Thursday, May 18, 2000

So Wes Unseld has resigned as general manager of the Washington Mystics, and Bobby McFerrin has been named to replace him.

Mystics fans could be heard on Seventh Street NW singing, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

OK, so it was Melissa McFerrin who got the Mystics job. But the song remains the same, which should be a caution to Mike Jarvis, who appears on the verge of being named coach of the Washington Wizards.

This is the elephant burial ground for legacies. Come here and risk losing whatever legacy or reputation you have created for yourself during your basketball career.

It’s what could eventually make Michael Jordan give up.

Unseld will remain as executive vice president of Washington Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of the Wizards and Mystics. But doing what?

It appears that the Wizards now have three people doing what Unseld used to do Jordan and his two newest front-office hires, Darrell Walker and Rod Higgins. Walker, the team’s interim coach after Gar Heard was fired (I wonder if Mike will hire anyone to tell people they are fired, or just let Wes keep doing it), is now director of player personnel, and Higgins is the assistant general manager.

So what will Wes be doing? Ask Wizards fans, and they will tell you they hope as little as possible.

There’s something tragic about that. Wes Unseld is the greatest player in the history of this franchise. He was a remarkable force of nature, Rookie of the Year and the league’s Most Valuable Player when he first began in 1969. Even though he was just 6-foot-7, Unseld went head to head with some of the greatest big men in the game Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed, Nate Thurmond, Dave Cowens, Bob Lanier men who would bury the current crop of NBA centers, save for Shaq.

And it wasn’t just the numbers he put up, though those were impressive enough: eighth all time in rebounding with 13,769 and one of just 24 players in the history of the league to have 10,000 points and 10,000 rebounds. He was a first ballot Hall of Famer and has been selected as one of the 50 greatest players in the history of the NBA.

But it was the way he played with a blue-collar toughness that made him both feared and admired. That is the way a whole generation of NBA fans remembers Wes Unseld.

But that seems so long ago now. A whole generation of Washington basketball fans has grown up with Unseld as the symbol of this franchise’s mediocrity. When these fans think of Wes Unseld, they don’t think of that massive body pulling down rebound after rebound and sending strong outlet passes down the court.

They think of Unseld the coach, and the 202-345 record he had. They think of Unseld’s 133-163 record as general manager. They think of trading Rasheed Wallace for Rod Strickland, or Chris Webber for Mitch Richmond.

This is now the Unseld legacy. The image of the great player has been reduced to a Hall of Fame exhibit, a biography in a media guide.

Mike Jarvis has won everywhere he has been, and built programs at Boston University and George Washington. He might have built a national champion at St. John’s, if the NCAA hadn’t gotten in the way.

He may now be about to embark on a move that, if successful, will either elevate him to Godlike status in this town, or put him side by side in the elephant burial ground with all of the other reputations and legacies that have come here to die.

Will Michael Jordan’s legacy survive this franchise? Already, he has been targeted for failing to show his face enough in Washington, and he took some deserved shots for failing to do the Heard firing himself.

But what happens if next year passes, and the year after that, and the Wizards are still a losing team? What happens to the Jordan legacy of winning if he begins to be identified with a loser? How long could he endure losing?

This is a franchise that is still far away from winning. At best, two years from now, it might be at the point the Orlando Magic were this season, free of salary cap restrictions after finally dumping high-priced players.

That means a playoff appearance could still be three years away.

Jordan could be like Jerry West, who has matched his success on the court with his record as the Los Angeles Lakers’ general manager. But don’t bet on him being Wes Unseld. He would be gone long before that would happen.

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