- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Michael Jordan was one of the last Washington Wizards off the practice floor yesterday after taking extra jumpers and free throws in culminating his preseason preparations for his 15th season.

Jordan will turn 40 in February. His plan has been and still is to play 30 minutes a game early in this season. He spent more than half of the preseason games in a suit, looking more like coach than player in doling out encouragement and advice instead of crisp passes. When he first steps on the playing floor tonight in Toronto for the season opener, it will be as a reserve, and, at least for the near future, he and coach Doug Collins plan to keep him in that role.

Jordan yesterday used words like "contributing," "support" and "help" when referring to his role with the Wizards. Those are ready admissions that he has changed his outlook from last season, when, at times, he tried to single-handedly carry the team to victory much as he had in years past with Chicago.

No, this team's potential will likely rest on the performances of players other than Jordan. And because of upgrades on a number of fronts, that potential appears lofty, at heights not seen around Washington. In a year and a half, the Wizards have morphed from a disastrous 19-63 team into a youthful bunch bolstered with veterans at the right places. The team anticipates expects, even to make the franchise's first postseason appearance in six seasons and win its first playoff series in 21.

"We're getting to play together, we're still finding that right switch," small forward Bryon Russell said. Then he made a buzzing sound. "We'll be shocking everybody. We're going to shock ourselves."

In one summer, the Wizards acquired scoring punch (Jerry Stackhouse and Larry Hughes) a pair of veterans who bring years of winning experience (Russell and Charles Oakley) and young talent (first-round picks Jared Jeffries and Juan Dixon). Those additions made Jordan comfortable although he wanted to cut down his minutes anyway to where he could come off the bench. Last season he felt pressed to play as many minutes as he could.

"The changes we've made are so that Michael does not have to carry the burden of being our leading assist guy, guarding the team's best player, being our leading scorer," Collins said.

Collins has seen evidence of that already: Twenty-year-old power forward Kwame Brown has taken giant strides after a rocky rookie season; Hughes has located a sweet shooting stroke that he lacked in previous years; and if Stackhouse's preseason outings are any indication, he remains every bit the dynamic scorer he had been throughout his career.

The Wizards' biggest upgrade in the offseason, the 27-year-old Stackhouse, a one-time scoring champion and two-time All-Star, is the player most capable of taking the reins from Jordan. When he arrived from Detroit in the six-player Sept. 11 trade, Stackhouse first said the teaming of he and Jordan was akin to Batman and Robin. When pressed, Stackhouse hedged that Jordan would still be Batman, but it is understood Stackhouse is the one in the prime of his career.

"Michael Jordan, with everything he's accomplished, he's Batman," Stackhouse said. "I don't concede to too many people. To nobody, really. But in this case, I will."

Jordan has already said he's eager to play with Stackhouse in a one-two combination, allowing Stackhouse to soften up the opponent and force them into the penalty before he comes in and earns easy points from the foul line.

"He can compliment me more than he thinks," Jordan said. "I'm going to take some of the weight off of him because of my whole reputation and my scoring opportunity. But he's going to take the weight off me later down the road. Once I expose him as a threat, it makes me so much better. When we play together, he and I are going to have to be working hand-in-hand and attacking when to attack, when not to attack, getting other guys open, using everybody on the floor."

Though Stackhouse is entering his eighth season in the league and has learned his share of the ins and outs on his own, he has already gleaned a wealth of advice from Jordan in the eight weeks he's been a Wizard. In training camp, Jordan encouraged him to dribble to his left more when going to the basket. They have exchanged tips on coming off screens and utilizing pump fakes to help get shots off. Along with his six NBA titles and five MVPs, Jordan has stockpiled a bag of tricks, subtle nuances of the game that he passes on to Stackhouse and other Wizards.

When Stackhouse speaks about Jordan and the things the two of them can accomplish on the court, his piercing glare softens and he can't hold back a smile. He doesn't boast or make any guarantees about what the Wizards will do this season; instead he chooses only to hint at what he thinks could happen, withholding his true thoughts.

"I dream big, man, I really do. You can take that however you want to take that, but I dream big. I know what we can do, man," Stackhouse said. "I think we just have a lot of ice cream and [Jordan] provides the whipped cream and the cherry, so to speak."

While Jordan will not start and is likely play close to 30 minutes a game early in the season, he's still going to play the important minutes, the minutes in the lategoing that will make or break the team's run to the playoffs and beyond. Yesterday, Collins called Jordan "a closer."

"I'm not going to play insignificant minutes," Jordan said. "I'd rather play minutes that are meaningful and that's going to help this team in situations that they need help." It's not so much that the Wizards definitely need help at the end of games, but that has proven to be a specialty of Jordan's over his career.

Jordan has not had any setbacks this preseason with his right knee, which he had surgery on midway through last season. If he remains pain- and injury-free through the early part of the season and through the All-Star break, expect his minutes to gradually increase.

"I'm trying to stay ahead of all the criticism. That's the driving force for me," Jordan said. "It's not that I can't do it, it's a matter of doing it at this age and being productive, being where you can contribute to a young team that's trying to gain its identity."

There's that word: contribute. Of course, Jordan's going to do a little more than that this season, but it is clear Jordan knows his role has changed and he won't be shouldering the load for the Wizards every night. In fact, there's a chance more often than not he won't.

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