- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 9, 2001

WILMINGTON, N.C. Popeye Jones has never seen anything like it.

Then again, he's never been seen like this, either.

It's the first evening of Washington Wizards training camp, and a media mob 100-plus people you'd never want to meet lines the concourse of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington's Trask Coliseum.

Surveying a scrimmage on the court below, the throng has trained its grubby gaze on Jones, a likable, hard-working journeyman who seldom warrants extra attention.

Making matters all the more odd, Jones isn't actually playing in the Wizards' soon-to-finish game. Nor is he on the floor. In fact, he isn't even standing upright.

Instead, Jones has parked his ample, rebound-friendly rear on a sideline folding chair, where he's laughing and jawing with his newest, oldest teammate.

Who, it probably should be noted, just happens to be 38-year-old Michael Jeffrey Jordan.

"I've never had that many [cameras] on me in my life," Jones said afterward. "But they're here because of MJ. I'm sure the whole world wants to know how he's doing."

Indeed. And as Jordan commences his unlikely Capital comeback, he's not the only one with an audience. Thanks to a sudden and sizable assist from the world's best-known athlete, the entire Wizards franchise has become a bonafide D.C. draw. A national media darling. A compelling source of genuine NBA interest.

Remember that chubby, dateless girl who sat in the back of homeroom? The one who later colored her hair, discovered Tae-Bo and crammed her pricey silicone, er, enhancements into a too-tight tube top on a daytime talk show, babbling on and on about how you can't afford her?

She's the Wizards only they're flaunting Jordan. Who is very, very real. And, hopefully, still spectacular.

"You have an audience that's been disappointed," said Wizards assistant coach John Bach. "You have a press that's seen a lot of failures. You have a city that's just waiting for something.

"Now, in comes Jordan. I'm in the twilight of my career, and it's wonderful to see what he's been able to do."

"Night and day"

What has Jordan done? Better question: What hasn't he done? Consider:

c Since Jordan's Oct. 1 comeback announcement, the Wizards have sold "a couple hundred" season tickets per day and nearly 15,000 total, according to a team spokesman. Prior to rumors of Jordan's return, that number was closer to 10,000.

c NBC plans to broadcast Washington's Nov. 3 home opener against Philadelphia and its Dec. 1 game against Orlando even though the network traditionally doesn't broadcast games until Christmas Day.

c League commissioner David Stern reportedly may attend the Wizards' Oct. 30 season opener at New York, forgoing a trip to Los Angeles to witness the Lakers' championship ring presentation.

"It's night and day," said Wizards point guard Chris Whitney. "All of this."

Night and day. Black and white. Ted Leonsis and Dan Snyder. However you put it, the perpetually downtrodden, oft-irrelevant Wizards are enjoying a level of attention unseen since, well, ever or at least 1978, the club's first and only title season.

In the interim? Past-his-prime Moses Malone presaged before-his-time Chris Webber. Freakish Manute Bol led to freakier Gheorghe Muresan. Gar Heard begat Leonard Hamilton. Rod Strickland happened. And the team lost, convincingly and consistently, culminating in last season's 19-63 debacle.

All the while, the Wizards fell ever-further off the sports map, trailing not only the mighty Redskins but also the Capitals, Maryland basketball and even D.C. United in terms of local and national interest.

"Decisions between, say, a Maryland-North Carolina game and a Bulls-Wizards game used to be easy go with the ACC," said George Johnson, host of Comcast's "Sportsnight." "Now, no question we're doing the Wizards. We wanna get Mike."

Who doesn't? On his way to Wilmington, Wizards television play-by-play announcer Steve Buckhantz decided to change his flight out of BWI airport, incurring an extra $100 charge.

At the ticket counter, he presented the flight agent with a token of his gratitude a $7 Wizards hat.

"She was so happy, she waived the fee," Buckhantz said.

Chris Johnson, a producer at Bethesda-based sports talk WTEM-980, said that Jordan's return has been the on-air topic du jour, even surpassing the calamitous 0-4 Redskins.

