WILMINGTON, N.C. Dean Smith made his first recruiting trip to Wilmington’s Laney High School in 1980. Smith, the winningest coach (879) in NCAA history, was still trying to figure out how badly he wanted to recruit the skinny, 6-foot-3 junior who was starting to make a name for himself.
“I had heard all kinds of good things about Michael,” said Smith, who attended Wizards practices Saturday at Trask Coliseum on the campus of University of North Carolina-Wilmington. “But I wanted to get a good feel for him myself. After meeting him I was convinced.”
What Smith remembers most about the teen-age Michael Jordan then was his desire, his will to be the best player he could be. And when Smith talks to Jordan about his goals for the Wizards they keep each other’s cell phone number handy Smith says he is certain that it won’t be long before he has the Wizards headed in the right direction.
“The thing about Michael, perhaps more than anyone I’ve ever met, is that he always wants to get better,” said Smith, who won two NCAA titles in his 25 seasons as the coach at the University of North Carolina. “His competitive nature is not going to allow the Wizards to stay bad. I can guarantee that. I know this is a big challenge for him, but that’s just what he wants. There are a lot of people who don’t think he get the Wizards heading in the right direction. I guarantee you they are wrong.
“There are certain things about Michael that you can’t measure, and the one thing that stands out the most is his heart,” continued Smith. “When you combine that with his work ethic and his intelligence, you’ve got a successful formula.”
There are clear indications now that Jordan, who was not very visible in the Washington area after he purchased a minority stake in the franchise last January and assumed the position of president of basketball operations, will be more so in the coming months. Jordan has been in attendance at all but two of the twice-daily practices, many of which have exceeded the two hours they were scheduled for.
Earlier in the week, Jordan addressed a question regarding the level of his commitment to the organization.
“There is a lot of speculation that I can’t do it,” Jordan said. “To me that’s part of the beauty of competing. That’s why I feel my input is very important because the outcome is always going to be a reflection of whether I can produce, in a sense.
“I’m sure there are still a lot of people who still have doubts that I can pull this off, and I haven’t done anything to change your doubts. But hopefully I will.”
Smith remembers how Jordan was very vocal with his North Carolina teammates during the three seasons (1981-84) he played for the Tar Heels. He knows this is his true nature. However, since training camp has started Jordan has made it a point to remain in the background as new coach Leonard Hamilton tries to mold the Wizards on the court.
“It’s tough because I feel I have some information to add,” Jordan said. “But I do know that Leonard has to be Leonard. Leonard has to do his coaching. If I have an opinion about something, quite frankly, I’m going to run it past Leonard and we’ll talk about it. I want to use a lot of the knowledge that I have of the game as much as I can because I want this situation to be very successful.”
Smith believes that staying in the shadows will be Jordan’s biggest challenge, especially if things don’t begin to turn around quickly for them. Last season, the Wizards finished 29-53 and last in the Eastern Conference.
“We kid him that he wants it done immediately and it just can’t happen that way,” Smith said. “Certainly the team can get better. Leonard can do a great job and he knows that Michael is behind him. That’s what a coach needs.
“With Michael, he was so used to being able to do things while he was playing. He didn’t mind getting on a teammate because he knew he was trying. And that’s something I would advise the players against. They don’t want to get him to the point where he has to step in because he can be very tough on a guy. That part of it is going to be interesting.
Notes Point guard Chris Whitney twisted his right ankle during the morning session yesterday. The severity of the injury is not known but Whitney is likely to miss a few days of training camp… . Gerard King did not practice because of a strained flexor in his right ring finger.