- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 2, 2002

Once again the story of the summer for the Washington Wizards, like it or not, will revolve around signals from Michael Jordan.

Thumbs up means Jordan's summer of surgery, rehabilitation and workouts went well, and he'll rejoin the team next season for a final hurrah. Thumbs down means he's had enough and is content to go back to the sedentary life of a basketball executive.

This soap opera is going to play out all summer, much to the chagrin of fans and the front office, which no doubt would love to have Jordan's name as a mechanism for pushing ticket sales again. Regardless of his decision, Jordan's role with the Wizards (34-39) as the de facto general manager ultimately will have more influence than his role as a player.

Jordan is almost certain to resume his responsibilities as president of basketball operations when he's finished playing. And when he does, he'll have the unique advantage of being able to make personnel calls on players he has played and made a playoff push with.

"This is the best," Wizards coach Doug Collins said. "We'll know the minute the ball stops bouncing what we need to do to get where we need to go. There's nothing like being in the locker room with a group of people and finding out really, under pressure when the stakes are high, how people handle things. This is Michael getting a first-hand look.

"You can sit up in that suite but once you're in the locker room, once you're in practice and once you see their response on a daily basis you can't replace that. And Michael is smart. He's taking all of this in."

Jordan was unavailable for comment. However, one team source suggested Jordan likely would come back next season as a player.

"Why do you think he's talking about having his knee cut?" the source said of Jordan, who plans to have his left knee wracked with tendinitis but pain-free recently scoped this summer. "I don't think he would even consider having that procedure if he didn't intend on playing next season."

For now, Jordan and the rest of the Wizards are focused on keeping their fading playoff hopes alive. Those hopes took a beating Sunday when Dallas' Steve Nash sliced through the Wizards in the fourth quarter of Washington's 110-103 loss at MCI Center. That loss left the Wizards 2½ games out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot.

And it doesn't get any easier tonight when the Wizards play host to the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers (52-21) at MCI. For the Lakers, the game marks the beginning of a crucial four-game East Coast trip in which they hope to close Sacramento's 1½ game lead over them for the top spot in the Western Conference.

"That's the hard part about this," Collins said. "Here we are trying to fight to get in, then you get the Lakers coming in and they're fighting because they want to improve their playoff standing. They're not satisfied with what they have, and they want that top spot."

The Wizards just want to survive. After tonight's game with Shaq, Kobe and Co., the Wizards head to Milwaukee the next day for a game with the Bucks. Then it's off to Charlotte for a game Friday against a club that is trying to move up possibly as high as the fifth seed in the playoffs.

"There is no Band-Aid when you're finishing the season the way we are," Collins said. "Every team we're playing, other than Memphis and New York, they're all playoff teams. They're all fighting for something. They're all playing for something."

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