- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2000

Shortly after 9 a.m. Tracy Murray, usually one of the earliest to arrive to the Washington Wizards' MCI practice facility, made his way through the team's seemingly empty locker room. It was nearly two hours before the Wizards' practice, and Murray was taking it slow.

Slow, that is, until he heard that familiar, baritone voice from one of the corners of the locker room.

" 'Whatcha doing here late?' " Murray recalled Michael Jordan, already sweating and in practice gear, as saying.

"I said, 'Late? This is early,' " Murray said. "He had already been here working out."

Almost like he was still a player, Jordan greeted each of the Wizards those who were on time like Murray and those who were not yesterday and proceeded to practice with them for most of the two-hour session. It marked the first time the new Wizards president of basketball operations practiced with the team as promised.

Drenched in sweat well before the practice was over, Jordan participated in 5-on-5 drills, offensive and defensive drills and, of course, trash-talking, which he does on a level to which few can aspire.

The 13-29 Wizards know Jordan will not be able to help them on the court. But his first practice with the team lifted their spirits and made for an inspired workout.

"He brought a lot of energy," Wizards captain Juwan Howard said. "He's one of the biggest trash-talkers, so that makes it even more intense. We all feed off his energy. It was fun. But the key thing is that we were able to get a lot done. But we weren't so enthused that we lost sight of what we have to do, which is play New York tomorrow. He emphasized that as well as the coaches. But he pushed us today. With our record we need to be pushed."

As a joke, Howard said Jordan did not practice the full two hours. However, while on the court, he was all intensity. At one point during the practice, the Wizards public relations people let media, who are allowed to watch at least 30 minutes of every practice by NBA rules, in before Jordan was ready.

With majority owner Abe Pollin and general manager Wes Unseld in the facility, Jordan barked, "Press out," clearing the facility in seconds for the next 15 minutes.

However, unlike his first appearance at practice last week, when he made himself unavailable to media, Jordan addressed a variety of issues that have materialized since he took over the job Wednesday.

Jordan said he thinks too much is being made of the team being $19 million above the $34 million salary cap, and he added that the Wizards' nucleus Howard, Rod Strickland and injured Mitch Richmond should and can play better than it has. He also gave a ringing endorsement of Unseld, belying the speculation Unseld would play a much-diminished role under Jordan.

"Wes has been a great help to me," Jordan said. "We have great dialogue about situations and opportunities and evaluations about this team. That's what I anticipated when I decided that I needed him next to me to help me in that scenario."

Jordan made it clear he will continue to practice with the team "as long as I am able to," and he added that playing with the team gives him an advantage over other GMs, most of whom are simply too old to do so. Jordan retired one year ago and won't turn 37 until next month.

"I'm evaluating while I'm out there. That's my job," said Jordan, who has final say on all personnel matters. "If my presence is going to give some incentive and provide motivation, then that's good, too. I said I was going to evaluate everyone at my press conference, and the best evaluation for me is once I'm on the basketball court to see how the guys respond to coaching, situations on the basketball court."

Jordan raised some questions about his effectiveness as an executive last week when he said he would continue to live in Chicago instead of moving to the area. However, Jordan almost certainly will add a local residence. Until that happens, it is clear he is using those who doubt his capacity to succeed in this new forum as motivation.

"People have their own opinions about things. I never dispute people's opinions because that's what they have, their own opinions," Jordan said. "But I will utilize my time with the team as effectively as I can. I'm going to do whatever I can to make sure that this team is in the right frame of mine and try to build the right structure so they can succeed even when I'm not around."

Jordan admitted he was disappointed when the Wizards went from beating the Pacers, the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference, on Friday to losing to lowly Atlanta the next day. Jordan said the swing was proof the Wizards lack focus.

"The obvious thing about this team is that they get up for the challenges," Jordan said. "The way they separate themselves from the average teams is to take advantage of teams that they're supposed to be taking advantage of. You don't make a big win against an Indiana and then come back with a lackluster game against Atlanta. It negates the win against Indiana. Those are the things that they will have to learn."

Jordan said he showed up early to show how he wants the Wizards to approach practice. Point guard Rod Strickland, usually a late arrival, showed up just 15 minutes before practice.

"I told him I might have to come by and pick him up for practice," a smiling Jordan said. "But not in a bad way. It's way of saying you're a very important part of this team and you can be a leader on this team. If you get here 9:30, 10 o'clock to begin your workout, believe me, the Jahidi Whites, Laron Profits and Richard Hamiltons are going to be here. And that's how you improve as a team.

Wizards Notes

The Wizards will have the sprained right elbow of starting power forward Michael Smith re-evaluated today. Whether he starts against the Knicks tonight will be a game-time decision. Smith injured the elbow Friday against Indiana, and it limited him to eight minutes the next night in Atlanta. If Smith can't go, the Wizards likely will start Aaron Williams at power forward.

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