- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

There is an oft-quoted, purportedly Chinese curse that goes, “May you live in interesting times.”

These are interesting times for Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan.

Jordan is in Las Vegas to coach the Eastern Conference in Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game. He earned the honor because the Wizards owned the best record in the East at the cutoff point two weeks ago. It’s a testament to the work Jordan, his staff and players have done this season.

But the Wizards have dropped four of their last six games — all since forward Antawn Jamison’s knee injury Jan. 30. A productive scorer and tough rebounder, Jamison is one of the “Big Three” along with All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler. He also is the captain and, according to Jordan, the team’s only true leader.

Jamison’s injury and the current mini-slump interrupted the Wizards’ smooth passage Sunday. Washington played one of its worst games of the season, losing 94-73 to the Portland Trail Blazers, and afterward Arenas questioned Jordan’s methods and blamed them for his own poor performance.

Jordan, as expected, reacted brusquely and angrily. He also offered a few volleys at his team’s lack of leadership given Jamison’s absence. Such noise — coupled with the home loss to Portland, which featured the Wizards’ worst offensive output of the season — led to a players-only meeting Monday. Then followed a heart-to-heart between Jordan and Arenas, and Jamison also had a few well-chosen words for Arenas.

Supposedly all is well now, the Gilbert moment having passed. Jordan called Verizon Center “Happyville.” Arenas called the outburst “a little bump.” The two will get to bond even more in Vegas.

Jordan’s flash of anger posed a marked contrast from his upbeat personality and, until lately, an upbeat season.

So positive and promising was the season that last week, before the fireworks, Jordan refused to downplay (as many coaches would) how well things were going.

“I’m in awe of where we are,” he said after a practice at Verizon Center. “We’re first in the Eastern Conference. That blows my mind, in a good way. For the Washington Wizards to be first in the conference and to coach in the All-Star Game? I’m in awe. That’s incredible.”

Little bumps aside, the Wizards’ success would seem to have much to do with Jordan’s management style and his apparently strong relationship with his players.

Those who know Jordan describe him as patient, measured and willing to listen. His approach is much more Tony Dungy than Tony Soprano. Jordan has, in fact, met the even-keeled Dungy, who guided the Indianapolis Colts to victory in the Super Bowl, and professes admiration for him.

“I really appreciate that style, and I’m glad he won the big game,” Jordan said. “I saw all these coaches who are supposed to be good, yelling and screaming, and I said, ‘That’s now how you treat people — grabbing guys and getting in their face and showing how displeased you are.’ I can see it once in a while. It’s gonna happen, but I don’t think it’s right.”

Jordan, a graduate of Archbishop Carroll High School, learned his laid-back approach from his mother, Marguerite, who opened their Southwest home to the neighborhood children.

“She kept the kids all day,” he said. “I saw how she would manage nine or 10 different personalities. She managed them in a manner that was calm, yet she always said there are nine ways to skin a cat. There are different ways for different people. There are different ways to handle one person sometimes. I learned that from her. To have a calmness about yourself and to know you can’t think clearly when you’re angry or upset. … NBA players want to be treated like professionals.”

When players encounter a lapse in professionalism or when otherwise tested, Jordan is known to act accordingly.

“He gets livid,” forward Jarvis Hayes said. “Very, very, very livid. But when he gets mad, he gets mad for a reason. He’s very seldom mad, but when he is, it’s a pretty good reason why.”

Or as Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld put it: “He doesn’t get too high, he doesn’t get too low, but when he has to make a point he can make it very clearly.”

Hayes called Jordan the “ultimate player’s coach,” a description others have used in various forms.

“He just gets along great with his players,” Hayes said. “He can talk to the players. He’s the boss and he makes the decisions, but we can come and talk to him any time.”

Said Butler: “I would say he’s real. He’s real sincere in everything that he does. He cares about you off the court. He’s trying to make you better in life.”

One way he does that, Butler said, is to dispense motivational quotes, much like Pat Riley when Butler played for the Miami Heat. The first that came to Butler’s mind was, “To whom much is given, much is expected.” He also said Jordan is always telling him to “be a hunter out there.”

But the 52-year-old Jordan also dispenses “tough love,” Butler said. “Just to challenge you. If we don’t do the things we’re supposed to, we’ll be penalized. … He’s definitely tough on that end, but he’s respected. He gives us a lot of freedom to be ourselves and make our choices, but if we get outside the box, he’s got to punish us.”

The psychology of coaching is one part of the equation. Others appreciate Jordan’s technical knowledge and his ability to impart it.

“His outstanding feature is that he knows the game of basketball,” said Pete Carril, the former NBA assistant and legendary Princeton coach who worked with and for Jordan with the Sacramento Kings in the late 1990s.

