Michael Jordan received a royal welcome and an implied mission to save the gasbag capital after landing here two years ago.
He was bestowed a number of unofficial powers at the time, notably the power to lift the city’s blighted neighborhoods out of their dysfunctional mess.
Mr. Jordan, as apolitical as he possibly can be, never asked for these duties. He came to town wearing a suit, not a halo or hard hat, and it was his purpose at the time to have relevance in the National Basketball Association after his retirement from the Chicago Bulls in 1998. The local NBA team, a basket case, represented a formidable challenge.
Mr. Jordan, of course, is back playing now, doing what he always has done best, and his role on the court has restored hope to a previously hopeless franchise. The playpen on Fun Street, as the artery by the MCI Center is named by official decree, is the place to be on game night.
Tim Russert, who qualifies as a mini-celebrity in Washington, is a devotee of the team. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has shown up. Al Gore, beard and all, dropped by one night. D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams is a regular in the stands, usually sitting three or four rows up from the action on the floor.
The old neighborhood, headlined by Tony Cheng’s Seafood Restaurant and the Chinatown arch on the same street, is undergoing a Greta Van Susteren-like face lift as the decrepit gives way to the glossy. That’s what 20,000 transients with deep pockets can do for an area, and Mr. Jordan’s trickle-down part in that is genuine. The Wizards have sold out all their home games this season, and as long as they stay in the playoff chase, the team’s front office expects all 41 home games to be sellouts.
Beyond Mr. Jordan’s transcendent appeal the man, the myth and the Madison Avenue maestro reports of his social-changing gifts have been greatly exaggerated, to borrow a favorite line.
He is, after all, just a man, as limited and flawed as the next, as susceptible to life’s pitfalls as anyone else, if not more so.
This hard truth has eluded a number of thinkers in town, so motivated are they to keep hope alive. At the time of his arrival, one suggested that Mr. Jordan take up residence in a less-hospitable part of the city. What function this might have served, other than denying Mr. Jordan the benefits of his sweaty labor, is anyone’s guess.
The call to “give back to the community,” however fashionable, is easy, especially if you are imposing the call on someone else.
Hard as it to believe, Mr. Jordan is not a miracle worker, just a person who went to school, played basketball, then went to the NBA and became the best there ever was. He tried minor-league baseball along the way and wasn’t too good at it. He eventually became an executive with the Wizards, with mixed results until he decided to wear short pants again.
Mr. Jordan, in other words, has demonstrated one impressive skill: the ability to put an orange ball through a cylinder. Otherwise, it seems he lives with the same uncertainties as everyone else.
Yet America remains ever eager to ascribe all-encompassing faculties to its icons, be they athletes or members of the Hollywood crowd.
You played a farmer’s wife in a movie? Please, come to Capitol Hill to dispense your insights on the plight of the small farmer. You’re a pretty boy who feels the environment’s pain? Please, tell us all you know about the greenhouse effect. By the way, we loved your last flick with all the car explosions.
Predictably, Mr. Jordan’s impact on the city, apart from the team and the neighborhood around it, has been negligible. And there is not a thing wrong with that.
Keeping hope alive is a fairly simple process in America. Go to school. Learn something. Get a job. Show up each day. Stick with it for 40 years. You will do all right. You even may do better than all right.
You should not expect a professional athlete or entertainer to show you the way. They have their own lives, often as problematic as yours.