Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards have discussed the possibility of Jordan joining the franchise as head of basketball operations and perhaps eventually assuming an ownership role, sources said yesterday.
According to league sources, the NBA has been pushing the involvement of Jordan--arguably its most popular player ever--for an ownership stake in several franchises, including the Wizards. Jordan, 36, came close to a deal with the Charlotte Hornets in his home state of North Carolina. As head of basketball operations, Jordan would oversee the trading, signing and drafting of players and the hiring and firing of front-office personnel.
Wizards majority owner Abe Pollin would not comment yesterday on the franchise's possible interest in Jordan. Jordan was not available to comment.
Negotiating a deal with Jordan that would include a piece of the franchise would be complicated by the Wizards' current ownership agreement. Pollin sold the Capitals of the National Hockey League and a minority interest in Washington Sports and Entertainment--which includes the Wizards, MCI Center, US Airways Arena and Ticketmaster outlets in the Washington/Baltimore region--for about $200 million to a group headed by America Online executive Ted Leonsis and Washington businessman Jonathan Ledecky.
The deal gives Leonsis and Ledecky the right of first refusal to buy the Wizards and the rest of the holdings when Pollin, who runs the day-to-day operation of the franchise and its home arena, MCI Center, decides to sell.
On Tuesday, Leonsis, 43, and Ledecky, 41, increased their share of ownership in WSE by buying out longtime minority owner Arnold Heft. Leonsis and Ledecky now own about 44 percent of WSE. Neither would comment yesterday on the team's possible interest in Jordan.
Sources said that if Jordan were to become involved in the organization, that when Pollin, 75, decides to sell his holdings, Jordan would have a stake in the team.
Pollin said when the Capitals were sold that he was in no hurry to give up control of the Wizards, and he reiterated that position in an in-house memo to his staff this week.
"In spite of the rumors you may have heard about me and the Wizards and MCI Center, I want to set the record straight," Pollin's memo said. "I am not selling the Wizards. I am not selling the MCI Center. I remain in full control of the Wizards, MCI Center, Ticketmaster and USAir Arena. I am the boss now and plan to remain the boss for many years to come."
Jordan retired before the start of last year's lockout-shortened season, but played an active role in the sometimes bitter labor negotiations. As the NBA's senior owner, Pollin was heavily involved in the negotiations as well. At one meeting, Pollin and Jordan exchanged angry words.
"I was telling the players that as partners we could take this league to greater heights," Pollin said last January in recounting the incident. "I also told them there had to be trust between us. Some of the players started giggling and laughing. I said, 'I'm really disappointed in you guys. Trust is not a laughing matter. If we don't trust each other, nothing is going to come out of this thing.' "
"Michael got up and said something to the effect, 'If you can't operate your team--if your team is losing money--why don't you sell your team?' I got a little offended by that. I don't need Michael Jordan or anybody else to tell me to sell my team. I'll sell my team when and if I want to sell my team--not when someone tells me to sell my team. We had a little exchange, and finally he said, 'Mr. Pollin, I respect you.' I said, 'Michael, I respect you, too.' That's how we left it."
Pollin bought the franchise in 1963 when it was known as the Chicago Zephyrs and moved it to Baltimore before moving to Landover and his just-finished Capital Centre (now US Airways Arena) in 1973. As the Washington Bullets, the team was one of the most successful in the NBA through the '70s, winning a championship in 1978 and getting to the finals the following year. The team also reached the NBA Finals in 1971 and 1975, but has not been close to that plateau in the past 20 years.
In 1997, the team moved to MCI Center, which Pollin built with his own money and financing in order to give a downtown showcase to his two franchises. But the Wizards, who made the playoffs only once in the last 12 years, are in last place in the NBA's Atlantic Division under first-year coach Gar Heard and are among the bottom half of the league in attendance, averaging 13,918 fans per game.
Jordan's presence would elevate the franchise in the eyes of the NBA and free agent players shopping for a new team. Currently, the Wizards' salaries are at the top of what they can pay players, but trading current players on the roster is an option that could open some spots. Among the players eligible for free agency after this season are Reston native Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio's Tim Duncan.
It is not clear what role Wes Unseld, executive vice president and general manager, would play if Jordan takes over the Wizards. Unseld, a former all-star center for the Bullets, was in charge of obtaining corporate support for the new arena. He also coached the team from 1988 to 1994. Unseld declined comment yesterday.
Jordan established himself as perhaps the best player in NBA history, winning a record 10 scoring titles and leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA championships during his 13 seasons. Jordan, who is represented by Washington-based agent David Falk, also is one of the most visible athletes in the world as a spokesman for a variety of companies, including sports apparel giant Nike.
CAPTION: Michael Jordan ponders Wizards' head of basketball operations job.
CAPTION: Wizards majority owner Abe Pollin would not comment on Jordan's possible involvement with the team.