- The Washington Times - Monday, May 18, 2020

If you watched the final episode of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” on Sunday, you’d have no idea that Michael Jordan ever played for the Washington Wizards. The 10-hour documentary, which covered Jordan’s last season with the Bulls in 1997-98, made no mention of Jordan’s two years in the District.

But those years did happen. And frankly, they would make for another compelling documentary.

“The Last Dance” may be over, but Jordan’s Wizards years are worth remembering — even if it got ugly at times.

Relying on reporting from Michael Leahy’s 2004 book “When Nothing Else Mattered: Michael Jordan’s Last Comeback,” The Washington Times mapped out what a Jordan Wizards docu-series would look like:

Episode 1: The pursuit
Key interview subjects: Ted Leonsis, Ron Artest

If you thought Jerry Krause was a formidable foil for Michael Jordan in “The Last Dance,” try former Wizards owner Abe Pollin. The two started working together when Pollin and Ted Leonsis (then a minority partner, now Wizards owner) recruited Jordan as a minority stakeholder and president of basketball operations. It was a relationship that soon became strained.

As an executive, Jordan felt restricted by Pollin, who was said to be reluctant to spend money and vetoed trades. Pollin, though, denied such claims, which were being made through Jordan’s camp.

“I don’t care what they say,” Pollin said.

With his career as an executive not working out — the Wizards went 29-53 and 19-63 in Jordan’s two seasons running the team — Jordan announced he would return to the court. He’d been playing private games at trainer Tim Grover’s gymnasium in early 2001. First, he squared off against former Ivy Leaguers such as Arne Duncan and John Rogers but soon, Jordan brought in friends and NBA rivals to better gauge what he had left.

From stars like Penny Hardaway and Antoine Walker to retired friends like Charles Barkley and Bill Wennington, Jordan spent weeks getting back into shape, his shot returning to form.

But there was a setback: A scrappy young guard named Ron Artest broke Jordan’s ribs in a pickup game over the summer.

Still, Jordan pushed on — ignoring the advice of Grover and others to allow his body to rest. Though his knees were plagued by tendinitis, Jordan announced his comeback in late September. Like he did in 1995 with “I’m back,” he sent another press release. Jordan planned to donate his salary to help victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which happened weeks earlier.

For Jordan, Grover said, “It’s hard for anything to be as good as playing.”

Jordan’s return didn’t go smoothly. The then-38-year-old was already dealing with knee problems in the preseason. But Jordan was stubborn, vowing to be ready for the opening of the season.

Episode 2: Kwame Brown and the young guns
Key interview subjects: Kwame Brown, Richard Hamilton

In “The Last Dance,” director Jason Hehir didn’t shy away from showing how hard Jordan was on teammates, especially young players like Scott Burrell. That approach didn’t change with the Wizards.

The 2001-02 Wizards had nine players with no more than three years of experience, including four rookies. There was Richard Hamilton, the team’s best player who frustrated coaches with his lack of effort on defense. Courtney Alexander was a promising piece who was thrown in the prior year when the Wizards unloaded Juwan Howard’s contract on the Dallas Mavericks, but would soon find himself on the outs of the rotation. Tyronn Lue, the team’s key signing in free agency, found himself in Jordan’s crosshairs when Jordan became frustrated that Lue wouldn’t be in the right spots.

But no player drew more scorn than big man Kwame Brown, the team’s first overall pick in 2001.

At first, Jordan was enthralled with Brown. He drafted the 6-foot-11 19-year-old in part because of the dominance he showed in a one-on-one workout against Tyson Chandler, who was drafted fourth overall that same year. But Jordan soon lost confidence as Brown showed up to training camp out of shape. Jordan, according to Leahy, thought Brown was “cocky and disrespectful sometimes.”

Brown, too, made the mistake of challenging Jordan to a game of one-on-one.

The young pupil made it even worse for himself when he dared to talk trash to Jordan, saying, “You reach, I’ll reach.” Jordan snapped, humiliating Brown for the rest of the session. Jordan dominated the game.

“You better call me ‘Daddy,’ [expletive],” Jordan yelled.

Brown wouldn’t be the only teammate Jordan trash-talked. In 2016, Hamilton said on ESPN’s “The Jump” that Jordan once told him and a few others that they weren’t good enough to wear his sneakers.

