Michael Jordan was dressed and ready for practice an hour or so before the Washington Wizards even began to trickle into MCI Center for yesterday's practice. By the time players began arriving, Jordan had finished lifting weights and was all but tapping his foot at the locker room door.
"I was one of the first guys here," forward Tracy Murray said, "and when he saw me, he said, 'What are you doing showing up late?' I said, 'Late? I'm early.' But he was already dressed and ready to go."
Point guard Rod Strickland got a similar greeting when he showed up 15 minutes before practice. "I told him if I have to come by and pick him up tomorrow to be early," Jordan said.
Jordan spoke of Strickland with a playful smile on his face, but as the last-place Wizards (13-29) prepared for tonight's game against the New York Knicks at MCI Center, his message was clear. Last week when the Wizards named him their president of basketball operations, Jordan said he would leave his "footprints and imprints" all over the organization.
Today, those footprints became literal when he slipped into Wizards practice jersey No. 23 and scrimmaged with his new team for most of a two-hour session that included everything from playful trash talk to serious pointers. Wizards owner Abe Pollin and General Manager Wes Unseld showed up for the show, but reporters were barred from the session.
From the fade-away jumper that became one of the most unstoppable shots in NBA history to the constant chiding of teammates and opponents alike, the Wizards were treated to the best of Jordan. It's not every day that the guy running an NBA team is on the court taking part in a full-speed practice, but it's not every day a team is run by Michael Jordan.
Even though he's 36 years old and hasn't played in an NBA game in more than a year, he still showed the Wizards why the Chicago Bulls have six championship banners and why he's widely considered the best player in history.
"Oh Lord, Mike is Mike," guard Laron Profit said. "He could still lead the league in scoring. It was a great experience. It was a great practice. He got the energy going. It was good for everyone."
Guard Reggie Jordan added: "He's teaching us a lot. We're going to take all he can give us."
The Wizards said Jordan challenged virtually every player at one time or another. If it wasn't criticizing a move or daring someone to stop one of his moves, he was offering tips and advice.
"As soon as he steps foot on the court, he starts talking trash," Murray said. "That raises the intensity level. It affects everyone. He even makes the shooting drills competitive."
Since taking over the Wizards, he has seen them at their best in a stirring victory over Indiana. And he has seen them at their worst in ugly losses to Dallas and Atlanta.
Jordan recalled how he had called them "underachieving" last week, adding: "When I said they are underachieving I meant they were not collectively playing well together every night. That's one of the things that has to improve about this team. Collectively they have to lay it out every single night with the continuity and chemistry that it takes to be a team. . . .
"I'm trying to set a precedent. If you want to get ahead of the next team, try to surpass them, you've got to work a little harder. We, as an organization, are trying to work harder so the players can feed off of that. If that means I have to come in and chastise people and make them get up and get here early, I will."
Asked how frequently he would practice with the Wizards, Jordan said: "As long as my body holds up. I still love the game. Don't get me wrong, I don't want to take away from their progress, in fact I want to enhance their progress either by watching what I do or telling them some of the things to look for.
"They had great energy today, which is what we expect every day. I told them they shouldn't have to wait for me to come out to show the energy they had today. I just tried to keep them focused, to challenge them, and say whatever I had to say so that they come and play hard. If they can play hard against me, they can play hard against anybody."
As for Coach Gar Heard, who has gotten less than a ringing endorsement from Jordan, he said he welcomed the input.
"It was fun to watch him play and the guys can learn from him," Heard said. "When you get a guy like Michael on the floor, of course the intensity level will be higher. Guys get the chance to play against a legend."
Jordan apparently is still gathering information before deciding what moves to make. After today's practice, he had another lengthy lunch meeting with Unseld and team president Susan O'Malley.
With salary cap considerations making a significant trade almost impossible, Jordan endorsed his three highest-paid players--forward Juwan Howard, point guard Strickland and shooting guard Mitch Richmond. He apparently believes the most significant improvement can come from within--by making changes in the coaching staff or by a subtle change in chemistry and intensity.
"We've got three solid players," he said. "All three guys have played effectively in the past. There shouldn't be any reason why they can't do that now. They are good players. They know how to play the game. We've got some other complementary players that can give us a lot--Ike Austin, Tracy Murray, the young kids, Richard Hamilton as well as Laron Profit and Chris Whitney. The point is to get them to play with the continuity and chemistry it takes to play basketball."
One thing that either impressed Jordan--or distressed him--occurred during yesterday's practice when several players seemed to raise their intensity level to meet the challenge of competing against the game's best player. Jordan loved the way Reggie Jordan, Profit and others got into a loud, spirited practice. But he wondered aloud why yesterday was different than a game day against the Raptors or 76ers.
"The obvious thing about this team is they get up for challenge," Jordan said. "The way they separate themselves from the average team or better teams is to take advantage of teams that they're supposed to be taking advantage of. You don't make a big win against Indiana then come back with a lackluster game against Atlanta. That negates the win against Indiana. Those are the things they will have to learn. As a coaching staff and as an organization, we're going to force them to do better in those circumstances. Hopefully, tomorrow they come out and play with the same energy they had against Indiana. . . . If my presence gives incentive and motivation, that's good too."
Someone joked that it was unusual to see the guy running an NBA team out on the practice floor competing with the players as he's evaluating them. "I'm a little younger than most," he said. "I probably move a little bit faster, and I can compete and talk a little more trash than most of them. I know the game, and they know the game from different perspectives. One of the advantages I may have in this position is that I can get out there and actually compete and see the players on this team and that's going to be a part of my evaluation.
"I said at the press conference that I was going to evaluate everyone, and the best evaluation for me is once I'm on the basketball court, to see how guys respond to coaching, to situations on the basketball court."
Wizards Note: Forward Michael Smith may not play tonight because of a strained right elbow injured Friday against the Pacers. Howard could move to power forward from small forward, and Murray may start at small forward, Heard said. Aaron Williams also could start at power forward, but Heard said he would prefer to bring Williams off the bench.