- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 30, 2001

He's been hailed as a savior, touted as an answer, lauded as a panacea for a franchise mired in woe. But can Michael Jordan cure what ails the Washington Wizards? And can he make it stick?
Short answer: It depends. Long answer: It really depends.
On one hand, the general NBA consensus holds that Jordan is exactly what the Wizards need as they enter the upcoming season a tongue-wagging, butt-kicking, jumper-sticking dose of industrial-grade basketball penicillin, heck-bent on reversing two decades of chronic on-court ineptitude.
In other words, the same guy that Larry Bird once likened to God in short pants. Albeit a little older.
"Michael has jump-started everything by coming back," said Indiana Pacers president Donnie Walsh. "He's created a great deal of interest in this team. And because he's on the floor, he'll help these young players learn how to not just play in the league, but how to win."
On the other hand, there's no guarantee that Jordan, 38, can completely revive the team on his own. Or that his impact will be anything more than temporary.
In fact, his Airness' D.C. dalliance could end up like the Chris Webber era, beginning with a bang and concluding somewhere in the draft lottery.
"I can't think of any one person in sports history having any more impact on the value of a franchise than Michael Jordan," said Andy Appleby, president of General Sports and Entertainment, a Michigan-based sports marketing firm. "The downside is the day he quits. When he retires again, where does the franchise fall back to?"
With Jordan out of the front office and back in his familiar patent-leather Nikes, are the Wizards finally ready to right themselves? Or, as recent team history suggests, is the road to 19 wins paved with good intentions?
Let's start with the positive:

Michael saves
Actually, let's start with the negative: Even by their oft-inept standards, the Wizards were in sorry shape last season. And by sorry shape, we mean Ike Austin digging into a pint of Chunky Monkey.
In over his head, rookie coach Leonard Hamilton struggled to gain his players' respect. Juwan Howard's cap-strangling contract left the club with zero roster flexibility. And Rod Strickland, melanoma in hightops, continued his long-running feud with management.
Enter Jordan. As Washington's president of basketball operations, Jordan bought out Strickland, unloaded Howard and overhauled the roster with young talent like Kwame Brown, the top pick in this year's draft.
Jordan also made quick amends for his biggest managerial blunder, replacing Hamilton with proven NBA commodity Doug Collins.
"[Jordan] is magic," Wizards assistant coach John Bach said during training camp. "He's an elixir to this team, to this franchise."
Of course, Jordan has made an even greater difference as a player. And not simply because he's the first Wizard to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated since Elvin Hayes (as a Bullet in the '70s).
On the day that Jordan formally announced his return, Oct. 1, hundreds of fans lined up outside MCI Center to purchase single-game tickets. The Wizards also have sold 14,600 season tickets, up from just under 10,000 last season.
A number of the team's games have been added to the national broadcast schedules of NBC and TNT, including tonight's season opener at New York, which will also be shown on British television.
Suffice it to say, the Gar Heard Wizards weren't exactly preempting "Benny Hill" reruns on the BBC.
"We've probably never had anything to this magnitude," said Wizards spokesman Matt Williams. "And the focus of it is all on one person."
On the floor, the Jordan effect figures to be even stronger. For starters, the old man can still play. Though he hasn't quite found his legs, Jordan has been solid in the preseason, averaging 22.3 points on an array of jumpers, a handful of backdoor cuts and the occasional dunk.
In a few games against New Jersey, basically Jordan even has looked like his old self. In the Wizards' preseason home opener, he torched the Nets for 41 points; in a rematch, he scored 27 points, six in the final three minutes of play, to spur a Washington win.
"But Michael has not come back to add to his scoring totals," Collins said. "He's come back to help us win, to help us understand what it is to compete, and to help the younger guys grow up."
Indeed, Jordan's greatest impact may come during practice, where his legendary competitiveness and unmatched work ethic will be on daily display.
"[Young players] may think they are working hard and doing what they're supposed to be doing, but then they see what a guy like Michael does," Walsh said. "That has a big impact. They have a better chance of getting started the right way, getting the right habits and becoming better players quicker."

Quick fix?
Now for the bad: Even with Jordan in their lineup, the Wizards aren't about to scare the Los Angeles Lakers. Even with Halloween just around the corner.
Washington's top young scorer, swingman Richard Hamilton, is just starting to come into his own. Brown is a few years away. Potential contributors like Courtney Alexander and Etan Thomas are intriguing but inexperienced.
"We better start off by walking first instead of running," Jordan said after a preseason loss to Boston. "I'd like to see us make the playoffs. It's going to take a lot of hard work."
Moreover, the club is thin in the front court, missing a first-line point guard and unlikely to remind anyone of the Bad Boy-era Detroit Pistons on defense. In the preseason, the Wizards yielded a Golden State-esque 99.1 points per game.
"For us to be a decent team, we have to at least be able to stop people," Collins said after the Boston loss. "We have shown no ability the entire preseason to stop anybody."
By contrast, the Wizards have been very stoppable, particularly with Jordan on the bench. Against an injury-riddled Philadelphia squad playing without reigning MVP Allen Iverson, the Wizards seized a 76-70 lead after three quarters. But with Jordan sitting out the fourth, Washington fell apart, scoring just 11 points and losing 91-87.
"We need Christian [Laettner], Courtney and Rip [Hamilton] to step up and support Michael scoring-wise," Collins said.
And unlike other lightly regarded teams, Washington won't be able to sneak up on anyone. Not when Jordan's return promises to be the story du jour in each and every city the Wizards play in, night after night.
"We're on TV now, and when he plays, teams are gonna come after us," Collins said in the preseason. "A lot of people are going to try and pay him back for all those spankings he put on them in Chicago."
Of course, that's where the questions arise. What happens if the Wizards endure a series of spankings? Or if the team is out of playoff contention by February?
Throughout the preseason, Jordan has said that his comeback is motivated by a simple love for the game. But will that love still burn at 30 or so wins?
"If he's healthy, I think they make the playoffs," Appleby said. "But if he can't effect change, I think he'll quit after this year."
Jordan's long-term impact is even harder to predict. Though the Wizards seem to have a number of positive elements in place young talent, good coaching, upcoming salary cap room there's no assurance that it will translate into lasting success.
After all, the club has been rebuilding for the better part of a decade.
"It's not like [this franchise] hasn't been trying," Bach said. "They've spent big money. They've moved players [Tom] Gugliotta, Webber, Strickland. And everything failed."
Moreover, Jordan is under no obligation to buy back into the franchise or resume his front office duties once he retires even though Walsh says it will be difficult for him to walk away.
"He's the one creating all of this now," he said. "Not just by playing, but by the players he kept, the vision he had for getting under the cap. He's built the team and where it's going to go. And he'll be invested in all of these young kids he's playing with."
Ultimately, Walsh suggested, the Jordan effect won't be measured by his play. Or by his points. Or by anything the Wizards are able to accomplish with Jordan on the floor (though a title would be nice).
Rather, it will be judged by what the franchise does on its own. Once Jordan is long gone.
Discussing tonight's season opener the official start of the Wizards' promising new era Collins hinted at as much.
"[Michaels] going to put us in a position to win," he said. "But our other guys are going to have to be able to come through for us."


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