Eddie Jordan opened the blinds in his office on the second floor at Louis Brown Athletic Center, letting in some sunshine and giving him a view of the Rutgers campus he fell in love with 40 years ago.
He leaned back in his seat and told a joke he shared recently with some of his college friends: “I said, ‘I’m back at work. I was on vacation the last 20 years.’ ”
The past two decades, which Jordan spent in the NBA as a coach for the Washington Wizards, Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia 76ers and as an assistant for Sacramento, the New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, were far from an easy stroll. But his latest challenge — to restore respectability at scandal-marred Rutgers — is arguably the greatest and most personal of his coaching career.
Jordan first arrived at Rutgers as a player in 1973. He is now back after replacing Mike Rice, who was fired last month when video was released of him taunting, kicking and throwing basketballs at players during practice.
“It was embarrassing. It was horrible. It was shameful. Times a hundred,” Jordan said of his immediate reaction to seeing the video early last month, when he was still an assistant with the Lakers. “It was sort of like the basketball program was the centerpiece of shame for the entire school. The entire Rutgers community was shamed, and now it’s going to be the centerpiece going forward to regain the pride factor back, regain some national respect, and I’m glad to be the caretaker of that centerpiece. I’ve been in coaching all my life, and this is a challenge that you thrive for.”
Less than a month into his return, however, Jordan already has encountered his first minor controversy after Deadspin reported he never received his degree from Rutgers despite the school’s initial claims at his hiring. In a statement, Rutgers admitted it was “in error” when it said Jordan had graduated but explained that a baccalaureate degree is not required to be a head coach at the university or within the NCAA and that Jordan was hired because of his “remarkable public career.”
“His athletic skills and leadership and his professional accomplishments have been a source of pride for Rutgers for more than three decades,” the statement read, adding “we look forward to many winning seasons.”
Jordan, a graduate of Carroll High in the District, earned the nickname “Fast Eddie” while playing at Rutgers, leading the Scarlet Knights to an undefeated regular season and their only Final Four appearance in 1976. He was so popular that when Edward Bloustein, then the president of the university, was introduced during a pep rally, fans chanted, “We want the other Eddie.”
“The president was a good guy, but basketball ruled at that time,” said Tom Young, who was Jordan’s coach at Rutgers and later was an assistant to Jordan with the Wizards.
The program, however, had fallen on hard times long before Rice’s dismissal. The Scarlet Knights haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1991, when Jordan was an assistant under Bob Wenzel. But Jordan didn’t hesitate when school leaders approached him about the job.
“My first words were: ‘Absolutely. I would like to come back. I’m ready to come back. I’m the right man for the job.’ And it went from there,” he said.
Jordan has maintained a residence in Princeton, N.J., since his time as an assistant with the Nets and lived there during offseasons, hosting family gatherings and barbecues.
“I always said, ‘This is my piece of heaven,’ ” Jordan said of New Jersey. “I love D.C. I don’t want people to get that wrong. But for the most part, I’ve always thought if I could coach at Rutgers, that would be my dream job and that would be the only college I would coach at.”
Jordan left Rutgers after four years on Wenzel’s staff to become an assistant in the NBA with Sacramento in 1992. He was promoted to coach five years later. The former football and basketball standout at Carroll later took over his hometown Wizards in 2003 and guided them to four consecutive playoff appearances, including their only series victory in the past 31 years, before being dismissed after a 1-10 start in 2008. The Wizards haven’t made the postseason since firing Jordan.
Between 2010, when Jordan was fired after one forgettable season as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, and last fall, when he accepted a job as an assistant with the Lakers, Jordan said he “went underground.” He coached the eighth-grade team of his youngest son, Jackson, and the freshman team at Carroll. He also led the 17-and-under team of prominent AAU program D.C. Assault to a national title.
“I had so much fun. Probably the best year and a half of basketball in my life. It really was. Not probably, it was,” Jordan said. “Those three or four experiences were some of the greatest in my life basketball-wise.”
Jordan said the experience solidified a decision he had made following his dismissal by Philadelphia.
“I do not want to be a head coach in the NBA,” said Jordan, who had the fifth-highest winning percentage (.468) of any coach with at least two full seasons in Wizards-Bullets franchise history.
“It’s not a fair fight,” Jordan said of coaching in the NBA. “Whether it’s against the bully or whoever, you want a fair fight. You don’t want to fight the guy and the guy behind you trips you up and you didn’t see him. . . . A fair fight for me was when I could sit down with [late Wizards owner Abe] Pollin one-on-one, and I could tell him the state of the team and how I felt and my plan. That was a fair fight. That’s when I felt good. That’s when I felt everything was in place. But I didn’t have it after a certain amount of years.”
Jordan accepted the job as an assistant to Lakers Coach Mike Brown, believing he would take on an advisory role similar to the one performed by Tex Winter, who helped Phil Jackson win nine NBA titles.
“We could win championships, and I could sit there . . . and I could retire in the sunset, but it didn’t go that way,” Jordan said.
Brown was fired after five games, and while Jordan stayed on staff, the Lakers were swept in the first round of the playoffs.
“I’m glad he landed on his two feet because he’s a basketball man,” said Pete Carril, the former Princeton coach who mentored Jordan when both worked together in Sacramento. “He’s coached in the pros long enough. He’s knows basketball, and he’s going to a place that he knows and he has great feelings and great fondness for. The game is a little different than it was in the pros but not substantially. You can adjust. I think he’s going to be fine.”
For now, though, Jordan has to complete a difficult reconstruction project. Three players — including leading scorer Eli Carter — transferred after Rice was fired, and top recruit Shane Rector backed out to sign with Missouri . Jordan said he expected an exodus after the scandal .
“I just told them, ‘You guys are looking to transfer out because you need change. Well, the change is me,’ ” he said. “If you’re not 100 percent in, you’re not in. If you’re 50-50, you’re out. You’ve got to give all your heart and soul on being here and enjoying Rutgers. They left, and I’m happy for them and I’m happy for us.”
Jordan believes his NBA experience will give him “credibility” in the eyes of recruits. New Jersey is rich in talent, New York City is nearby and he still has strong Washington ties from his time with the Wizards and D.C. Assault, which helped him get a commitment from O’Connell forward Junior Etou.
But he understands he has work to do to get more talent. After one season as a member of the newly formed American Athletic Conference, Rutgers will join the highly competitive Big Ten in 2014. Immediately after his introductory news conference at Rutgers two weeks ago, Jordan went to Brooklyn and tried — unsuccessfully — to lure point guard Jon Severe, one of the top remaining unsigned prospects in the 2013 class.
“The toughest thing for Eddie, he’s going to the Big Ten,” Young said. “And I don’t care who is going there; they’re not close to Big Ten talent right now. He can coach; that’s not going to be a problem. He’ll get along with people, faculty, the media, but it will come down to recruiting. If he gets players, he’ll win.”
For now, Jordan is focused on helping his alma mater heal.
“We’re not talking national championships. We’re not talking Final Four. We’re talking about a day-to-day process,” he said. “I don’t want to look past what we have to do today. That’s how you become good. If you look at the destination instead of everyday steps, you’re going to get sideways. You’re going to get impatient. You’re going to do things you don’t want to do. You’re going to miss a step if you look too far ahead.”