- The Washington Times - Friday, December 14, 2001

Michael Jordan and the Wizards have refused to accept the early reviews.

They were dismissed from the NBA's mainstream after they lost eight games in a row last month. By then, they were perceived to be a sideshow, a collection of misfits, the miscast and Jordan, who, everyone decided, really was 38 years old.

Jordan inspired an outpouring of condolences and tears at the time, the expressions of piety made in honor of his legacy and inability to dunk the ball from the foul line.

Jordan was not the old Willie Mays, stumbling around in the Mets outfield, unable to wipe the drool from his mouth, but he was not the young, dynamic player who hit the shot that beat Georgetown in 1982. He was not even the player who pushed off on Bryon Russell in the final moments of the NBA Finals in 1998.

Jordan showed Russell and the Jazz some of his best stuff during their reunion last month, delivering a 44-point effort that somehow reflected the sadness of it all. Jordan was still old, and John Stockton and Karl Malone just as old, even if they were the three best players on the floor.

Jordan is another month older now, incredible as that is, plus slowed by a bum right knee, and all too many observers around the NBA are just about cried out, down to the occasional sniffle that goes with their red eyes and noses. It's tough out there.

Jordan and the Wizards have stuck to the business before them, hung in there, actually, and resolved some of their internal dynamics.

Coach Doug Collins has found a nine-player rotation, and Courtney Alexander, an unhappy camper, has been told he has a bad left ankle and a spot on the injured list. The hope is that his head improves along with his ankle. After all, the injured list restored Tyronn Lue's mental health.

Brendan Haywood is another survivor of the injured list, although the ligaments in his left thumb really were torn. All kinds of good feelings have emerged since Haywood was activated off the injured list nine games ago. The Wizards have a 6-3 record with Haywood, a four-game winning streak and the nerve to be thinking of their playoff position.

Collins has blocked off a five-game chunk of games, posing it as a kind of litmus test for the team. He is challenging his team to win four of the five games, with two victories in tow.

Collins has taken to calling Richard Hamilton the best medium-range jump shooter in the NBA, and he gushes at the mention of Haywood, a young Robert Parish, as he puts it.

Collins has decided that Christian Laettner and Jahidi White complement each other best, and the same with Haywood and Popeye Jones.

Collins and Lue now have a comfort level between them. Lue uses his quickness to create shots after coming off the bench in place of Chris Whitney. This function becomes especially important if Jordan and Hamilton are out of the game at the same time, as is sometimes the case, and Hubert Davis is stuck on the 3-point line with a defender in his vicinity.

Jordan and Hamilton are the team's principal scorers, Jordan also a fairly adept setup man who has averaged nearly seven assists a game during the winning streak.

"If Rip and Michael are scoring, we're a pretty good team," Collins said after the Wizards defeated the Heat 82-80 in Tony Cheng's neighborhood Wednesday night.

That, incidentally, was not a bad Heat team, despite the 4-16 record attached to Pat Riley's bunch. That was a fully stocked Heat team, with Alonzo Mourning, Brian Grant, Eddie Jones, Jim Jackson and Rod Strickland in the starting lineup. That was a Heat team coming off a victory over the Bucks the previous night.

Collins finds significance in the Wizards' overtime victory against the Celtics on Nov. 24, given how the Wizards persevered after squandering a 15-point lead in the last 6:38 of regulation. Their victory in Philadelphia following the stinkfest in Cleveland revealed resiliency as well.

This remains a long process, of course, the mood swings of a team often connected to a shot here or there. The 9-12 Wizards are in no position to be overly giddy following their early brush with irrelevance.

Yet in this usually grim sector of the NBA, their encounter with self-discovery is worthy.

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