- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

ATLANTA. — Talk about an identity problem.

The doorman at my hotel asked me if I was going to the game last night. I said yes, and he said, "The Hawks against the Bulls, right?"

Typical Wizards luck. They got the best basketball player in the history of the NBA and can't even get the credit for it.

Atlanta wasn't exactly on fire over the first appearance of Jordan in town in a Wizards uniform. They noticed, all right, and the interest in the Atlanta Hawks' home opener was certainly higher than it might have been without the presence of Jordan. People were scalping tickets outside Philips Arena, and Hawks players inside coveted their own allotment of tickets as well. When Jordan was introduced before the game, the crowd gave him a standing ovation on the heels of giving Christian Laettner a standing boo.

But it wasn't anything like New York was Tuesday night before the season opener at Madison Square Garden. Then again, there wasn't a World Series going on here in Atlanta to add to the excitement. Not that people would have noticed if there were.

That would have been a better measure of Jordan's appeal than the television ratings from Tuesday night, when Game 3 of the Series beat Jordan's comeback by a 3-1 margin. Baseball had network television going for it, while Jordan was reduced to cable. That's not a fair fight.

It would have been interesting to see if the number of people who showed up at Philips Arena to see Jordan would have been equal to the number of no-shows at Turner Field for a World Series game.

Let's face it, this is not a great sports town. And it's really not a great sports town if you are the commissioner of a sports league. It was here where John Rocker shot off his mouth to a Sports Illustrated reporter. It was here where Ray Lewis was arrested and later convicted of obstruction of justice for his role in a fight that resulted in a double homicide. And it was here where the sexual favors NBA stars and other athletes received at the infamous Gold Club were revealed in a federal trial. Bud Selig, Paul Tagliabue and David Stern would all likely vote for the contraction of Atlanta, period. Gary Bettman probably would, too, if they had an NHL team here.

Oh, they do? The Thrashers? I thought it was an advertisement for french fries.

Fortunately for Jordan, this was his only trip here this season. And as things turned out, he wouldn't have to run up and down the court and pass by the man he so thoroughly wronged in one of his first acts as the Wizards' president of basketball operations.

Gar Heard was not on the Hawks bench for last night's game. His mother died over the weekend, and the Atlanta assistant coach just stopped by briefly and spoke with some of the players. He had more important memories and emotions to deal with than the shoddy way he was treated by Jordan, who had Heard fired as the Wizards' coach after the team went 14-30 under his brief tenure in the 1999-2000 season. He never gave Heard a chance, and the coach's biggest crime was his honesty about a bunch of spoiled ballplayers whom the Wizards would never win with.

Jordan didn't fire him in person, though. He had Wes Unseld deliver the bad news, and because of that it should be difficult for Jordan to look Heard in the eye. He didn't have to do so last night.

"I put it behind me when it was over and just moved on," Heard said of his unceremonious dismissal.

But it was a head coaching job for a man who had labored as an assistant in the league for 11 seasons, and though he was far from successful in his 44-game run, he never got a fair chance. The Wizards are on their third coach since Heard was fired Jan. 31, 2000, and the roster has undergone a complete makeover something Heard certainly took notice of.

"They did wind up doing what we had talked about, which was to change the whole team around," Heard said. "They realized that the guys who were there were not going to be the future of the franchise."

Heard likes the direction the Wizards are going in now. "They've got some good young talent," he said. "They've got [Kwame] Brown, and I like Courtney Alexander. They're on the right track. If they give the young kids a chance to develop and don't destroy them, they'll be fine."

That's not easy for this franchise. Destruction has been its modus operandi for a long time, so long in fact that people still think Jordan plays for the Bulls, because they can't picture him playing for the Wizards.

If Jordan can change that direction and if it takes being in uniform to do it then he will have accomplished the NBA version of changing water into wine. Then people will remember that Michael Jordan is a Washington Wizard.


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