- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 28, 2003

It would seem difficult, if not impossible, to foul up the third coming of Michael Jordan. But the Washington Wizards managed to pull it off. Jordan is gone, cut loose from the organization by owner Abe Pollin during a brief but extremely testy meeting a few weeks ago. Of current significance, there also is no general manager, maybe no coach, no star quality on the court and the prospect of virtually no fans at MCI Center next season.

The good news for the Wizards is that some of this can be changed, except the part about Jordan, who retired as a player for a third time after a two-year comeback and had planned to return to his old job of president of basketball operations. Not so fast, said Pollin, who stunned Jordan and his cornermen by conducting a one-way exit interview, leading to a reported volley of profanities and the spawning of considerable ill will.

“It didn’t end up good for anyone,” said former assistant John Bach, who retired from coaching after the season. “Nobody ended up a winner.”

In a brief news conference last week after the Wizards got the 10th pick in the draft, Pollin said he has “never said anything negative about Michael Jordan.” He didn’t say if he said anything negative to Michael Jordan. The fallout from that likely will provide yet another obstacle for a franchise with a tradition bookmarked by obstacles.

But Pollin and president Susan O’Malley can start turning things around by finding the right person to run the basketball side of the team, “that long-term leader who can build an atmosphere that people want to be part of,” as ABC and ESPN commentator Bill Walton put it. Hiring the right coach if Doug Collins is fired, wisely using their draft picks and making other smart personnel decisions to raise the mediocre level of talent wouldn’t hurt the Wizards either.

Given the history of this franchise, recent and distant, the chances of any or all of this happening do not look good.

Not the best role models

Because of bad luck and bad decisions, the Wizards (the Bullets before the big name change in 1997) have been a model of futility for an entire generation. They have been compared to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Cleveland Cavaliers and other league non-entities.

In some ways the Wizards are the Arizona Cardinals of the NBA.

It goes beyond the franchises (each rooted in Chicago) being consistent losers, although it’s a good place to start. The Cardinals have had one winning season and one playoff appearance since moving from St. Louis to the desert in 1988. In the same period, the Bullets/Wizards have had two winning seasons and made the playoffs twice [-] once as a 38-44 team. Counting interim replacements, the Cardinals during this time have had six coaches, the Bullets/Wizards nine and possibly 10, depending on what happens with Collins.

Through all the coaching changes, plus front office turnover and perpetual roster shuffling, the constants have been the two owners.

Like Pollin, Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill is low-key to the point of near invisibility. He is not among the wealthiest of his peers and is extremely loyal to a select circle mostly composed of family members or friends close enough to be considered family. Many play active roles with the teams. Each occasionally has spent money on high-priced players (with mostly negative results) but generally practices fiscal conservatism. The Cardinals’ signing of Emmitt Smith, the NFL career rushing leader now past his prime, might be compared to the Wizards bringing in Jordan. Even though Jordan joined the club as a part-owner and executive, many believed he would suit up again.

Nothing seems to work out for either team, even when it tries to make a big splash. Buddy Ryan, hired as coach amid much hype and hope, was a two-year disaster for the Cardinals. Kwame Brown, drafted No.[ThSp]1 out of high school by the Wizards in 2001, has been a disappointment, even for a kid. Michael? The enduring image for many Wizards fans will be the sight of a seething Jordan in the driver’s seat of his Mercedes, the one with the Illinois tags, leaving MCI Center after getting dumped by Pollin.

“The Bullets, and then the Wizards, did not have what I call outstanding luck,” former general manager John Nash said.

The Cardinals, meanwhile, are so cursed the NFL might take away their 1925 league title, which they “won” after another team was disqualified. That was a few years before Bidwill’s father, Charles, bought the Cardinals. The franchise has been labeled a “mom and pop” organization ever since that purchase. (At one time, Charles Bidwill’s widow, Violet, ran the team). But now it’s pop and his two sons, Michael and Bill Jr.

With Pollin (who has owned the franchise since 1964, when it was located in Baltimore) in charge with O’Malley, the Wizards are a father and “adopted” daughter outfit. In both cases, those who lack essential knowledge of their particular sport are making key decisions and setting the tone.

