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For a Bull, Much to Bear

Michael Wilbon
By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, Jan. 20, 2000; Page D1

Michael Jordan wasn't here 15 minutes and he had us in the palm of his hand just by putting the Washington Wizards on notice. The reason we all want Jordan here is we hope he'll start to fix this mess that has been the Washington basketball franchise. We want him to say what he has to say, trade whomever he has to trade, fire whomever he has to fire to give us a real basketball product. And to that end, the new sheriff didn't ride into town giving a bunch of polite, mealy-mouthed, politically correct answers. Jordan hasn't come here to fit in, he's come to do what he always does: win.

I saw just the Michael Jordan I hoped to see yesterday: impatient, hell-bent, intense, charming, disarming, ruthless, driven. There was one sequence that was my favorite, the executive equivalent of getting in a teammate's face. Talking about how hands-on he plans to be, Jordan said his "imprint, my footprints" will, in a short time, be all over this franchise. Emphasis on the "foot" part of that comment, we can only hope. Jordan wants to evaluate every player, every coach, the practices, everything. "Does that mean I may practice with the team? Yes," he said. "The best way to evaluate is to look into [a player's] eyes and see how scared he may be." That way, you see, Jordan can assess how afraid or emboldened a player is, how much desire he has or doesn't have, whether it might be best to run him out of town and bring in somebody more to his liking.

He called the Wizards straight-up underachievers. "I've got to make sure," Jordan said, "that these players understand the responsibility they have for the checks they are being paid."

Pressed on the issue of practicing with the team, Jordan said: "I will practice. . . . I don't know if Gar Heard will like that. But I'm his boss, so I can do that."

Jordan laughed that little laugh, but you know he meant it. Win, die trying, or get out. "My job is to come in and evaluate everything." And then he said if guys are looking over their shoulders, "scared of their necks being chopped off, then that's good." You see, the trait I've always admired most about Jordan is that he's always the most ruthless person in the room. And if the sorry, no-account Wizards didn't know that yesterday, they know it now. How about this line: "Everybody's disposable to some degree."? Don't you love that? Disposable! The guy walked in the door wearing brass knuckles.

You think it's a bluff? I don't. Jonathan Ledecky, one of the Wizards' and Capitals' owners, and a man who has now seen how Jordan operates, said after yesterday's news conference: "I think he was hedging because he felt he had to."

Jordan has the clout to get people to respond to him in ways they won't respond to others. Case in point: Lorenzo Williams not only played against the Dallas Mavericks last night at MCI Center, he scored. The guy has been here for four years, I've never seen him play. We were told he was going to play anyway. A coincidence? Guess how many games he had been in uniform for this season before last night. Answer: none. Jordan entered the building, the guy suited up.

A lot of people want to change stuff but can't get it done. Jordan has something better than authority; he has power. There's a distinct difference. And he has so much power it makes him charismatic beyond playing. People will follow him into places they wouldn't follow others. He has the ability to galvanize people and make them believe in something bigger than themselves.

Ledecky already can feel it. "He's the most direct man I've ever met," Ledecky said. "In negotiations at times, he could look right through you."

I have a friend who is a native Washingtonian, someone who makes his living in sports. Jordan's arrival here reminded him of something.

Vince Lombardi's arrival to coach the Redskins.

"The Redskins had gotten their butts kicked for 20 years," he said. "The teams were bad, they never made the playoffs. And when they announced that Lombardi was coming, it was incredible. He was mythical, larger than life, in the same way M.J. is. Lombardi just had it. And just like Lombardi, to M.J. winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

It's like a flood coming down the gorge; you can't stand in the face of it. Buck him, and you'll get swept away. Lombardi had that.

We know Sonny Jurgensen as a football man. He also is a basketball man. Basketball may have been his best sport as a teenager. He watches as much basketball as football. He was watching TV yesterday when Jordan was introduced. "I thought about that, about how similar it was to Lombardi coming here 30 years ago," he said. "It was like seeing the president. Of course, the media wasn't as large, there wasn't the national coverage and it wasn't around the clock. But it was awesome, the excitement that came with the very mention of his name, what he was bringing, the credibility he had, the championships won."

All of a sudden I forgot whether Sonny was talking about Jordan or Lombardi. I think he might have too. It was the same thing. "Look, Michael's got a tough damn job here," he said. "Regardless, this is as big a coup for the city of Washington as it is for the Wizards. Just watching it gave me chills."

What Jordan has to do now is use his influence wisely, harness his vast human resources to do for this basketball franchise what an owner, three general managers and six coaches have been unable to do. "It's important not to act irrationally," he said. "It's important to understand, then act."

I think he understands. He always does.

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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