- The Washington Times - Friday, February 8, 2002

Without naming names, Michael Jordan indicated that last season's version of the Washington Wizards was more talented than this one, but the main difference between the teams other than his presence is that an acute lack of professionalism has been eradicated.
"You can see the difference, you can feel the energy and you can see the effort on the basketball court," Jordan said. "Sadly enough, it should have been that way last year. People can say that I'm playing, but you had three All-Stars last year. By far, on paper the talent that was here last year was far greater than the talent we have here [now]."
That is a reference to former Wizards Mitch Richmond, Rod Strickland and Juwan Howard, players who for the last few seasons before this one came to be known in Washington and Washington only as "the Big Three." All have been either traded (Howard), or had their contracts bought out (Richmond and Strickland). Heading into the All-Star break last season with those three, the Wizards were 12-37.
They were coached by Leonard Hamilton, an excellent college coach but one who was simply overmatched by the challenges the Wizards presented. Jordan, who will start in the All-Star Game in Philadelphia but hopes to play just limited minutes, said that his presence along with that of coach Doug Collins' has made a difference, but adds that there was no excuse for last year's team not doing better.
"The coaching might have been different, with the inexperience of Leonard," Jordan conceded. "But at the end of the day, the players are going to have to play hard and earn their paychecks. I'm not really speaking negatively about those players, but professionalism is something you have to have even when the surroundings might not be to your liking. You still have to go out there and be professional on the basketball court, and you find more players doing that this year. That's made a big difference on the basketball court. Guys haven't missed planes, or they haven't missed buses. Those are the things I like. Those are the things you have to build on with a young team."
In fairness to Richmond and Howard, they were never reported to have missed buses or planes. Strickland, however, had a litany of offenses. However, Jordan to this day has trouble accepting that the triumvirate wasn't good enough to get their team to the playoffs.
However, with Jordan having un-retired for a second time, the Wizards have checked out of the NBA's outhouse and are easily the league's hottest story at the break.
Jordan's presence has transformed the Wizards in one season from a team that went 19-63 with a dwindling fan base into the toast of the league. On the court, where they haven't won a playoff game in 16 years and have been to the playoffs once since 1987, the Wizards have a very real chance of making the postseason despite playing 17 games without second-leading scorer Richard Hamilton.
And even though his game is not the his old airborne ensemble of unbelievable dunks and jaw-dropping forays to the basket, Jordan is seventh in the league in scoring (25.1)
Jordan has transformed the Wizards into the league's best gate attraction as well. It is the Wizards, not the Los Angles Lakers with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, nor the 76ers with Allen Iverson, who lead the NBA in attendance, both home and away.
When he first announced he was stepping out of the front office and back on the court, Jordan was often asked how he could go from winning six championships to a situation where the team needed to climb to respectability before contending for the playoffs. However, his reduced expectations have not quelled his fierce desire to compete.
"To get this franchise into a winning mentality is almost equivalent to winning a championship because of what we have gone through in terms of talent overturn," Jordan said.
Jordan's level of play has stunned most, and he appears to be getting stronger as the season goes on. He has scored 40 points or more five times, including a season-high 51 against Charlotte. Interestingly enough, all but one of these games came during Hamilton's absence.
Jordan says when Hamilton, who played his fifth game back from injury last night, is healthy, he is willing to once again be a supplemental factor. That he played so well with Hamilton out did not surprise Jordan, who firmly believes he will be better in the second half of the season.
"I knew I would have those types of games," Jordan said. "I didn't expect to have those types of games every night. My level of play and the way I thought I could play, I never doubted it other than when I was going through my injuries. I knew there would be situations where I would get in a rhythm and score a lot of points. But that wasn't the purpose, for me to come back and do that every night. That doesn't help the franchise move in the right direction.
"I came down to give it an injection, and knowing that this team's future is going to go far past me playing," he continued. "The components that we have put in place are that of a young team that I hope will learn and accept the attitude of winning and be willing to do the little things that it takes to maintain that. I envisioned this when I first took the position of president of basketball operations."


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