The lasting meaning of Michael Jordan's arrival in Washington is more momentous than the possibility of rocketing ticket sales or a good basketball team: Jordan's partnership with the young executives poised to take over Abe Pollin's sports empire is powerful proof of the rapid revamping of how Washington does business.
A portion of the megabillions that have been pouring from the high-tech gushers of Northern Virginia is being channeled into the District in ways that could significantly alter the city's prospects. People who made millions at America Online and other local high-tech companies are taking over key institutions such as the city's sports teams and joining the boards of Washington's most important cultural, educational and charitable institutions.
"This bunch is a whole lot more energetic and has a lot more money than this city is used to seeing," said Jim Kimsey, co-founder of AOL and a pioneer in the high-tech push into the District.
With Jordan running the Wizards' basketball operations and becoming a partner in Lincoln Holdings--the company that owns the Capitals hockey team and will eventually own MCI Center, the Wizards and the Mystics women's basketball team--the city gets an extra selling point in its pitch to attract high-tech companies, top-flight retailers and monied citizens.
And a majority-black city gets a new point of pride, becoming home to a rare African American in the ownership ranks of the NBA.
"Northern Virginia has had tremendous growth from the tech boom, and Maryland has the genetics boom, but there's one part of our region that has not benefited and it's a shame and it has to be fixed," said Raul Fernandez, 33, a partner with Jordan in Lincoln Holdings and chief executive of Proxicom, a Reston company that builds Web sites for businesses.
"With Michael Jordan, all the ingredients are here now. The city is poised to attract extensions of high-tech businesses in the area and new high-tech businesses. Further growth in the suburbs is not what we're looking for. The commute has just become unbearable; sometimes it takes me longer to get from Reston to D.C. than from D.C. to LaGuardia."
The combination of high-tech money and Jordan's celebrity and respect from schoolyards to boardrooms will focus attention on the redevelopment of downtown Washington in a way that developers and politicians have not been able to, said Douglas Jemal, a major landowner in the arena neighborhood.
"This is all contagious," said Jemal, who is seeking tenants for a block of storefronts across from the arena. "Jordan is a nightclub, he's fashion, he's Nike, he's everything. We all know what the attendance has been at the games and we all know that while the downtown area should be coming back, it hasn't happened yet. Now it will. Michael Jordan is an icon, a perfect match."
"This is really a story of how not just snowstorms, but good things blow in from Chicago," said D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams at yesterday's MCI Center news conference announcing Jordan's new role. "It really is just going to electrify our city."
Some voices, however, warned that while Jordan will rejuvenate the fortunes of the sagging NBA franchise, it's premature at best to expect his arrival to change the direction of an entire city.
"Michael immediately will have a major impact on the kind of players willing to come to the Wizards, and on the enthusiasm of the fans, but I don't think you can go to the macro level on this deal," said Bob Johnson, chairman of Black Entertainment Television, the District-based cable TV channel. "It's not a second coming for Washington, D.C. Michael is not going to be at every ribbon-cutting in the city. This is not going to change the school system."
Despite his doubts about the hype that will inevitably surround Jordan's arrival, Johnson said Jordan's arrangement with Lincoln Holdings--whose main partners include AOL executive Ted Leonsis, local entrepreneur Jon Ledecky, Fernandez and Capitals President Dick Patrick--is more than a sports deal.
"If you look at the wealth behind this, it is the new business elite in town, the Steve Cases, the high-tech people--not the old real-estate, parking lot, land developers," Johnson said. "Once these people get their personal net worth way up there, the next big thing is not to earn more money, but to find what's exciting to do--and that's buying teams, being part of the power structure. You're going to see these guys look to the city as the place to open interesting hotels, exciting restaurants--the fun stuff you do once you make your money."
That's exactly what has led Mark Ein to bring his Venturehouse Group, a Tyson's Corner-based venture capital firm, to new offices above the District Chop House, one block south of MCI Center. "Technology companies hire a lot of young people," Ein said, "and those people want to be downtown. They want to leave work and have a choice of a basketball game, the opera, theater and great restaurants. And the people who run these companies have made a lot of money and they're looking for a way to make a difference. The city gives them both the challenge they need and the cultural opportunities they can't find in the suburbs."
