Mario Lemieux, considered among the greatest players in NHL history, knows what Michael Jordan is going to hear around town as Jordan tries to steer the Washington Wizards toward the upper echelon of the NBA as the team's president of basketball operations and an equity partner in the franchise.
"Everybody is going to tell him they want him to come back and play," said Lemieux, the 34-year-old owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, whom he purchased in a bankruptcy sale in September. "Around here, I get it all the time. They still think I can help them win the Stanley Cup. I'm flattered by it, but I feel very comfortable with the decision I made."
Lemieux said the one piece of advice he would offer to Jordan would be "to surround himself with smart people and know exactly what they're doing. Do your job, and let them do theirs."
The landscape of professional sports is filled with former great athletes moving into management positions in the sports in which they excelled. Magic Johnson not only is a Los Angeles Lakers vice president, he is minority owner of the team.
Among this group, there are plenty of highly visible success stories. Jerry West, the Lakers' executive vice president for basketball operations; Wayne Embry, the president and chief operating officer of the Cleveland Cavaliers' team division; and Bobby Clarke, the Philadelphia Flyers' president and general manager, among many others, have had a major impact in uniform and in the front office.
But that same landscape is littered with less successful transitions--Elgin Baylor as vice president of basketball operations for the woebegone Los Angeles Clippers; Willis Reed, fired after a dreadful run as the New Jersey Nets' GM; Dave DeBusschere, fired as the New York Knicks' GM; and Bart Starr, an unsuccessful head coach and general manager of the Green Bay Packers.
Red Auerbach, the former Boston Celtics coach who now is the club's vice chairman of the board, was somewhat skeptical yesterday about Jordan's ability to turn around the Wizards any time soon.
"The only thing he can do for that team is give them some motivating speeches and teach them how to play heads-up ball," Auerbach said. "You tell me how he's going to make trades with the [NBA salary] cap and the salaries he's got. Sure, he's gonna sell tickets. He's still got that great charisma. But what happens if people buy tickets, and he's not around? Will they want their money back? The only way people buy tickets is if you win. It's like players putting their name on the restaurant. If the player's not there, they fail.
"I wish him all the luck in the world. If he's willing to work, because he's such a smart guy, if he's willing to spend the time, and I do mean time, maybe he can do it. . . . He's got to be on the phone, going to games, scouting. If he does all that, he can help them. But is he willing to do that? Here's a guy with 700 businesses, so who knows?"
Other athletes-turned-administrators said the transition is not always as natural as it might appear.
Phil Esposito, a Hall of Fame center and former general manager of the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, said: "The biggest transition is watching the players and not comparing them to yourself. I watched them and said 'Why is he doing that?' I'd be talking to myself. The other biggest transition is you can't be part of that group any more. You miss the camaraderie. You have to understand you just aren't part of it. I don't think I ever overcame it."
There also is a general consensus that Jordan's mega-marquee status will help in the recruitment of potential free agents.
"He'll obviously have an insight into the needs of the players," Embry said. "Michael has a great passion for the game and for the NBA. He will be able to impart that to the players. He also played on a team that was exceptional, but he also appreciated the accomplishments of less talented people like Luc Longley, Steve Kerr and John Paxson. He understands the importance of team, the way Bill Russell did."
Said Don Nelson, a longtime Boston Celtics forward now the Dallas Mavericks' coach and general manager: "He will definitely give them an advantage in the recruiting process. If you can also make the financial end of it work, that's what it will always come down to anyway.
"The only trouble I foresee for Michael will be as he goes out around the league, scouting or whatever he's doing, he's really going to get some major league attention. Jerry West handles it about as well as anybody I've ever seen. When the time is right between quarters or halftime, he'll sign autographs. I just can't imagine what it'll be like for Michael."
Jordan on the Court
Looking back at the playing career highlights for the Wizards' new president of basketball operations, Michael Jordan:
A member of six Chicago Bulls NBA championship teams (1990-91, 1991-92, 1992-93, 1995-96, 1996-97 and 1997-98) and was named NBA Finals MVP each year.
