Michael Jordan is not hounded here. No longer the focus of a city's obsession, he goes out now more than he ever did in Chicago, haunting favorite restaurants Cafe Milano and Zola's so frequently that guests merely murmur when he walks through the room.
Still he has not really become a part of Washington, not official Washington, anyway. He has turned down nearly every politician in town, eschewed local fundraisers. When a few members of the Supreme Court called, asking for a pick-up game, the answer came back no.
"Not my thing," he said, and indeed, while he is the most accomplished athlete to play on a team in Washington, he is hardly a Washingtonian. Like Vince Lombardi and Ted Williams before him, Jordan has come to this city much in the way of a traveling art exhibition: highly trumpeted and beautiful to look at, but ultimately, part of someone else's permanent collection.
So with his days dwindling as a player on the Washington Wizards -- there are five regular season games left before his second comeback is likely to end -- Jordan tried to dampen speculation yesterday that the show will soon return to its real home.
"I'm in Washington, D.C. Why worry about Chicago?" Jordan replied before the Wizards defeated the Cavaliers in Cleveland last night, although he knew the answer perfectly well. Jordan led the Bulls to six championships and his family's home is still there. He left the city embittered because of his treatment by longtime Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. But on Monday, Krause abruptly resigned because of health concerns and the call began immediately in Chicago: Bring back Jordan.
Jordan has said he would like to return to the Wizards' front office, where he worked for a year before playing the last two seasons -- as long as he has complete authority. Still, in truth, there is little to keep him here, and Jordan knows this, better than most.
While others predicted on his arrival in Washington three years ago that he would change everything -- "this really is going to electrify our city," Mayor Anthony Williams said the day Jordan joined the franchise -- Jordan himself realized he was never going to become an icon here.
"That wasn't going to happen, because I didn't play like I did in Chicago," he said recently, noting that "I came in at the bottom there, and we eventually worked our way to the top, so there was a workmanlike attitude. People saw and that became something that connected them with me, more so than anything."
In Chicago, the worship of Jordan was about identification, and this is not an easy city for that, certainly. Teams here other than the Redskins have to win to garner attention, and even then it is often not enough; witness MCI Center when the Capitals reached the Stanley Cup finals five years ago, its seats filled with fans of the opponent.
Jordan's decision to come out of retirement just a month after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and slide back into it as the war in Iraq dominates headlines have also made his time here one of the more quiet stretches of his career, although it probably would not have been so much different in peacetime. Hagiography is simply not this city's way.
With politicians holding the most power here, Washington is not as star-driven as New York or Los Angeles. There is a long list of people who fancy themselves more notable than any sports star. And his failure so far to take the Wizards even into the first round of the playoffs did not help.
As a result, the man who for more than a decade seemed to be everywhere in Americans' lives, from their driveway basketball-hoop fantasies to their Hanes underwear, has become, in Washington, just another famous face.
"Some people suggest that you almost have to go back to Walter Johnson to find a person who really captured the city -- you don't have a Cal Ripken or Johnny Unitas phenomenon here," said Richard Zamoff, a professor at George Washington University who teaches a class in the sociology of sport.
"I suppose we had Wes Unseld, perhaps, but even then, the team didn't play in Washington, and while the Redskins have sometimes captured the city, they never were big enough to become national figures."
Sonny Jurgensen became a Hall of Famer with the Redskins but acknowledges that he only became an integral stitch in the Washington fabric "by staying here, the broadcasting as much as anything. It's a length of time thing more than an [accomplishment] thing, just ask Darrell Green."
When he left Chicago, the Bulls built a statue of Jordan that still sits outside United Center. It could be argued that Washington could use such an icon. Citizens whose license plates blare "Taxation Without Representation" not only go unheard in the country's legislative branch but often in the very metropolitan area of which they are the center, outflanked by their richer suburban neighbors. But Jordan was never going to be that here, in part because he wasn't interested.
In his year as the team's president of basketball operations, Jordan continued to live in Chicago, commuting only occasionally to Washington for meetings and games. He created a more permanent residence at the Ritz Carlton when he decided to play again in 2001, but he still declined to traffic in the appearances and quid pro quo that make up Washington's social currency.
Of the literally hundreds of events on Capitol Hill that Jordan is invited to every year, he has attended zero, his lone political appearance coming at a fundraiser for former NBA star and presidential candidate Bill Bradley. He has been invited to inaugural balls. "Out of town," Jordan recalled. He has been approached about a political career of his own. "We all have damage in our closets," he has said, laughing.
Jordan avoids fundraisers and charity events, preferring instead to contribute money. When Twentieth Century Fox paid to use his name in its movie "Like Mike," he split the significant booty among three Washington area organizations, but he has declined to participate in benefit auctions. When he and his wife, Juanita, co-chaired a dinner for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater two years ago, Juanita was present at the event; Jordan was not.
Yet for all of Jordan's reticence to engage in the rubber-chicken affairs where much of Washington business gets done, he has in some ways been more approachable here than he ever was in Chicago. "I'm getting very grounded and rooted here, and I feel comfortable, much more comfortable than I did when I first got here," he said, noting that with fan interest intense but not quite as rabid, he has been able to go out in the city regularly.
He doesn't always have to sit in the back room of a restaurant anymore to avoid being followed. He has his own humidor at Angelo and Maxie's, the steakhouse near MCI Center, and his own table at Jordan's, the restaurant he opened in the Ronald Reagan Building about a year and a half ago. He occasionally works out at the Ritz Carlton gym, which President Bush's daughters frequent, and has been spotted at the Air and Space Museum.
"Washington is a great place to be if you're a basketball player, I absolutely loved it here. The diversity is pretty unusual in most places. You notice," former Wizard Chris Webber said on a recent visit. Or as former Golden State standout Chris Mullin put it: "Playing for the Bullets, when they played all the way out there in Maryland, it used to be a pretty grim thing. As an opponent, we used to say the best thing about Washington was that you knew you get a win there, and then you'd get to leave. But it's not like that anymore, with the arena downtown, and Michael's done a lot to invest the organization with a different idea of itself."
Jordan has indeed invested himself heavily in the Wizards, and as someone almost compulsively unable to walk away from a challenge, that could be the deciding factor in his decision to stay here. While Washington may only be scrawled on his jersey, not his psyche, he has consistently talked about the turnaround of the franchise as "the reflection of myself," and yesterday he sounded like a man reluctant to leave that reflection hazy.
"Me, personally I haven't thought about Chicago," he said. "I know people have asked, in the past, 'What if?' I told them at the time my focus has been here and will be here. My focus is, right now, trying to get this team into the playoffs and secondly, to make sure this franchise is in the right area and headed in the right direction."
A concrete answer, a confident one, but also a clever one that doesn't rule out a change of heart in the future.
Michael Jordan may be turning into a Washingtonian after all.