"Our traditional sense of glamour in this town has been would-be presidents," Fernandez said, "but there's a new base of glamour here, the tech community, and you'll see them sitting courtside and rinkside."
Another of Jordan's new partners, Ledecky, spoke of Jordan as the key to a company that will be "the perfect merger of the Internet and sports."
Kimsey, the AOL co-founder who now runs the AOL Foundation and the city's Bicentennial Commission, said Jordan will join Placido Domingo at the Washington Opera and Leonard Slatkin at the National Symphony as public faces of the city's cultural renaissance.
"Big people make an impact, they add a lot of pizzazz," he said, "and when you add all these billionaires, you will see a lot of change in a short time. There's a metamorphosis in the power structure of the city as the older regime kind of fades away."
But outsiders have come into Washington with high hopes and expansive talk before, and the city's yawning gap between rich and poor, as well as its seemingly intractable urban ills, have proven largely immune from the efforts of well-meaning newcomers.
Still, Mayor Williams expressed his hope that Jordan might use his influence among young people to serve as a role model.
Wizards season ticket holder Tim Russert, who heads NBC News's bureau here, said Jordan can have an almost mystical impact on people. He recalled the impact Jordan's words had on a "Meet the Press" interview a couple of years ago: "I asked him about being a role model and he talked passionately about young people and the need for loyalty and discipline and the need to accept responsibility for your actions. And to give you an idea of how much respect Michael Jordan commands, the governor of Oklahoma taped those comments and sent them to every public school in his state."
Whatever his long-term impact on the city, Jordan's presence could boost the fortunes of the arena neighborhood, where much development is planned, but few new ventures have actually opened.
"If he's successful, for the city the economic boom is tremendous," said Bob Williams, president of Burns Sports, a Chicago sports marketing firm. "What we saw here in Chicago with six NBA championships and being in the playoffs 10 years in a row was a trickle-down effect from pizza shops to bars to sit-down restaurants to apparel stores to hotels. A winning team gets fans to spend more money. It just kind of snowballs on itself."
Jordan's impact could be felt on the streets of Washington even before he appeared at his MCI Center news conference, which drew more reporters and camera operators than did the announcement of the opening of the Berlin Wall.
"Just his presence will definitely fill more seats," said Bill Hammond, who works at the Securities and Exchange Commission, lives in Woodbridge and follows the Wizards the way many Washingtonians do--so sporadically that he still calls them the Bullets. "Every little kid out there wants to be like Mike, so they'll say 'Let's go watch the Bullets.' With Jordan coming, the team becomes like the Redskins, something every economic level is together on."
The Wizards, who have not sold out a game this season, will receive a huge boost from Jordan's presence, sports marketing experts said. The team, which has one of the worst records in the league, has seen its season ticket holder base droop from 8,000 last season to 6,200 this year. At most games, barely half the arena is full and many of those fans leave long before the game ends.
"The only reason Michael Jordan has gotten involved in the first place is that it's one of the least successful franchises in the NBA," said Dean Bonham, president of the Bonham Group, a sports marketing firm. "He sees an opportunity to do here as owner what he did for the Chicago Bulls as a player, which is taking it from one of the worst franchises in sports to one of the top franchises."
Jordan warned against any expectations of immediate success on the court, but fans paid him no mind. They are ready for something better. Johnson, a Wizards season ticket holder, said he had basically stopped going to the games because of the team's lackluster style and the paucity of energy in the stands. Now, the BET chairman expects to start using his box once again--and he's already getting calls from friends sniffing about for an invitation.
Still, he said, Jordan is right: "At the end of the day, the team's still got to put the points on the board."
Staff writers Thomas Heath, Judith Evans and Shannon Henry contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Michael Jordan, bringing his celebrity status to MCI Center, could become a symbol of the wave of new investors and developers hoping to revitalize downtown Washington.