- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2000

NBA legend Michael Jordan embarked on the stiffest challenge yet of his remarkable basketball career yesterday, joining the beleaguered Washington Wizards as part-owner and president of basketball operations.
The deal, the hottest rumor around Washington this week, will give the 36-year-old Jordan a sizable equity stake in the Wizards, Capitals and MCI Center and full administrative control over the basketball team. Jordan becomes one of a handful of black owners in the NBA, joining Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers, and Edward and Bettiann Gardner of the Chicago Bulls.
"The expectations for me and by me for this team are definitely high," Jordan said. "There are a lot of fundamental changes that need to happen in this organization.
"I look forward to turning this thing around and having my fingerprints all over this," he said.
Terms were not officially disclosed, but Lincoln Holdings, the Ted Leonsis-led group that owns 100 percent of the Capitals and 44 percent of the Wizards and MCI Center, is selling a large number of its shares to Jordan. Estimates by several sources close to the deal pegged Jordan's financial involvement at more than $40 million in return for 20 percent of Lincoln Holdings. That means he will own about 9 percent of the team.
America Online Inc. executive Leonsis remains Lincoln Holding's chairman and lead shareholder. Wizards owner Abe Pollin still owns 56 percent of Washington Sports & Entertainment LP (WSELP), the holding company for the Wizards, MCI Center, the Washington Mystics, management of the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., and the local Ticketmaster franchise.
Pollin was not involved in any equity deal with Jordan. Rather, two separate deals with Jordan were reached: one for Jordan to become part of Lincoln Holdings and a second to join Wizards management.
Wes Unseld, the Wizards' vice president for basketball operations, will remain in his post and report to Jordan. Susan O'Malley, WSELP president, also will continue in her role. Both Jordan and Pollin insisted yesterday the working relationship with Unseld will be productive.
Jordan inherits control of a Wizards team in desperate need of help both on and off the court. The Wizards, 12-27 and next to last in the Eastern Conference entering last night's game against Dallas, are at least $18 million over the league salary cap and likely will have no first-round draft pick this June.
Meanwhile, the Wizards have failed to fill the 20,674-seat MCI Center even once this season and the average attendance of 14,006 is 16 percent below last year.
"We asked ourselves what we could do to spruce and spice things up and make the Wizards a winner," Pollin said. "We looked to the best of the best, and that's Michael.
"Jordan means class in every sense of the word, and he's going to electrify this team and this city."
Actually, Jordan's arrival is far more complicated and ends nearly six months of discussion. The idea first hatched late last summer at Columbia, Md., Country Club, where Leonsis and Lincoln Holdings co-owner Jonathan Ledecky played golf with Washington-based Jordan representatives David Falk and Curtis Polk.
Discussions that started at the links soon trickled to Jordan, and Leonsis and Ledecky were invited to Jordan's restaurant in Chicago. After the pair quizzed Jordan about his commitment to working in Washington and were satisfied with the response, Jordan met with Pollin about a role with the Wizards.
Jordan went to Pollin's Bethesda, Md., home for dinner early last month, and the private meeting went a long way toward rebuilding a relationship fractured by heated discussions during last year's NBA lockout. Both men yesterday called last winter's contentious fights over a new players union contract a dead issue.
Jordan faced repeated questions yesterday about joining a franchise with seemingly intractable problems and no playoff wins since 1988. In fact, Jordan in the past year has entertained several other offers to become an NBA owner, including in Denver, Orlando, Fla., and most seriously in Charlotte, N.C. Several basketball insiders, including Hall of Fame player Bill Walton, yesterday openly criticized Jordan's involvement.
"A lot of it had to do with the relationships I formed with Ted and Abe, certainly [Falk's] presence here," Jordan said. "These kind of opportunities come along only so often.
"I'm not really going back to basketball [in the previous sense]. It's a different level, a different challenge," he said.
Jordan's negotiations in Charlotte fell apart because Hornets owner George Shinn would not relinquish full organizational control to Jordan.
"There's no doubt Michael could have had more power and a lot more equity somewhere else," Ledecky said. "But we're just more than a basketball team or a hockey team. When you factor in all the other holdings here and what we're now doing on the Internet, we're well on our way to becoming a dominant, diversified regional sports company.
"Michael is a very, very big part of that. For all of us to give up part of our equity and agree to a dilution of the shares, you have to be absolutely certain the new pie is going to be worth a lot more. That's definitely the case because Michael Jordan is the best brand in the business and Ted Leonsis is the best brand manager. It's a very potent combination."
Jordan, who won six titles as a member of the Chicago Bulls, will maintain his primary residence in Illinois and commute to Washington to work with the Wizards. No expectations have been placed on Jordan's hourly schedule, and he will maintain his extensive battery of other business holdings and his active role as a corporate pitchman for MCI WorldCom, Nike and numerous other companies.
"I'll be here as much as it takes to turn this thing around," Jordan said.

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