Episode 3: A different NBA

Key interview subjects: Vince Carter, Kenyon Martin

Part of what makes Jordan’s Wizards tenure so fascinating was that he was no longer the king of the NBA. By the time Jordan returned for Comeback, The Sequel, there was a crowd of young stars jockeying to be crowned the “next Jordan” — including Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Paul Pierce.

Ever the competitor, Jordan had no intention of bending the knee.

There were nights he made that clear, like the season-high 51 points in his first game back in Chicago and the 45 points two nights later against the New Jersey Nets.

For the latter, Nets forward Kenyon Martin remembered telling Jordan he had a back injury that hampered Martin’s movement. Bad move. From there, Jordan attacked Martin in the post, scoring 22 straight points for the Wizards early in the game.

“I take him out of the game. He walks over to the bench (and I say), ‘Mike, what happened tonight?” former Wizards coach Doug Collins recalled on “Mike and Mike” in 2013. “He goes, ‘Well, the guy guarding me told me his back was hurting. Don’t ever tell me you have a problem, I’ll make you pay for that.’”

Jordan had the Wizards in the playoff hunt, five games above .500 (26-21) at the All-Star break. But the Wizards‘ fortune didn’t last. Washington dropped seven straight out of the break, and it was discovered that Jordan had torn his cartilage in his right knee.

Jordan had surgery and missed four weeks.

After the injury, Jordan wasn’t the same. He went from averaging 24.3 points per game on 42% shooting to just 12.4 points on 37.5% shooting. With the Wizards out of the playoff race, Jordan’s minutes were limited upon his return, down to just 21 per game.

Washington finished 37-45 and went into the summer with significant changes ahead.

Episode 4: A messy final hurrah
Key interview subjects: Jerry Stackhouse, Charles Oakley

Looking for a better result than the year before, Jordan pulled some strings as team president

You think LeBron James always gets to pick who he plays with? Try being player and president at the same time.

Jordan brought in Charles Oakley, his friend and onetime Bulls teammate, in free agency and engineered a trade that sent Hamilton to Detroit for Jerry Stackhouse. Just a year removed from being an All-Star, Stackhouse became the Wizards‘ leading scorer.

Jordan had to admit to himself that he was getting old and worn down. He started the year in a sixth man role to preserve his knee.

You can imagine that that didn’t last long.

The new Wizards misfired from the start, and that, combined with some injuries, led to Jordan becoming a starter again. Meanwhile, teammates like Stackhouse soured on playing with him.

“It just kind of spiraled in a way where I didn’t enjoy that season at all,” Stackhouse recently said on a podcast. “Kind of the picture I had in my mind of Michael Jordan and the reverence I had for him, I lost a little bit of it during the course of that year.”

Jordan turned 40 in February of that season, and four days later he dropped 43 points on the Nets. He also received a huge ovation from Bulls fans in his final visit to the United Center in Chicago.

But despite moments like that, Jordan couldn’t beat Father Time and the Wizards couldn’t beat most of their opponents. The final screen of this episode will show Washington finished the year with a 37-45 record — identical to the year before.

Episode 5: A third and final retirement
Key interview subjects: NBA reporter David Aldridge, Michael Jordan

After four years in Washington, two of those on the court, there was no question Jordan’s experiment with the Wizards had not worked out. Given his age, there was no expectation he would return for another season, and he made his retirement from playing — the third one — official.

Pollin then unceremoniously fired Jordan as team president on May 7, 2003. Jordan said in a 2005 interview he felt “used.”

“If (Jordan had known) that was the case I obviously wouldn’t have went back to play,” Jordan says. “Because I felt like I played injured, I went through surgery. And I didn’t have to do it, but I did it with the benefit of trying to help an organization to get back on their feet. And the gratitude that was given, it was your service is no longer wanted or needed.”

Michael didn’t stick around for specific reasons, having to do with Abe,” former Wizards minority owner Jonathan Ledecky told ESPN.

Jordan was replaced in the front office by Ernie Grunfeld, who oversaw some incredibly futile years for the franchise. 

The legend’s bitter ending with the Wizards didn’t have the storybook finish his time with the Bulls had. There was no shot over Bryon Russell, no championship to celebrate. But there was drama, there was intrigue. Those years are worth remembering — even if they went unacknowledged in “The Last Dance.”

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