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Jordan Joins Wizards' Front Office

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan (AP)
By Steve Wyche
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, Jan. 20, 2000; Page A1

Showing the command that allowed him to dominate the National Basketball Association for 13 years, Michael Jordan set the tone for his new job as president of basketball operations and part owner of the Washington Wizards yesterday, saying he would answer only to majority owner Abe Pollin, that his influence would be felt throughout the organization and that "until we get ourselves on track everybody is disposable."

After a five-month courtship, Jordan finalized a deal early yesterday morning that would give him five years to help transform the Wizards, who have not won a playoff game in 12 years, into a winner. Jordan said that Wes Unseld will remain with the team as general manager and that Susan O'Malley will continue as CEO and president of business operations.

"I'm going to have my imprints and footprints all over this organization," said Jordan, who will commute between Washington and his home in Chicago. "I look forward to turning this thing around. Right now we're an underachieving team."

The deal gives Jordan a share of equity that could increase to 20 percent when majority owner Abe Pollin decides to sell. Jordan bought his stake in the team from Lincoln Holdings, the group led by America Online executive Ted Leonsis. Lincoln Holdings owns 44 percent of the Wizards, MCI Center, US Airways Arena and all of the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals.

Jordan is the third black minority owner in the NBA – former superstar Magic Johnson owns a small piece of the Los Angeles Lakers; Edward and Bettiann Gardner are part owners of Jordan's former team, the Chicago Bulls. But Jordan's share, if it grows to the expected 20 percent, would give him a more substantial piece of an NBA team than any other black owner, a source said yesterday.

"This is new to me," said Jordan, whose duties will include drafting, trading and signing players and hiring and firing coaches. "Being in charge is something that I never had an 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.

"I won't be wearing the Wizards' uniform. I have an attitude about the way I play. I have an attitude about the way I win, and my job and responsibility with this organization is to see if I can pass it on to the players in that uniform."

Pollin, who has owned this team since 1964, retains majority ownership and reiterated once again that he has no plans to give up his stake in the near future. Lincoln Holdings has the right of first refusal to purchase the team when Pollin sells.

"He makes everybody better," Pollin said of Jordan, who led the Bulls to six NBA championships. "He's a fierce competitor. He will not accept losing. He's going to get the best out of everybody. And that's why I've turned the basketball operations over to him."

Jordan's marriage to the Wizards comes months after his bid to purchase the Charlotte Hornets fell through. Jordan also has been linked to buying the Milwaukee Bucks, Denver Nuggets and Vancouver Grizzlies. NBA Commissioner David Stern prompted his interest in owning a team; however Jordan's decision to get into the hands-on, day-to-day operations was a relatively new-found aspiration, Jordan said.

"A lot of it had to do with the relationships I had with the people on this podium," Jordan said. "Ted and Abe being generous enough to allow me to make decisions based on basketball. It's a great city. I've spent a lot of time here. It's the closest thing to North Carolina besides Charlotte."

Leonsis, shortly after purchasing the Capitals and minority shares in the Wizards last July, arranged for a meeting with Jordan that included fellow minority partners Jon Ledecky, George Stamos and Jordan's agent, David Falk. The discussions were solely about ownership but Jordan inquired about having some input on basketball decisions.

A second meeting was arranged in November in New York with Falk, Jordan, Leonsis, Stamos and Falk's partner, Curtis Polk. In December, Leonsis brought Jordan and Pollin together. Jordan subsequently had dinner at Pollin's house, where further progress was made about Jordan joining the team.

Jordan and Pollin eventually agreed to join the team as president of basketball operations, then went about working out the ownership portion with Leonsis and his partners.

"[Leonsis] was instrumental in making this happen," Pollin said. "Without Ted, it would not have happened. Ted was the guy that started all this. Ted was the guy who contacted Michael in the beginning."

The newfound relationship allowed Pollin to bring Jordan in just one step below him in the Wizards' chain of command. Jordan said Unseld would report to him but that he hopes they will carry on a joint relationship.

"There's been a lot of stories that have said Wes is going to get kicked to the curb, not have any input with the team, and that's not the case," Jordan said. "I've always respected players that have played before me. . . . If it wasn't for them, the league wouldn't have been my platform to excel."

Jordan went on to say that if he and Unseld disagreed on some issues, he had the authority to overrule Unseld.

"I'm okay with everything," Unseld said.

The status of Coach Gar Heard and some of Washington's players seems more uncertain.

"If everyone is looking over their shoulders making sure their necks don't get chopped off that's good – you go out there and do your job," Jordan said. "If any players are worried about being traded, go out there do your job and you won't have to worry about it. If Gar is worried about what's going to happen he's going to go out and do his job. I'm not saying I'm going to fire Gar Heard. I'm going to evaluate everybody."

Jordan's considerable power as a drawing card was in evidence yesterday. His late-afternoon news conference drew the largest media gathering at MCI Center since the arena opened a little more than two years ago. Last night, he watched the Wizards take on the Dallas Mavericks from Pollin's box, with President Clinton at his side.

O'Malley, president of Washington Sports and Entertainment, said the Wizards sold about 200 season-ticket packages before yesterday's news conference even began.

"The rumor has been building all week and we have been selling seats," she said. "We haven't been selling a lot for tonight. But, what we have been selling are season tickets. A couple of hundred today. Who knows tomorrow when they believe it? We expect a big hit."

District Mayor Anthony Williams said Jordan's arrival will have a positive effect on the entire city.

"This clearly is a big day in our city," Williams said. "We have someone here who not only is a great athlete, but he can show our children what it means to be an executive as a role model. Show what it means to make a commitment like it already has. It really is going to electrify our city."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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