“He knows what works,” Carril continued. “He doesn’t deceive himself into thinking what’s gonna keep guys busy without accomplishing something. I see a lot of that [in the NBA]. His ideas and philosophies are related to what’s going on in the game. If he tells somebody something, you’d have to be a jerk not to see that it’s gonna happen.”

Jordan has made it happen since he accepted a handshake offer from Wizards owner Abe Pollin after a 10-minute meeting following the 2002-03 season. That came after the failed Michael Jordan experiment during which the Wizards, under coaches Leonard Hamilton and Doug Collins, went 93-153 in three seasons with Michael Jordan as a part-owner and executive and player.

Working closely with Grunfeld, who was hired shortly thereafter, Eddie Jordan has helped transform a perennial loser into an annual playoff contender. After a 25-57 rebuilding year, the Wizards went 45-37, then 42-40 and made the playoffs for the first time in succession since 1987 and 1988.

This season they own a 29-21 record and appear pointed toward the postseason and a third straight winning record for the first time since 1979, the end of the Wes Unseld/Elvin Hayes glory days.

Jordan played point guard in the NBA for seven seasons and was a member of the 1982 champion Los Angeles Lakers. He began coaching at his alma mater, Rutgers, under Tom Young, his former coach and now his assistant. After eight years in the college ranks, Jordan became a Kings assistant and met Carril. Jordan took over as coach at the end of the 1996-97 season, then had the job for a full year before he was fired after going 27-55.

Discouraging?

Not at all.

“We worked hard,” he said. “I knew what we had.”

Jordan immediately started looking for his next job. He returned to New Jersey, sat out the lockout, helped Atlanta coach Lenny Wilkens at training camp and took an assistant’s job with the Nets after they fired John Calipari.

One of the key lessons Jordan learned in Sacramento was “to put your time in but don’t overwork yourself,” he said. “You can’t change the world. I used to watch tape and write every description of each possession. Three or four lines at each end. I did that almost every night, every day, every game. Then I found out if you get just two things out of every game and bring them to practice, you can improve your team.”

But mainly, he learned the Princeton offense. He played against it in college. As a coach, he learned it from its creator, Carril, and never let go. The Princeton offense has become Jordan’s signature.

“He has a system that he believes in,” Portland coach Nate McMillan said before his team whipped the Wizards on Sunday. “He has a number of years experience with it, and he’s stuck with it.”

Jordan brought the Princeton offense to the Nets, where then-coach Byron Scott gave Jordan the freedom to coach the offense. The Nets went to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003.

“It was very rare what happened in Jersey,” Jordan said of the authority he had. “Very rare.”

Carril said the Princeton offense derived from the Boston Celtics dynasty under Red Auerbach and the championship New York Knicks of the early 1970s coached by Red Holzman. It placed a premium on cutting, screening and passing.

“I don’t mind seeing the word ‘Princeton’ used, but this was the style the Celtics used and I liked it,” said the 76-year-old Carril, now retired and living in Princeton, N.J.

Carril obviously did not have much talent, so he devised options like the backdoor cut. He ended up winning more than 500 games and driving opponents crazy in the NCAA tournament.

“We took the two best teams of the era and tried to implement some things. We had a lot of passing, accurate shooting, good ball movement and good player movement,” Carril said

Few big-time college programs run the offense, but it can be found at Georgetown, whose coach, John Thompson III, played for Carril. After 29 years at Princeton, Carril took the system to the pros, where other teams use it.

“One of the big surprises I’ve had being in the NBA, being around NBA guys, is that none of them seem to remember that this was being done,” he said.

Jordan fell in love with the system not only because he believed it works but because it was different.

“I knew it was good for basketball,” he said. “I thought it was what the NBA needed. The league was trying to change defensive rules here and there. I’d always think, ‘Change the offense.’ Don’t always have isolations. Don’t always have pick and rolls. Don’t always have just one guy posting up and everybody standing around. Let the offense move.”

Jordan has tinkered and adapted the offense to suit his personnel, notably the gifted Arenas. But the principles remain constant.

“The offense promotes unselfishness,” Jordan said. “Number one, it tells you to help your teammates first. How do you do that? I cut out of his way sometimes, I go screen for a teammate. I make an extra pass. I make sure I give my teammates time and space to make a cut or do his thing with the basketball.”

Under Jordan, Arenas has emerged as one of the league’s top scorers. Yet at the same time, teammates call it an “equal-opportunity offense” once it is learned.

“It’s complicated,” Wizards guard Antonio Daniels said. “It’s like a football playbook. You’ve got a lot of different plays, a lot of different reads, a lot of different sets. But once you get it down, it’s very difficult to defend.”

In the end, however, it’s usually about the players. In his time with the Wizards, Jordan said he has learned that “good players show you how to coach.” For example, if Butler has a better way to fight off a screen, or if somebody can change one of Jordan’s “specific routes” to improve his position, that’s fine.

“I’ve learned a lot from these guys,” Jordan said.

And vice-versa, it would seem.

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