Throughout this season we have watched the Washington Wizards descend agonizingly toward the bottom. We have watched their first-year coach struggle trying to build consistency and their players struggle to maintain their balance without falling further. In recent years it has become painfully obvious that the franchise is in need of fixing. But where could it turn? New players and new coaches had been routinely brought in. Even a new ownership strategy was put into motion. The boldest move, though--and perhaps the one that would be the Wizards' salvation--may be upon us now.
Enter Michael Jordan.
If I could pick anybody in the game to rebuild a shattered basketball program, I'd probably pick Pat Riley or Phil Jackson, maybe Larry Brown. We've seen their work, they've got track records. But guess what? They've got jobs. They're not available. Jordan apparently is available. It's as if he would just drop from the heavens into the lap of a franchise that for the last 15 years has seemed downright cursed. Do we know for sure that Jordan's considerable sports, business and people skills would be completely transferable to running a team? No. It has worked for Jerry West, it hasn't worked for Elgin Baylor; there's no way to predict.
But if ever there was a franchise that should take a chance, this is the one. And if ever there was a guy to take a chance on, it's Jordan.
It's the magic name in basketball, probably all of sports. Coming here to run the basketball operation wouldn't immediately flip-flop the Wizards' place in the standings, but it would give folks some hope for a brighter day, wouldn't it? What would change, at least temporarily, is the perception of the franchise and the negativity that accompanies the very mention of the team's name. It would bring credibility to a franchise that has little if any; it would bring scads of attention to a team that has no fan base outside of Washington, and is near the bottom of the league in merchandise sales. Jordan would bring an energy this franchise hasn't seen since the late-1970s. Nobody since Ali has brought a buzz like Jordan, and it certainly is desperately needed.
In the nearly 20 years I've been here, I've never seen people as angry/apathetic/depressed/ resentful of the Washington basketball franchise as they've been this week, in the wake of back-to-back losses to, ironically, the Chicago Bulls, Jordan's former team. Tuesday night, approximately 13,000 people showed up at MCI Center to watch Toronto's Vince Carter. I can say that with some certainty because the two biggest ovations of the evening were for Carter, once when he was introduced, and the second time when he returned to the court after being knocked out of action by an elbow to the jaw. We went to see Carter; I know I did. It wasn't until the last few minutes of the game that anybody seemed to appreciate that the Wizards were blowing out the Raptors.
One of the most distasteful things I've seen recently came during the game when Juwan Howard's face appeared on the jumbo screen; he was announcing the team's involvement in a local charity effort for children. But we couldn't hear the announcement over the booing.
Could Jordan's presence in a front office fix all this stuff, all the discontent, the booing, the mistrust of management that grows more pervasive with every disappointment? Yes. The first step, the most important step, is a new start, new ideas, a fresh approach, new energy. You see the way Doc Rivers went into Orlando? Don't get me wrong, I don't think Rivers is the problem. But I don't think he's the solution either. Players aren't listening. Rod Strickland and Gar Heard are oil and water. Heard and Howard, as we rediscovered Tuesday night, aren't exactly having a Hallmark moment either. My bet is, they would be riveted by Jordan.
Look at the biggest influences in the NBA right now: In the Eastern Conference, even with Tim Hardaway sidelined for weeks now, it's Riley and it's Larry Bird, whose teams have the best records. In the Western Conference, it's Jackson. Behind Jackson's Lakers, it's Scottie Pippen's Portland Trail Blazers. What do Riley, Jackson, Bird and Pippen have in common? Rings. NBA championship rings. Money and rings are all players respect in pro ball now, the only things that distract them from their cell phones and SUVs. Jordan is Lord of the Rings. They would respond to him even though he wouldn't be in uniform, even though he wouldn't be on the bench. They would respond like a raw recruit in his first day of basic training would to Gen. George Patton.
I don't know whether free agents would, all of a sudden, put Washington at the top of their wish lists. But at least for a while, for as long as Jordan glows, they would have Washington somewhere on that list, which would be an improvement. And it would stand to reason that the antagonistic relationship between Abe Pollin and David Falk would no longer hurt the team since Falk's star revolves around the planet of Jordan.
Now, this wouldn't turn around overnight just because Jordan shows up, just as the Capitals haven't turned around even though the infrastructure has undergone a radical change. The Wizards would have to make some deals, they would have to create some cap room. Pollin and Wes Unseld never had a person who spent most of his or her time studying the salary cap; Jordan would need one to. Anybody running basketball operations would.
The idea to bring Jordan in and the execution of it is pure genius. And it would be mighty large of Pollin to give over the decision-making to a rival of 15 years and a man who challenged him to sell his team in a heated meeting between players and owners during the 1998 lockout.
But when Pollin was looking into Jordan's eyes that day in New York, being challenged and then firing back his own challenge in return, somewhere in his soul I bet he saw the raging conviction of a young man with a grand future. How big of a hero would Pollin be to the fans in this city if he brought aboard Jordan? To rework an old saying: "If you can't beat him, have him join you."
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