- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

On May 7, 2003, after a brief but acrimonious and invective-filled meeting with Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin, Michael Jordan drove away from MCI Center in his Mercedes convertible filled with surprise and anger. What he didn’t have was a job.

Jordan, the biggest, most celebrated figure in sports, recently had ended his two-year comeback as a player and was ready to devote his full attention to running the team. He had given up his part-ownership of the club when he decided to play again. Now, from nowhere, he also was out as president of basketball operations. He was out, period.

Where would the Wizards go from here?

Up, it seems.

Less than two years after Jordan’s stunning dismissal, the franchise is seven games above .500 for the first time since 1985. Its 20-13 record is third best in the Eastern Conference. More than half the season remains and a few pothole encounters are inevitable, but by all appearances the club looks positioned to win its first playoff game in 17 years.

“I think the Wizards have done a great job,” Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge said. “I really like their roster. They’ve got a boatload of young talent. They’re headed in the right direction.”

Attendance is not yet back to where it was when Jordan played, but it’s getting there, and tomorrow night’s game against the strong Phoenix Suns is sold out. Pollin, who said he regularly gets words of encouragement from fans, said, “The whole town is abuzz with the Wizards.”

It was that way, too, after Pollin showed Jordan the door, but for different reasons. The outrage came swiftly. Fans expressed their disgust; pundits and commentators vented their wrath. The Wizards, a perennial loser long before Jordan showed up, had hit a new low, or so it seemed. It was speculated the people attracted to MCI Center by the allure of Jordan would leave and never come back.

During Jordan’s return to the court, the Wizards sold out every home game and reportedly turned a huge financial loss in the two years before Jordan arrived in January 2000 into a sizable profit over the next three. The high beams of national interest brought the franchise out of the shadows.

But for all the hype and attention, the Wizards didn’t have a winning season with Jordan as a player or executive. The 37-45 record in 2002-03, same as the year before, seemed to be the final straw. It was a team of mismatched parts that lacked chemistry. It was Jordan’s team.

After he joined the Wizards and before he returned to the court, Jordan opened a restaurant and spent as much time in Chicago and on the golf course as he did at the home office. This struck many as odd.

Jordan was credited for clearing roster space by dumping Juwan Howard and other overpaid players, and signing guard Larry Hughes finally is looking like a good move.

But his hiring of Leonard Hamilton as coach was a disaster. Other personnel decisions, such as trading Richard Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse and taking high school player Kwame Brown with the No.1 pick in the draft, later backfired.

There also were reports of mounting tension between Jordan and the players; the players and Doug Collins, Jordan’s hand-picked coach; Jordan and Pollin; and especially Jordan and Pollin’s long-time associate, Susan O’Malley. Amid this atmosphere, the team continued to lose. In Pollin’s mind, the Jordan experiment simply wasn’t working.

But Pollin still denies reports of a contentious relationship with Jordan.

“That’s not true,” Pollin said yesterday in a telephone interview. “We had a great relationship. I just felt I wanted to go in a different direction. Those were exactly the words I used with him. He was pretty upset. I can understand that. I’d be upset if I was told the same thing.”

Pollin’s action, and the manner in which it was done, rocked the sports world. This was Michael Jordan — Michael Jordan! — His Airness, the icon of icons, the ultimate superstar, getting the same treatment Jordan himself used to inflict upon opponents and teammates, lesser beings all. How dare Abe Pollin?

Pollin, who said he was only bothered when the criticism got personal, pressed on. Doug Collins was fired shortly after Jordan departed, followed by other Jordan loyalists. The purge was complete. Wes Unseld, who had been part of the franchise for decades but whose authority as general manager had been usurped by Jordan, took what was described as an “indefinite leave of absence.”

Now who to hire?

There was contact with veteran NBA coach Larry Brown, but that quickly fizzled. Within two weeks, Pollin hired Eddie Jordan, a respected New Jersey Nets assistant and Washington native, as coach.

Shortly thereafter, Pollin brought in as president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld, who had been general manager of the New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks. Grunfeld came highly recommended, including an endorsement from NBA commissioner David Stern.

Grunfeld began reshaping the roster, signing, among others, free agent guard Gilbert Arenas. Eddie Jordan set to work installing his offense and defense and instilling his philosophy. The Wizards would play faster and work harder. Out was Collins’ triangle offense and the isolation plays set up for Jordan and Stackhouse; in was a wide-open style in which more players participated.

With everything new, the Wizards struggled to a 25-57 record last season.

This year, after Grunfeld further adjusted the roster, notably by acquiring forward Antawn Jamison from Dallas, and with Arenas and Hughes having big seasons, the Wizards have transformed themselves.