Despite his hermit-like persona, Bill Bidwill has a strong voice in football-related matters, as do his sons. For example, a person familiar with the Cardinals said the weight training facilities differ from the type used by most NFL teams, but the equipment is preferred by Bill Jr., who enjoys using it himself. Bill Sr. gave full control to Buddy Ryan, and came to regret it. He is again fully involved.

Who’s really in charge?

When Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis enticed Jordan to come here in January 2000, Pollin gave Jordan almost complete authority. After Jordan returned to the court and relinquished his title and part ownership, he still kept his hand in personnel matters. But so did Pollin. Jordan told people the deal that sent Richard Hamilton to Detroit for Jerry Stackhouse was partly based on salary cap reasons.

Wes Unseld, who kept the general manager’s title, also was in the mix, but his role diminished greatly after Jordan’s arrival. Since 1968, Unseld has been part of the organization as a player, coach and GM. He is arguably the greatest player in franchise history, a member of the only Bullets/Wizards team to win a championship (1978). Called a “second son” by Pollin, Unseld will take an indefinite leave of absence after the June draft because of health problems. If he returns, it will not be as GM.

With Unseld and Jordan gone, along eventually with the people Jordan brought into the organization, Pollin and O’Malley are left standing. As usual. Pollin is a businessman who made his fortune in real estate, a tough, shrewd wheeler-dealer who built both Capital Centre in Landover and MCI Center downtown. He is a generous philanthropist.

As president of Washington Sports & Entertainment, O’Malley oversees the day-to-day operation of the Wizards, Mystics, MCI Center and other business entities. She is the daughter of attorney Peter O’Malley, Pollin’s longtime friend and business associate.

A former intern, O’Malley (who refused repeated interview requests) joined the organization as director of advertising in 1986. She climbed to the top by virtue of her marketing skills and creativity, a tireless work ethic, dominant personality and, not least of all, her loyalty to Pollin, who demonstrates the same in return.

“They don’t hide that,” said a person with knowledge of the organization. “They make no bones about that. Susan is the daughter Abe never had. What amazes me is that people [-] and I don’t know if they’re stupid or they just don’t believe it [-] don’t appreciate how close they are, and how Mr. Pollin trusts Susan. She always has his best interests at heart, and there’s nothing more important.”

“If you’re not with Susan, you’re professionally dead. As petite and feminine as she can be, she has learned how to play the game. She’s tough, she’s confident, she’s savvy, she’s political and she’s Abe’s girl.”

As Jordan learned, the hard way. O’Malley’s role with the team extends beyond season-ticket plans and advertising (a columnist once described her as “arguably the most powerful female executive in professional sports”), and Jordan reportedly came to resent her influence. The two developed a healthy dislike for each other, which not only damaged Jordan’s standing with Pollin but probably killed it.

Pollin now is searching for a new head of basketball operations. Owners usually get involved in such matters, in one way or another. With limited knowledge and expertise, they can count on the informed opinion of an experienced, basketball-savvy person. This does not appear to be happening here. “I am going to make the choice, absolutely,” Pollin said. Still, it is hard to imagine O’Malley’s voice absent from the discussion.

Whomever Pollin hires faces a major challenge. Neither Jordan nor Unseld distinguished himself in composing the team as it currently stands. The best player acquired during Jordan’s reign was Jordan himself. As for Unseld, who was coach for nearly seven seasons and became general manager in 1996, many observers speculated the only reason he kept his GM job was his relationship with Pollin.

“Wes has never let me down in anything he’s ever done,” Pollin is quoted as saying in last season’s team media guide.

A checkered past

In the seven years that Unseld was the general manager of record, the Wizards compiled a .417 winning percentage. This despite a 44-38 mark in 1997, the best since 1979. But that team, which made the playoffs after Bernie Bickerstaff replaced Jim Lynam as coach in February (a move that worked), was built by Unseld’s predecessor, Nash. Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland, Gheorghe Muresan, Calbert Cheaney and the others who provided brief hope all were acquired in some fashion by Nash. With the team on the verge of success, after six losing seasons, Nash was fired in April 1996.

