Michael Jordan deserves a honeymoon. However, he'll need a lot more than the traditional First 100 Days that Washington gives new presidents. Our first task is to realize just how difficult his new job will be. And how much patience, seasons of it, may be required of us. Jordan has, basically, signed on for five years. Will we?
Only one small issue mars the euphoria that surrounds Jordan's arrival. Aside from the fact that he's Michael Jordan, what has he got on his side? The irresistible personality has chosen to go one-on-one with the immovable franchise. The collision should be nuclear. Sure, we're going to have fun. But is he?
The history of American pro sports says, unequivocally, that great athletes have no advantage whatsoever in any other role--be it coach, general manager or head of operations. As a rule of thumb, the greater the player, the harder the transition.
Jordan's own tight-lipped appraisal may actually be the honest and accurate one. "This is new to me. Being in charge is something that I never had the opportunity to do. Maybe that's not the ingredient that may turn this team around. Then again, it may be. That's the beauty of trying," said Jordan. The two phrases he used most often on his first day were "challenge for me" and "salary cap." They may be synonymous because in the Wizards' salary structure, everybody seems to be old, overpaid, locked into a long contract or all three.
"You tell me how he's going to make trades with the [NBA] cap and the salaries he's got," lifelong Washingtonian Red Auerbach told The Post sympathetically.
"It's not going to happen overnight," said Jordan. "It's hard to put a time on [a turnaround]. I'd like for it to be short because those are probably the expectations. But I'm realistic."
If Jordan were truly realistic--that is to say, if he's based his decision on history, not his heart--it's doubtful he'd be back in the NBA--with the Wizards or anybody.
For every Jerry West, Larry Bird, Bobby Clarke or Joe Torre who went from Hall of Fame or MVP glory to off-field success as the boss, there are scads of heroes who tried their best, received our thanks for the effort but, ultimately, flopped.
Of all the immortals in baseball--the men who got 3,000 hits, 500 homers or 300 wins--not one left a significant mark as manager, general manager or team president in the entire 20th century. Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Walter Johnson, Nap Lajoie, Eddie Mathews, Christy Mathewson, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose and Mel Ott--to name 11 such fellows--managed in the majors a total of 70 seasons (after zero years of minor league experience) and won two pennants.
The best analogy to Jordan may be right in the NBA itself. Jordan has six titles. But the Celtics' Bill Russell had 11. Nobody, including M.J., was a bigger winner, a fiercer competitor or a smarter student of his sport. On the all-time mystique scale, Jordan and Russell are 1 and 1A. Yet, as an executive, Russell left almost no mark.
Irresponsible, pampered players drove Russell crazy. His own interests were so diverse that he wasn't willing to pay the price--in hours worked, miles traveled and fannies kissed--to compete with other basketball bosses. His enormous ego, and his biting, sardonic sense of humor, made him more of a perpetual irritant to his players than an inspiration. Does Jordan have some of those tendencies?
Perhaps Auerbach was thinking of Russell when he said of Jordan: "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?"
Jordan's first day reminded me a bit of Russell--another Living Legend who thought he could run an NBA team and still play golf, travel and maintain his wide range of interests. In other words, he could still be Bill Russell, not some drudge who runs a pro sports franchise.
Jordan said he'd continue to live in Chicago and fix the Wizards on a commuting basis. "I'll spend as much time as it takes to turn this team around," he said. Jordan added that the Wizards appeared to have some "young [guys] who don't understand their responsibilities for the checks they are being paid." That cuts both ways. What are Jordan's responsibilities in exchange for 20 percent of the team?
Over the next few months, Jordan's arrival may pose an emotional struggle for fans. On one hand, every hope is raised. And for good reason. Leaders with Jordan's dynamism effect everybody around them. Jordan announced his return at 4:55 p.m. By 9 p.m., President Clinton was sitting beside him in the owner's box.
On the other hand, if Washington hopes turn into harsh Washington demands, the odds against Jordan could worsen. Jordan deserves thanks for returning to the NBA, but sympathy, too. As he watched a slipshod Wizards loss on Wednesday, his face was eloquent. He looked disgusted. But stunned, too. They're really this bad?
Jordan insists he'll forgo quick judgments and complete his due diligence first hand, rather than rely on his satellite-dish knowledge of the Wizards.
"My TV may be messed up," he joked. Unfortunately, it's not.
My guess is that Jordan is so shrewd, such a good judge of people and so adept at using both the stick and the carrot in his dealings, that he'll be a success with the Wizards. The only thing on his side will, ultimately, be the thing that matters most: He really is Michael Jordan. Not Jordan the celebrity, the mega-endorser or the former star. But Jordan the person. His magnetism should attract free agents. His love of schmoozing and swapping inside NBA information should help him close deals. He has an intuitive touch with people, sensing their needs, not just his wants.
Michael already has won Abe Pollin's heart and turned embattled Wes Unseld into his colleague. Jordan's not just winning hearts and minds. He's won the whole town. Yesterday, a local mortgage lender said: "Everybody wins in this deal. With Jordan here, Pollin's part of the team is worth more. Leonsis's part is worth more." Then he stopped. "Actually," he said, "Washington is worth more."
How can you second-guess a trade by a guy who just drove up property values?
The knee-jerk assumption in Washington is that Jordan will, with a little time, succeed. That is an unfair level of expectation. Yes, it's possible. Virtually everybody hopes that's how the story works out. But nothing in sports history suggests that "Jordan's Wizards Go to NBA Finals" is the most likely outcome.
Right now, the best athlete of the 20th century is in a new game. He's trying to be a top executive in the 21st. This time, Michael Jordan is the underdog.