For Jordan, the past is present
As 76ers coach gets set to face former team, he opens up about his time with the Wizards

By Michael Lee
Monday, October 19, 2009

Eddie Jordan doesn't want an asterisk placed next to his five-plus-year tenure as coach of the Washington Wizards, but he would like the era to be viewed in proper perspective.

Jordan believes he had "more than moderate success" in leading the Wizards through their most successful run in the past three decades -- four postseason appearances and one playoff series win. But he said it is impossible to ignore the series of misfortunes that kept his teams from doing more.

"Injuries. The injury part," Jordan said, when asked why his teams didn't have more success in Washington. "It's not like your 10th, 11th or 12th guy got hurt. It was your first, second and third guy who got hurt, and your best center, a guy who had a career year. That's why we didn't get over the hump. That's for starters. If you see that you can't win when everybody is healthy, then you can ask, 'How come you can't get over the hump? What else did you need?' But when we had everybody healthy, we won."

Ready for reunion

Jordan, now the first-year coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, rarely had everybody healthy with the Wizards. Built around the talents of Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, who have combined to make seven all-star teams, the Wizards have been able to get them to start together in only 61 out of a possible 246 games since the start of the 2006-07 season -- the equivalent of almost one-fourth of the games played. Jordan was fired last November after the team got off to a 1-10 start with Arenas and center Brendan Haywood sidelined.

"It wasn't about being hamstrung. This is how the league works," Jordan said of his run with a short-handed roster. "You know there are going to be challenges. You prepare yourself for the challenges and that's when you try to raise your game. How do you prove yourself to be a great coaching staff or a good coach? You try to make adjustments. You try to find ways to get better or be good. Obviously, it's tough without your best players."

Arenas tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee on April 4, 2007 -- three days after Butler fractured his right hand -- and both were out during a first-round playoff loss to Cleveland. While the Wizards managed to become a playoff contender with Arenas sidelined for most of the next season -- which Jordan called "a tremendous accomplishment" -- Arenas was unable to finish another series loss to Cleveland after returning for the playoff run.

Last season began with Arenas again on the shelf with his troublesome left knee, Haywood out with a wrist injury and Roger Mason Jr. in San Antonio. Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld initially believed the team could still compete for a playoff spot, as it did the season before without Arenas.

But Jordan looked around and saw that outside of Butler and Jamison, he mostly had a crew of inexperienced players. He felt the season was already lost.

"The expectations remained that we should be a playoff team, that we should be .500 because we had two all-stars, and we have young talent," Jordan said. "If the expectations weren't going to change, then it was best that we part ways like we did."

Jordan said he was away from the game for the first time since he was 13, but he was able to find employment last June with a playoff team in Philadelphia. "Everyone says you need [the break], you'll get back in. I wasn't so sure. You never know, but it worked out for the best. Usually when you make a change it's a team that's real down and out, or has some dysfunction if they are successful. There was no dysfunction here."

On Tuesday, Jordan's 76ers will host the Wizards in an exhibition game at Wachovia Center. The District native tried to play down the reunion with his former players and their new Coach Flip Saunders, who face the Hawks in Atlanta on Monday night.

"Am I going to run down the floor and hug everybody while they're warming up? No, that's inappropriate. Whatever we do on a normal basis, that's what I'll do when we play Washington," said Jordan, adding he used to get emotional when he faced Sacramento or New Jersey, where spent time as a head coach and an assistant, respectively. "The longer you're in the league, the less of an emotional impact, playing your previous team is. We're playing here, it's not like we're going to Washington. That might be a little different."

That first regular season matchup is slated for Nov. 24 -- the anniversary of Jordan's firing. At the time of his firing, Jordan had been the Eastern Conference's longest-tenured coach. Chuck Daly, the late Hall of Fame coach, once said players start tuning out coaches after a few years, but Jordan wasn't sure if that applies to his situation.

"I don't know, maybe it does," he said, "But I don't think San Antonio lost [Gregg] Popovich's voice. I don't think Utah has lost Jerry Sloan's voice, and I don't think the Lakers lost Phil Jackson's voice."

Defensive about defense

Since Saunders has taken over, several of Jordan's former players, including Haywood, Andray Blatche and Arenas have criticized Jordan for various reasons. In his few sessions with the media, Arenas has disparaged Jordan's schemes and claimed that Jordan never allowed Arenas to be a team leader. He has also referred to Jordan as "the last coach" rather than by name.

"You think it bothers me," Jordan asked with chuckle. "It doesn't bother me, disappoint me. Gilbert is a wonderful person. I know Gilbert personally and I know him professionally. He's a heck of a competitor, one of the top players in the league when he's healthy. He did a lot for the franchise. He did a lot for me as a coach.

"Even in professional sports, there is a human side and I think Gilbert is a terrific human being," he said. "I would assume he said some things professionally and you cannot let that affect you."

During his time in Washington, the Wizards were an explosive offensive team but only got out of the bottom third in team defense during one season, 2007-08. Jordan contends that while he is noted for implementing the Princeton offense, he focused on defense as much, if not more.

"We emphasized it," Jordan said. "My philosophy is you have to be balanced because one affects another. It's the same sort of philosophy, the same methods, the same things we did in New Jersey and we were one of the top defensive teams in the league, going to the finals two years in a row."

Jordan added he lacked the personnel in Washington to be a great defensive team. "Your team shows you how to play. That's how it works. Still, because of that, that doesn't mean we put all of the efforts on offense," Jordan said.

Jordan said he doesn't have regrets about his time with the Wizards.

"I accomplished everything I wanted to do. We all know professional sports and other variables play a part. What you do is do the best you can do. I don't get hung up in, could you have done this? Do you think that could've happened? We created an atmosphere that is conducive to winning. I hope that [the fans] saw that we accomplished a lot through adversity, with injuries and issues like that. And they had a coach that put a sincere effort, every day, into his job."

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