Named NBA most valuable player 5 times (1987-88, 1990-91, 1991-92, 1995-96, 1997-98) and to the all-NBA first team 10 times (1986-87 to 1992-93, 1995-96 to 1997-98).
Named the 1987-88 NBA defensive player of the year and is an NBA record nine-time NBA all-defensive first team selection (1987-88 to 1992-93, 1995-96 to 1997-98).
Selected in 1996 as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.
Ranks 3rd in NBA history in points (29,277) and steals (2,306), 4th in field goals made (10,962), 5th in field goals attempted (21,686) and 7th in free throws made (6,798).
Holds the NBA record for highest career scoring average (31.5 ppg).
Holds the NBA record for most seasons leading the league in scoring (10).
Holds the NBA record for most consecutive games scoring in double digits (840).
31.5 per game
6.3 per game
5.5 per game
6 NBA titles
The Star as Boss: Sometimes It Works, Often It Doesn't
CASE STUDY: Jerry West, Lakers
Lakers guard Jerry West was such an icon in the NBA that the league's logo bears his silhouette. He is one of very few to successfully make the transition to the front office.
West the player:
1960-74, Los Angeles Lakers
West is the Lakers' all-time leading scorer with 25,192 points (27 ppg, fifth all-time; Jordan is first at 31.5). The 10-time all-atar led the league in scoring, 1969-70 (31.2 ppg.) and in assists, 1971-72 (9.7 apg). He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1979.
West the coach:
1976-79, Los Angeles Lakers
West's teams went 145-101 in the regular season, 8-14 in the playoffs.
West the executive:
1979-present, Los Angeles Lakers
During West's tenure as general manager (1982-94) and executive vice president for basketball operations (1994-present), the Lakers:
Won three NBA titles (1985, '87, '88) and advanced to NBA Finals seven times.
Have the NBA's highest regular season winning percentage (66.9, 937-464).
Acquired players such as:
James Worthy draft, 1982
A.C. Green draft, 1985; re-aquired via trade with Mavericks, 1999
Vlade Divac draft, 1989; traded to Hornets, 1996
Elden Campbell draft, 1990, traded to Hornets, 1999
Nick Van Exel draft, 1993, traded to Nuggets, 1998
Eddie Jones draft, 1994, traded to Hornets, 1999
Shaquille O'Neal free agent, 1996
Kobe Bryant draft rights acquired via trade with Hornets, 1996
CASE STUDY: ELGIN BAYLOR, CLIPPERs
West's teammate, forward Elgin Baylor, was no less a star on the court and is considered one of the best players in NBA history. However, like many of his peers, his skills didn't translate into executive success.
Baylor the player:
1958-72, Minneapolis/L.A. Lakers
Baylor, a 12-time all-star, averaged 27.4 ppg. (third all-time) and 13.5 rpg. His 16,279 career rebound total is fourth all-time. He averaged 27 points and 12.9 rebounds in 134 career playoff games and set the single-game playoff scoring record (61 points). He entered the Hall of Fame in 1976.
Baylor the coach:
1974-79, New Orleans Jazz
Baylor's teams went 86-135 and never made the playoffs.
Baylor the executive:
1986-present, Los Angeles Clippers
Baylor is also vice president of basketball operations. During his tenure, the Clippers:
Made the playoffs only twice (1992, '93).
Have the worst regular season winning percentage in the league (46.8, 342-730).
Had many busts with first-round draft picks:
1987 Reggie Williams, Georgetown; Joe Wolf, North Carolina; Ken Norman, Illinois
1990 Bo Kimble, Loyola Marymount; Loy Vaught, Michigan
1991 LeRon Ellis, Syracuse
1992 Randy Woods, La Salle; Elmore Spencer, UNLV
1993 Terry Dehere, Seton Hall
1994 Lamond Murray, California