. You don't do what you did that publicly to that caliber person. Michael is a great person and you can't think about NBA basketball without thinking of Michael Jordan."

John Thompson, the former Georgetown coach and host of WTEM-980's "The John Thompson Show," was highly critical of the Wizards' dismissal of Jordan, but said it isn't necessary for the team to make a special recognition of Jordan's time in Washington.

"Michael Jordan will always be the guy from Chicago. He will always be national," said Thompson, who is represented by Falk. "What difference does it matter if they acknowledge him in Washington? He's above that."

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