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'Great for the Franchise'

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan, Abe Pollin and Ted Leonsis, clockwise. (AP)
By Richard Justice
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, Jan. 20, 2000; Page D1

In one of his first meetings with Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, Michael Jordan kept returning to one point: He wanted club president Susan O'Malley and General Manager Wes Unseld to stay on the job, and he wanted the team's essential front-office structure to remain unchanged.

"Actually, Michael brought that up before I did," Pollin said yesterday after Jordan had been introduced as the team's president of basketball operations. "He said, 'I want you to know that Wes is important. We've got to have Wes here. It was the same thing with Susan.' That was important to me because those are two people very important to me. I love them."

O'Malley, whose marketing skills have drawn praise around the NBA, serves Pollin as the Wizards' president of business operations and as CEO of Washington Sports and Entertainment, which controls the Wizards, the WNBA's Washington Mystics, MCI Center and Ticketmaster Washington/Baltimore. Meanwhile, Unseld has been the Wizards' general manager since 1996, but has worked for Pollin in a variety of roles, including Hall of Fame center and coach.

Since word of Jordan's possible involvement with the Wizards was first reported last week, several of the organization's longtime employees had wondered if there might be wholesale changes.

Jordan may have calmed those fears yesterday when he nodded toward O'Malley during a news conference and said: "She runs everything in terms of business. I'm the president of basketball operations with lot of help from Wes. There were a lot of stories that Wes would be kicked out on the curb. That's certainly not the case. I've always respected the players who played before me. They made it possible for me to accomplish what I did.

"I anticipate Wes being around. I anticipate us conferring, and when the time comes to make a decision, hopefully we'll be on the same page. We have the same viewpoint. We'll be collaborating on every issue. If we don't agree, I have the final say. Well, Mr. Pollin makes the final say."

Instead of discussing changes, Jordan said his job would begin by evaluating a team that has the league's sixth-highest payroll and fifth-worst record. He declined to give Coach Gar Heard a vote of confidence, saying Heard, like the players, would be reviewed over the next few weeks.

"If everyone is looking over their shoulder, good," Jordan said. "If they do their job, they don't have to worry about it. I'm not saying I'm going to fire Gar Heard. I'm saying I'm going to evaluate everyone."

Unseld said he didn't yet understand how Jordan's presence would change his job. He and Jordan have had only a couple of meetings, and while they clicked on a personal level, their specific roles remain unsettled. However, Unseld made it clear that he intends to stay with the organization that he joined 22 years ago as a player.

He has become a surrogate son to Pollin while leading the franchise to its only championship, then serving the organization as both coach and general manager.

"I'm looking forward to [Jordan's involvement] because I like what he brings," Unseld said. "We're willing to work together and do whatever we can for the team. It won't be hard. I wouldn't do it if I wasn't comfortable. I had the option to be part of it or not be part of it. I chose to be part of it. I think it's good for this organization. I'm going into this wholeheartedly and with my eyes wide open. I'm not going to put any limits on anything."

Asked about his day-to-day role, Unseld said: "We haven't sorted all those issues out yet. Our meeting was to gain an understanding. What's going to be happening on a day-to-day basis, we haven't talked about that."

Unseld said Jordan had asked him several questions about the team, adding: "He asked me some specific questions. I told him he should get his own impressions and not listen to me. I heard what he said, and once he takes a real close look, I'll be anxious to hear what he says."

O'Malley said she, too, enthusiastically endorsed Jordan's involvement. She said she never wondered if it would affect her role with the organization, saying: "When Mr. Pollin told me about it, I said, 'Great for you, great for the city, great for the franchise.'"

She joined the organization as director of advertising in 1986 and steadily climbed the organizational ladder, becoming one of the highest-ranking women in professional sports. She and Unseld were heavily involved in the construction of MCI Center and in the development of the area around the arena.

What she and Unseld have been unable to do is put a consistent winner on the floor, and for that reason, she said she welcomed Jordan and his six championships.

"I think both Wes and I are about winning," O'Malley said. "If this makes it better, we're for it. We'll get out of the way, we'll be part of it, we'll do whatever Mr. Pollin wants. We want to bring a championship back to Washington."

Jordan's hiring had one immediate impact in the locker room. Point guard Rod Strickland, who has made known his desire to play elsewhere, said that having Jordan in the organization changed his mind.

"I feel a lot better about the organization than I did two hours ago," he said. "This changes things. He knows what it takes to win. He's been in an organization that has won. He brings that here."

Heard, who has made no attempt to hide his frustration with the team's play, and at times, with his players, said he welcomed Jordan evaluating both the players and coaches.

"I'm not uncomfortable with the way I coach," Heard said. "I have to continue to do the job I'm doing. You have to believe in yourself. I believe in my coaching philosophy. Things aren't going as well as I hoped, but with injuries and all, I'm not totally dissatisfied with the way we've played. I'm dissatisfied with the record.

"I think it's going to be great to have him. It gives us energy. It fires the players up and it fires the organization up. It's nice to have some new blood and it'll be nice to hear his opinion."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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