Former player Tim Legler is among those who believe Nash was let go because he and O’Malley failed to get along.

“That’s the perception I had,” said Legler, now an ESPN commentator. “I do know that Nash built that team. We had a nice, up-and-coming team, and at the end of the season, John left.”

Nash, who later became GM of the New Jersey Nets, now does TV work and is helping the Philadelphia Phillies make the transition from Veterans Stadium to their new ballpark scheduled to open next season. He denies any rift with O’Malley. Sort of.

“I can’t say that’s why I lost my job,” he said. “We didn’t win enough games.”

Nash admits making mistakes, such as not adding more veterans. He said he was never able to land a franchise player in the draft, although he did trade for one. On Nov. 17, 1994, Nash traded Tom Gugliotta and three No. 1 draft picks to Golden State for Chris Webber, who was reunited with Howard, his former Michigan “Fab Five” teammate. This was big stuff.

“I thought we made a bold move, basketball- and business-wise,” Nash said. “And Abe Pollin stepped up to the plate and made a huge commitment because we knew that’s what we would need in order to retain [Webber’s] services.”

But in typical franchise fashion, an injured Webber played in just 54 games that season and 15 the next. Nash was fired. Then in 1998, Webber, who was involved in some off-the-court incidents, was traded to Sacramento for the aging Otis Thorpe and Mitch Richmond in a deal reportedly demanded by Pollin.

In a 1994 interview, Nash was quoted as saying, “Some of the mistakes I made were not aggressively pursuing opportunities that might have helped us. Which players? What mistakes? I can’t say without implicating other people and making them look bad.”

Asked about that comment last week, Nash, who would like to be a GM again, said, “In order to make any moves, you really need everyone on the same page. There were things I might have wanted to do that the rest of the organization wasn’t ready to do.”

Then, as if to correct himself, he added, “But you need checks and balances within the organization. I have no regrets.”

Other than getting hurt a lot, Legler [-] one of the select few fortunate enough to play for two winning Washington teams (in 1997 and in 1998, when the Wizards went 42-40) [-] also has no regrets about his four years with the Wizards. Well, just one. After the 1999 season, Legler and his family went on a team-sponsored cruise during which fans mingled with the players. Toward the end, with the ship anchored in Bermuda, Legler turned on the TV in his cabin and learned that he, Ben Wallace, Terry Davis and Jeff McInnis had been traded to Orlando for Ike Austin.

Legler was so angry at being informed that way, and so uncomfortable on the ship now that he no longer was part of the team, he gathered his wife and two small children and immediately returned to Washington. Before that, he called Unseld and asked why no one on the team had told him first.

“He said he didn’t know how to locate me,” Legler said. “I said, ‘I’m on the team cruise ship, and your secretary is on the ship.’ That didn’t fly too well with me. So I had a little experience with the way they handled things from a communications standpoint.”

What’s ahead?

It is this image of the Wizards that persists, and the manner in which Jordan was let go only enhanced it. People around the league remain shocked over the way events transpired.

“I think it’s gonna come back and haunt them,” Walton said. “The perception is, ‘Look, if they’re gonna do this to Michael Jordan, why can I expect to be treated any better?’”

Pollin and O’Malley can alter that perception, provided they find someone talented [-] and willing [-] enough to work within the framework of the organization, and all it entails.

Can they get someone like Joe Dumars, the former Detroit Pistons star who moved from the court to the front office and built an overachieving team that reached the Eastern Conference finals? Dumars was named NBA executive of the year this season.

Can they get someone like Rod Thorn, whose moves helped put the New Jersey Nets into the finals two years running? And if they can, will they entrust to him the complete responsibilities the job demands?

Just two years ago, the Pistons and Nets were worse than the Wizards are now, at least according to the records. But the renovations had started, with creative coaching hires and astute player decisions. In theory, the same thing can happen here.

But that would seem to require a whole new way of doing business and a reassessment of priorities, job descriptions and the importance of loyalty as it relates to success.

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