“I like them,” said TNT commentator and former NBA guard Steve Kerr, who also owns a small piece of the Phoenix Suns. “I like their energy, and I think their guard play is fantastic. And I love the improvement both Arenas and Hughes have made.”

Kerr, who played on three NBA championship teams with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, said every executive has to be judged by his personnel moves, and he recognizes that some of Jordan’s moves didn’t pan out. Still, Kerr said he “feels badly” for what happened to his former teammate.

“It seems like he was made the scapegoat,” Kerr said.

Former Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson was highly critical of the Wizards on his radio talk show after Pollin fired Jordan, and it continues to bother Thompson how his close, longtime friend was treated.

“From a professional standpoint, I was very displeased with how it happened,” Thompson said. “I like and admire Michael. I know what he means to the game. … Business is business. I understand that. Michael understands that. How it was done is my concern.”

Thompson said he likes the current Wizards. They are fun to watch, and he said Arenas, Hughes and Jamison — the three major talents — are playing well together. But, Thompson added, “you’re not going to convince me that getting rid of Michael helped the Wizards any more than his coming here. He brought a lot of attention, made a lot of money [for the team], made a lot of people interested.

“I have no idea what would have happened if he stayed here. I think Ernie and Eddie deserve an awful lot of credit so far, but I’m not ready to attach the fact that Michael leaving was a blessing.”

Eddie Jordan and Grunfeld say they heard things about why Michael Jordan left, but none of that matters. Eddie Jordan said when he took the job, he felt no added pressure stemming from resentment over Michael Jordan’s departure.

“A lot of things go on in the NBA,” he said. “Things you hear about, you don’t really know. You can’t be concerned with public opinion if you can’t do anything about it. My objective was to get this team better.

“I thought it was the perfect situation for me. It was the perfect scenario for the system I used. I saw young talent here, and I knew the first year would be one of patience and development. It never got frustrating, mainly because of my personality. There was no pressure at all.”

Grunfeld said his main objective was to “create a professional environment, a hard-working environment where you treat your players with respect and you’re very demanding of them.”

Jordan “has done a terrific job, and I think the players enjoy playing an uptempo, fast-paced game,” Grunfeld said.

Certainly Hughes is enjoying it. The guard, who signed as a free agent with the Wizards in 2002 partly because of Michael Jordan’s presence, is having the best season of his career. In Collins’ system, Hughes believes his athletic and scoring abilities were not used to their fullest.

“There wasn’t as much player movement,” said Hughes, who has since moved from the point to off-guard but still leads the team in assists and the league in steals. “We didn’t have a chance to use our speed.”

Hughes said he was shocked when Michael Jordan left, not only because Jordan brought him here but because “he was an idol of mine.” But he said he wasn’t angry at the organization, calling it a “business decision,” and said he looked forward to getting a fresh start.

“As far as winning, this is a totally different team,” Hughes said before his 26 points, nine assists and six steals helped the Wizards beat Portland 104-100 on Wednesday night at MCI Center.

The game demonstrated how different the Wizards are. They blew a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter. Unlike the old Wizards, the new Wizards, despite missing a bunch of free throws, shrugged off their lapse and won at the end. With his team down by one in the final minute, Arenas, who matched Hughes with 26 points, put the game away with a steal and two baskets. The crowd of 15,836 was loud and on its feet.

As if to validate the Wizards’ improvement, Jim Goldstein was at the game. Who is Jim Goldstein? NBA insiders know. He is an independently wealthy superfan who attends about 120 games a year. He lives in a Santa Barbara, Calif., home that is considered an architectural marvel, and counts Shaquille O’Neal and other NBA stars among his friends. With long, gray hair, outsized hat and a wardrobe consisting in large part of python skin, Goldstein stands out in any crowd.

He said this was his first Wizards game at MCI. One reason is, Goldstein likes to stay out west. Another is “they haven’t been in the playoffs,” he said. But family business brought him to Baltimore, so he figured he might as well see what was going on.

He came away impressed.

“Very much,” Goldstein said. “They play an exciting style of basketball.”

Pollin said he feels neither vindicated nor validated for a move that might now be considered bold — a move that might, in the end, have set the franchise on its proper course.

“I just feel I had a tough decision to make as the owner of the team,” he said. “I’ve been owner for 40 years and I make tough decisions and this was one of them.”

Nor does Pollin regret the way in which the Jordan dismissal occurred.

“I have no thoughts about that, at all,” he said. “I treated Michael as a gentleman. I have no thoughts about it, and I’ve moved on.”

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