- The Washington Times - Friday, February 2, 2001

Washington Wizards president of basketball operations Michael Jordan sought yesterday to clear the air regarding his job with the organization after rumors originating in Chicago suggested Jordan might return in some sort of ownership capacity to the team where his legend was spawned.

It even has been printed that Jordan might not honor his five-year contract with the Wizards, although a Jordan quote never has accompanied these stories.

That's because it isn't true.

"When have I ever backed out of a contract?" Jordan said yesterday via telephone. "I have always honored my contracts. Did I ever back out of a contract when I was a player? There were times when I could have begged for money when I was in Chicago, but that's just not me.

"I intend to fully honor my five-year commitment to the Wizards. And if at the end of those five years, they don't want me to be a part of the organization, then that's fine. But that doesn't mean I'll go back to Chicago. [The Bulls] had their opportunity."

The Wizards (12-35) already are more than halfway through their first full season under Jordan, who joined the organization as a minority owner a little more than a year ago. But the All-Star break, which begins Thursday and runs through

Yesterday Jordan looked back over the first half of the season and into the future of the Wizards.

After being critical of the team earlier in the season as it twice went through losing streaks of six and nine games, Jordan told the Chicago Tribune: "Instead of playing to win, these guys play not to lose. They are totally scared, and it's embarrassing to sit and watch the games."

However, with the Wizards having won five of their last six games, Jordan was less critical yesterday.

"I think they have opted to prove to themselves that they can win, and that's all I've wanted them to do," Jordan said. "I've known what they are capable of doing. When I made those statements about them, I was only speaking in terms of what I saw from them. I think the public saw the same things.

"You can see now that they're playing better defensively than they were. They've been able to find a rhythm, and they've finished games off. It's to their credit more than anything else. When they play up to their capabilities, they play well and they win."

Team captain Juwan Howard, who took offense to Jordan's earlier comments, has stepped up his game significantly since. In the Wizards' last 16 games, Howard is averaging 21.3 points and 7.9 rebounds. During the five-game winning streak that ended Wednesday with a 100-96 loss to Orlando, Howard averaged almost 23 points.

On Wednesday, NBA commissioner David Stern added Dikembe Mutombo of the Atlanta Hawks and Latrell Sprewell of the New York Knicks to the Eastern Conference roster in place of injured Grant Hill (ankle surgery) and Alonzo Mourning (kidney ailment). Jordan thinks Howard should have made it.

"He's played like an All-Star," Jordan said. "I think he could have easily been chosen. But if you look at it, there are lot of guys who didn't go. [Bulls forward Elton] Brand didn't get selected. None of the guys from Indiana got picked. So he's not by himself. But I definitely think he deserved consideration for one of the replacement slots."

Jordan has closely monitored the progress of first-year coach Leonard Hamilton and concedes that Hamilton, who coached in college for 28 years, still has a great deal of learning to do in the NBA. But contrary to published reports in other cities, Jordan is happy with what he sees from Hamilton.

"I think he's doing a good job," Jordan said. "You can tell that he's starting to find a rotation, and guys are getting more comfortable in it. But he's got to improve."

With the Feb. 22 trading deadline approaching, Jordan said no player on the roster is untouchable. But he also acknowledged that the best way for the Wizards to get better is probably by clearing cap space. Jordan wants to be able to pursue top quality free agents because he believes the free-agent market is the best way to build a team.

In two years, when Rod Strickland's and Mitch Richmond's $10 million cap numbers are off the Wizards' payroll, Washington will have the opportunity to pursue players such as Toronto's Vince Carter. By then, the cap currently $34 million is projected to be in the neighborhood of $54 million.

"A lot of it is still predicated on draft picks, what's in college and in high school, and knowing who the free agents are," Jordan said. "But you have to have cap room so you can compete [for free agents]. In two years, we have to have some type of versatility in terms of making moves."

One move Jordan won't be making is a return to the court. To begin with, NBA rules state he would have to give up his ownership stake, which he is not about to do. But he admits the fire to play still burns.

"Yeah, sometimes I get that urge," Jordan said. "If I didn't get that urge that would mean that I don't love the game. I love it."

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