From Michael to Eddie: Jordan, five years gone

Emancipation Day will shut down the nation's capital today (well, at least delay our trash collection) but another milestone will pass unnoticed for most D.C. residents--probably for the best, as many wouldn't know whether to celebrate or mourn.

Today's the fifth anniversary of Michael Jordan's final NBA game, an inglorious end for the sport's greatest star: A blowout loss that was further sullied by his adopted Wizards uniform.

The Jordan years were an odd chapter, even for a star-crossed franchise that once employed the NBA's shortest and tallest man (twice).


Years later, it's still unfathomable: The Greatest Of All Time wanted to come here--the Clippers of the East?

Well, no, not really.

But back in January 2000, after the Chicago Bulls refused their legend and the Charlotte Hornets rebuffed the local kid made good, Wizards part-owner Ted Leonsis swooped in and made MJ a $56 million offer he couldn't refuse: A free stake in ownership, equity in Leonsis's holding company, and control over basketball operations. And when MJ needed to scratch his basketball itch a final time, there was only one natural place to play.

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Washington is a town of transients, filled with college students and young professionals, with political types who come and go with elections. So we forget the irrational exuberance of eight years ago, when the Wizards first courted Jordan--at the time a basketball Midas, with six straight championships in his six previous full seasons--stirring the city into frothy anticipation.

Sure, some wondered if Jordan would make a good GM--noting that athletic stardom hardly translated to operational excellence--but they were drowned out by the 56-point headlines. "Washington gets a new 'Air' Force," the Post quipped. "Mr. Jordan goes to Washington (to rescue the Wizards)" wrote the AP. Even when the team cratered at 19-63 the following year--and absentee executive Jordan took a few PR hits--D.C. was again electrified for months when MJ started dropping hints of his on-court return.

We won't spend much time summarizing that third act, which is captured quite well--if critically--in "When Nothing Else Matters," by the Post's Michael Leahy, and in Pradamaster's excellent essay at Bullets Forever. Simply, Jordan remained amazing, with his will and shot-fake arsenal enough to win games on his own (although he'd shoot the team to a loss just as frequently). Still, walking into an crackling MCI Center, the great one's presence always infused us with anticipation...even after we saw him flat-footed and clad in Wizards' white-and-blue, like a parody of himself. Some weird Bizarro wearing #23.



However, most memories of the Jordan-errs--an ill-matched collection of mediocre lottery picks and second-tier veterans--are best lost to time. Jordan's own indecision ultimately doomed the team, as he yo-yoed between a sixth-man mentor (trying to "teach the young players to win") and an aging king who wouldn't leave the court (50+ minutes in three games his final six weeks).

Still, when Jordan waved goodbye in Philadelphia, more than three years after becoming a part-owner and two seasons after coming out of retirement, he'd turned the Wizards into box office champs, packing the house at home and selling out every road game. He'd gotten the team on TV and transformed the MCI Center into a destination (and, not insignificantly, boosted Nike's Jordan sales by a few hundred million dollars). Now one of the oldest guards in league history, Jordan had seemingly accomplished everything asked of him in three years as player/GM...except get the Wizards into the playoffs.

And with his stunning exit three weeks later--fired by majority owner Abe Pollin, dividing the Washington Post's own sports section and roiling the town--Jordan never got a chance to try again. Later, the Wizards leaked stories of a dysfunctional relationship with Pollin, of disgruntled players in the locker room. Retroactive spin or long-buried problems...it's hard to say. But the era of Err ended as unexpectedly as it began.


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There's still a Jordan in D.C., of course--Eddie, the longest-tenured coach in the Eastern Conference, who was hired weeks after Michael's dismissal. And after the doom-and-gloom predictions of five years ago, it's beyond amazing that a coach--who struggled for years to win a third of his games--has made a far bigger impact on Washington basketball than the GOAT.

We're not the first to notice that in taking the Wizards to the playoffs (four years and counting), Eddie did what Michael could not. But it is striking that the two Jordans have eerily similar winning percentages in D.C., albeit with totally different results--MJ, leading a flawed team that couldn't get over the hump; EJ, steering a squad that can challenge the league's best.



As discussed on Bullets Forever, Coach Jordan may not have had the firepower to win in D.C. if player/GM Jordan hadn't made the franchise relevant and profitable; perhaps MJ's lingering aura even attracted free agent Gilbert Arenas--a future three-time All-Star--and proven GM Ernie Grunfeld. But who could've predicted that those three moves would've paid off? Incompetent, dishonest Abe Pollin??

NBA.com chat, Sept. 9, 2003
Rafael Masakayan - Fairfax, VA: With Michael Jordan no longer with the Wizards, do you expect your attendance to decline? Are lots of people asking for refunds?

Abe Pollin: Good question...While I know that we will not sell out every game next season, I'm confident that our fans will enjoy Eddie Jordan's up-tempo style of coaching, Gilbert Arenas' exciting basketball talent, and the management decisions of Ernie Grunfeld.

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Of course, had Arenas not chosen Washington, creating a domino effect that brought Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler, we might remember the MJ era as a rare highlight in decades of mediocre Washington basketball--a rare superstar gracing the city. Instead, it's more likely that firing Michael Jordan ranks as a shining moment; certainly, it was a franchise turning point and, given MJ the GM's track record, it's hard to imagine that he could have produced the turnaround that's followed.

In fact, we now know that the NBA--once tied to their incandescent star, and constantly searching for the "next MJ"--was ready to move on, too. Even as Jordan wrapped his final game, the seeds were being planted for his successor.

The very next night, high schooler LeBron James played his first game at MCI Center.

Labels: , , ,

posted by Crucifictorious @ 02:38,

80 Comments:

At April 16, 2008 at 9:11 AM, Anonymous Lobo said...

Wow, great look back.

LeBron wasn't in the NBA yet, right? So was that some high school all-star game?

 
At April 16, 2008 at 11:27 AM, Blogger Crucifictorious said...

The 2003 Capital Classic--quite a roster. Players spanned the gambit from the hits (LBJ, Chris Paul) to misses (Ndudi Ebi, Shagari Alleyne) and memories (Drew Lavender).

 
At April 16, 2008 at 11:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

call it what you want but the wizards did MJ wrong.

 
At April 16, 2008 at 11:50 AM, Blogger Truth About It said...

Very nice work.

I will now go listen to Memory Lane from Illmatic.

...it's he said, she said - blame can be placed on both parties.

 
At April 16, 2008 at 9:01 PM, Blogger Crucifictorious said...

I am...

Michael Jordan, who jumped into the starting lineup, despite previous vows to the contrary, funking up my team's future.

I am...

Gilbert Arenas, who willingly accepts a sixth-man role to vibe with team chemistry.

Maybe why we hate MJ now?

 
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