- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 12, 2003

The Wizards are not following the script that was trotted out after the keepers of Michael Jordan’s flame spent the summer bathing themselves in tears.

The Wizards are supposed to be lifeless now. They are supposed to be the black hole of the NBA, forever cursed because of Abe Pollin’s decision to send a part-time executive back to Chicago.

But something intriguing has happened to the Wizards since the removal of Jordan. They now have a future. They now have a style of play that is conducive to the team’s young legs. They now have a genuine general manager in Ernie Grunfeld and a genuine coach in Eddie Jordan and not a lackey who was sentenced to pray at the altar of a legend.

The new coach has no agenda other than trying to win the next game. He does not answer to a player or to a player’s hangers-on. He does not have to read code or tea leaves. He is not around to satisfy an insatiable ego. The new coach can do what is best for the team, as opposed to what is best for one player.

The old Jordan wanted it both ways. He wanted to be what he could not be on the floor again and he wanted the young players on the roster to adapt to his age-induced, grind-it-out style.

Jerry Stackhouse, for one, could not flourish in this environment. He is a slashing, open-court artist who can dine at the free throw line. If you take that from him, you take away some of his best stuff. This is not rocket science. This is just the way it was last season.

Stackhouse mostly bit his tongue, of course. He had no choice. He could not win a public battle with Jordan. Besides, like everyone else, he figured Jordan would return to the front office and be in charge of the contract extension he so desperately wanted.

Stackhouse was, arguably, the No.1 victim of Jordan’s ego-massaging stint. Jordan could still play the game, as long as it was a plodding game and the ball was habitually funneled to him. Sometimes his 20 points came at a cost to the team.

Jordan was still in his subservient mode at this time last year, pretending to be content with coming off the bench in place of Bryon Russell.

That experiment was doomed from the start, perhaps implemented more out of show than anything else, as a way for Jordan to demonstrate his team-first, professorial-like persona.

Jordan was always teaching. You remember that never-ending spiel from the former spin doctor, Doug Collins, no matter how silly it sometimes sounded.

The Wizards dropped a game in Toronto last December in which Jordan was limited to two points but had nine assists and eight rebounds. Collins succumbed to another case of hyperbole after the game, marveling about how Jordan had found a way to make a contribution and the importance of the young players on the team to recognize that.

Oh, please. Collins insulted the intelligence of his most important audience, the players in the locker room.

Basketball players are introduced to the nuances of the game at younger and younger ages. You can go to any middle school in the area and hear coaches stressing the importance of rebounding, ball movement and defense.

You do not need that lesson plan from an old hand. That is so much nonsense, and it was put into the public domain only to minimize Jordan’s two-point performance, almost as if he had planned it.

Check out the vision of the 18-year-old LeBron James in Cleveland. You think he just learned to see the floor from Paul Silas or that maybe, possibly, he has some solid coaching in his background?

With the old Jordan out of the mix, the contrast between the Wizards last April and now is stunning.

Last season’s team died in the stretch run, as teams led by the old tend to do. This season’s team, so vital, so energetic, so unencumbered, has its best basketball ahead.

This team may not make the playoffs this season, although that notion is not as far-fetched as it once seemed. This team also has the capacity to commit the usual sins of youth, both physically and mentally.

Gilbert Arenas committed the latter last weekend, and the new Jordan responded with clarity.

“I want our team to win with class,” the new Jordan said after the Toronto victory. “Some things were said from our bench, and we don’t want that.”

By the next night, in Cleveland, Arenas was consigned to the bench in the third quarter after missing the message from the new Jordan.

Perfect. Beautiful. You sit your best player to make a point, the game be darned, if necessary. You think everyone with the Wizards has the message now?

Alas, there was no consistent message the last two seasons.

There was the interminable homage to the old Jordan, a basketball icon as flawed as the next person.

There also was the cloak-and-dagger stuff.

If Collins voiced an observation, it was hard to determine if it was his or the old Jordan’s.

No one could respond to Collins or to the old Jordan without thinking of the other. Fair or not, each was perceived to be covering the other’s back.

All that has been purged from the franchise. The new Jordan speaks for himself and not as a mouthpiece for a player. There is no mystery to it. Being a palm reader is no longer necessary in Tony Cheng’s neighborhood.

The Wizards, not surprisingly, appear to relish this old but fresh concept.

These Wizards are playing like overeager puppies, their boundless spirit both useful and counterproductive. In their haste to be loved, they are liable to knock over a lamp on a coffee table.

It is good to see.


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