- The Washington Times - Friday, April 22, 2005

It was only a matter of time before the name of Michael Jordan and the topic of his relationship with the Chicago Bulls and the Washington Wizards had to come up.

Yesterday, following the Wizards’ intense-but-brief practice in preparation for tomorrow’s Game 1 of their best-of-7 series with the Bulls, it did.

Asked which of the two teams Jordan favors, Washington’s Larry Hughes replied, “Oh, Chicago! No doubt.”

Few, if any, will doubt Hughes.

Jordan left the Bulls in 1998, after winning a sixth NBA championship for the team and reaching a still-unparalleled level of sports superstardom and commercial branding. Until this year, the Bulls had not made it back to the playoffs since his departure.

Jordan didn’t fare so well in his stint here. Named president of basketball operations and minority owner Jan. 19, 2000, Jordan returned as a player for the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons. His presence lifted sales at MCI Center and of Wizards merchandise.

But Jordan, who had planned to return to the front office, was fired by owner Abe Pollin on May 6, 2003. The last time Washington reached the playoffs, they were dismissed by Jordan and the Bulls in 1997.

Jordan, who has been to games in Chicago but hasn’t set foot in MCI Center since he was fired, still looms large in this series.

Jordan signed Hughes, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, to a three-year deal. In the last year of his contract, Hughes has emerged as one of the best guards in the league.

In 2001 Jordan drafted Kwame Brown fresh out of a Georgia high school, making Brown, who has yet to come close to expectations, the first high school player selected with the top pick in the draft.

Hughes and Brown, both of whom will be free agents this summer, are two of seven current Wizards Jordan brought to Washington.

And while Jordan had nothing to do with the selection of the Bulls’ roster, Chicago general manager John Paxson, an executive-of-the-year candidate along with Wizards president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld, was a teammate of Jordan’s in Chicago.

Yesterday Hughes, who led the league in steals, said he talks often with Jordan. The same is true for Jared Jeffries, who speaks with Jordan perhaps more than any other Wizards player.

While no pictures of Jordan adorn the halls of MCI Center, the Wizards who played alongside him still hold a him in high esteem.

“We still have a link,” Hughes said. “I learned a lot from him and I’ve used everything. I watched how he handled himself on the court and off it. I watched the sacrifices that he made as far as being an older guy who came in and worked hard to keep his body where he needed to be at the highest level and knowing that he had to compete at the highest level every night to give his team an opportunity to win. I took into account all of that stuff.

“Really, I just want to be half the player that he was.”

While Jordan once said he would never play for any team other than the Bulls — or any coach other than Phil Jackson — the Wizards offered Jordan ownership, which the Bulls did not.

Still, there has been speculation Jordan will give the Bulls a pep talk either before or during the series.

“I don’t know if that would be a conflict of interests because he was in Washington,” Bulls coach Scott Skiles said. “I really haven’t given that a whole lot of thought. I don’t know that I would search somebody out. My instinct is that we have a pretty level-headed team. But I certainly wouldn’t rule that out.”

Jordan has showed up at games in Chicago with little fanfare. But once the in-house cameras on the United Center scoreboard have found him, frenzy has ensued.

A similar reaction to Jordan would no doubt occur at MCI Center. However, he hasn’t been invited back.

“Just like Larry said,” Wizards guard Juan Dixon said, “he’ll be rooting for Chicago.”

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