"We joked about changing 'Skins at six to Jordan at six," he said.

At UNC Wilmington, more than 200 students stood in line last Monday night for free tickets to today's team scrimmage. And on the first day of Wizards single-game regular season ticket sales, fans snatched up 60,000 of 80,000 available tickets.

"I drove in [to MCI Center] around 7:00 a.m., and there were 300 people in blankets lined up outside the arena," Bach said. "[Jordan] is magic. He's an elixir to this team, to this franchise."

Meet the press

To the media, however, Jordan's more like liquid Viagra. Maximum strength.

On the opening day of training camp, the Wizards gave out 135 press credentials, up from about 35 last year. Outside the team's practice gym, eight satellite television trucks stood vigil in the parking lot, the better to beam scintillating Jordan-on-the-bench footage across the globe.

"It's about 10 times as many people as last year," said UNC-Wilmington sports information director Joe Browning. "We had maybe one or two trucks. It's a bit different."

Browning, who spent most of the evening distributing press badges, had to turn away a dozen people, including one particularly enterprising if somewhat inept student reporter.

"We had a guy that posed as [sports columnist] Michael Wilbon," said Maureen Nasser, Wizards director of public relations. "Michael gave the kid his card. The kid came up to our table and said, 'I'm Michael Wilbon. Here's my card.' We kicked him out, but he was pretty creative."

Nearly an hour before the Wizards opened practice to the media for all of five minutes the aforementioned mob crammed itself into an arena concourse, an antsy mass of blow-dried television types, scruffy print reporters and a too-cool Japanese camera crew.

In an adjacent hallway, a trio of student security guards took turns peering through a small window, straining to catch a glimpse of Jordan.

"I went to 14 training camps last year," said Mike Monroe, a writer for FoxSports.com. "But not this one. What reason was there?"

Later, when the doors to the court finally opened, the assembled media rushed in like allied troops at Omaha Beach, surrounding Jordan in a human half-circle of tape recorders, boom mikes and cameras that went six deep.

"Wes [Unseld] pulled me out of the way," Nasser said. "He didn't want me to get run over."

The crush was even greater at Washington's media day, where Jordan discussed his comeback with a rapt audience of more than 200 reporters and 25 television crews.

After a half-hour news conference, Jordan disappeared behind a giant, Oz-like curtain framing a makeshift stage on the Wizards' practice court, while the media fanned out to pepper coach Doug Collins and the rest of the team with additional Jordan queries.

"I've been here 30 minutes," center Jahidi White said with a laugh. "And I've had two questions about myself."

Nearby, rookie swingman Bobby Simmons noted that the team was "happy to see Jordan back" and that Jordan was "working hard." A half-dozen writers nodded gravely, while two separate camera crews recorded Simmons' Solomonic utterances for posterity.

"Even in [Los Angeles], our media day wasn't like this," said Wizards guard Tyronn Lue, a former Laker. "This is to the extreme, even more of a circus."

On with the show

Nasser expected as much. When the NBA mistakenly added Jordan to the team roster on the Wizards' Web site well before Jordan made his comeback official the club was bombarded with urgent, panicky inquiries.

"As soon as it went up, I got 10 calls in a row boom, boom, boom and it only stayed up for about an hour," she said. "We're prepared for things to stay crazy all season."

It's a good bet they will. The Wizards already have added 32 extra press seats at MCI Center and expect to get regular use out of the 130-seat hockey media box. The team also plans to feed more than 300 people per game up from about 220 last season even though Wizards staff and television crews will no longer eat in the media dining room.

"It's like Michael Jackson performing," said Rick "Doc" Walker, co-host of WTEM's "John Thompson Show." "It's 'Thriller.' And there's no way to rehearse it."

Back in Wilmington, Wizards director of player personnel Darrell Walker pondered the scene dozens of reporters milling around, swatting at mosquitoes and let out a low chuckle.

The show, he knew, was just getting started.

"We got the whole crew here," he said. "My goodness. [Opening night] is going to be a zoo."

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