- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 31, 2003

The Wizards are now in the game after firing Doug Collins yesterday.

They are now free to pursue Larry Brown or Paul Silas or Jeff Van Gundy. They are now free to move beyond the Michael Jordan fallout.

They are now sending a message to their long-suffering fans, and the message is this: They are no longer in the fetal position. They are ready to deal. They are ready to retool their operation and run it like a first-class outfit.

That is where they went wrong with Jordan. They were mesmerized by the name, the aura. We all were. They found that Jordan was perfectly content to run the team by cell phone, either from a golf course or from a jet at 35,000 feet. They found that Jordan was unwilling to dirty his fingernails with the grunt work that consumes so much of an executive’s life.

Jordan wanted the power. He just did not want all the responsibilities. He showed no interest in hanging out in dinky gymnasiums or working with those who did not kneel at his altar. You either were one of his people or you were someone to be purged.

This was not an atmosphere conducive to winning. There was a divide in the front office, and there was a divide in the locker room, and now it is starting to be repaired.

Collins was waiting to be fired, even begging to be fired, after ruminating late in the season that he essentially had lost control of the team.

The self-incriminating admission sealed his fate. Collins put up with disrespect from the players and then vowed not to let it happen next season.

The vow was empty, because it begged an obvious query: Why did he put up with the player insurrection in the first place?

Collins was no novice on the sideline. Washington was his third go-around as a head coach in the NBA. He should have learned something by now, and he made that very claim after being tabbed by Jordan to lead the Wizards to the playoffs.

But Collins was not wiser. He was merely Jordan’s lackey. He was there to polish Jordan’s image, and he burst with superlatives in Jordan’s honor on a nightly basis. He did this with great gusto.

This did not always inspire Jordan’s teammates, mostly because it became redundant and hard to stomach. There are only so many ways to put a human being on a pedestal, and Collins exhausted all the ways.

Collins undoubtedly was in a thankless position. Fairly or not, he was perceived to be the coach who took his orders from Jordan. He was there to make certain everyone passed the ball to Jordan as often as necessary, and that was about the extent of it.

Collins could talk a good game. The television analyst in him was an appealing quality. He could break down a game and tell you in detail what went wrong. But he showed no real feel for the game.

His substitution patterns were hard to follow at times. A player could emerge in the rotation one game and then disappear for three games. So much of it seemed to start with who was in Jordan’s good graces.

Understandably, owner Abe Pollin had no choice but to send Collins back to television. The only mystery is why it took 23 days after the departure of Jordan. The delay, fortunately, has done the franchise no harm.

Pollin and the Wizards now can employ all their persuasive powers on Brown. They can give him all the control and money he needs to assuage his doubts.

They can show the rest of the NBA that there is life after Jordan and that the woebegone franchise in Washington is willing to compete.

This is not to think Brown will land on Fun Street. The opening in Houston, with the prospect of coaching Steve Francis and Yao Ming, is the most appealing in the NBA.

Yet even if Pollin is unable to catch the top coaching prize, he is showing a level of boldness that is essential to the long-term welfare of the franchise.

Pollin is sending out a strong signal to the team’s supporters, to the NBA and to the players themselves. Jordan may be gone, but that does not have to be some ball and chain on the franchise, as it has been with the Bulls.

Fans are forgetful. Get the right people in place, make a few player moves, nurture the talent on the roster, go on a four-game winning streak next November and then see if anyone is whining about Jordan’s absence.

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