|Tuesday, April 15
Jordan's comeback was worthwhile for Wiz
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com
Now comes the reckoning, the assessment -- and, in some places, the recriminations. It will end on Wednesday for Michael Jordan, with his basketball career sliced into three separate timelines: The Climb, 1984-93; The Return, 1995-98, The Itch, 2001-03. It is only the last of these that we concern ourselves with now, because the first two periods led to six championships and an undeniable place on the NBA's Mount Rushmore with Russell and Magic, and the last ... well, what was the point of the last, again?
There is no reason not to believe that at base, Jordan still wanted to play, but it was more than that, too. Up in his box during two years as president of basketball operations, Jordan seethed as he watched the Wizards bumble and stumble their way to loss after excruciating loss, unprepared, undeveloped and unwatchable. After missing totally on a college coach, Leonard Hamilton, Jordan went to an old colleague, Doug Collins, a professional basketball coach. That still didn't give him the proper sense of which one of his new young players would compete, could be counted on down the stretch and could form the basis of a championship squad. Jordan determined the only way to find that out was to lace 'em up again and get into the mix with them.
I believe, lack of playoffs notwithstanding, that it was worth it.
The Wizards aren't demonstrably better for having played with Jordan, and the argument can be made -- it has been made, by this computer -- that the youngest players have been retarded in their development. And yet, with Jordan on the floor the last two years, the Wizards had a chance to win.
And this is where I part with many of my colleagues who say Jordan's presence meant nothing, because ultimately, the Wizards didn't make the playoffs. In another life, I covered this franchise, and I know its history. There are few people who've seen so many horrid Bullets/Wizards incarnations as I, nor who know more intimately how losing has corroded a once-proud franchise. An entire generation has now grown up in Washington having no idea that this team went to four Finals during the 1970s, or made the playoffs 15 times in 17 years through the mid-80s.
It isn't that the folks in the Washington organization had gotten used to losing. They just hadn't been able to do much about it.
And then, Michael Jordan -- Michael Jordan -- not only shows up to run your franchise, he peels off his business suit for a uni! At 38, true, but still capable of doing good things on the floor. And the Wizards played well in stretches, winning just about as much as losing for the first time in a long time. They went from 19 wins to 37 wins to whatever they'll wind up with this year. They beat the Spurs and Lakers and Mavericks and Kings, teams that had amused themselves with Washington in years past. More importantly, the Wizards were on the map. Suddenly, Washington was again what it's always been under cover of the Redskins -- a basketball town. The Wizards mattered. There were important games in D.C., a playoff race for the first time in half a decade, sold out evenings for the first time in longer than that.
I believe people learn through contact with other people. I think even the least intelligent people can learn, through osmosis if nothing else, from smart, driven people. That's why I think making college available for as many people as possible is so important. Even a kid that doesn't get a degree picks up something, from test-taking skills to learning how to parcel one's time to meeting people from different racial, economic and social backgrounds. And I believe that the Wizards' young players had to have learned something the last two years playing with Michael Jordan.
Let's take Kwame Brown, for some folks a favorite target. And let's say that Jordan never left the comfort of the president's box the last two years. If Collins hadn't been around, if Jordan hadn't been on the floor, it's likely that Brown would be completing his second season as a starter, having played 30-plus minutes for two years, maybe averaging double figures in scoring. And, I believe, he would be worse off. There is no chance that the Wizards without Jordan would have approached 30 wins. Maybe not 25.
Losing affects people. The more you lose, the harder it is to fight to win. I think if Brown had had individual success while his team was in the cellar, it wouldn't mean much at all. I've seen it. Ask Jason Kidd and Jim Jackson and Jamal Mashburn what starting and playing big minutes -- and losing -- with the Mavericks felt like. Ask Kevin Garnett or Grant Hill what it feels like to have never won a playoff series. Ask any of the dozens of Clippers or Warriors over the years what being a laughingstock does to your psyche. (Yes, the Bulls threw Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry into the mix, with some success late in their second season. But the Bulls still are going to win fewer than 30 games this season, and they still can't win games on the road, and I think that matters. I've seen teams out of the playoff race win games in April that supposedly were going to have a carryover effect the next season, and then I see those same teams back in Secaucus the following spring.)
Simply put, winning is better than losing.
With Jordan, the Wizards weren't world beaters, but they weren't suckers, either. And, to be sure, players like Brown have been put through the wringer. Tough love, to be sure -- sometimes too tough, in my view, because, again, Brown is only 21, and again, what could you have possibly expected from a high school kid his first two years in the L? ("I've been waiting for Kwame to take that (power forward) spot all year," Collins lamented a couple of weeks ago.) But I think Brown, someday, will realize that all Jordan and Collins wanted was for him to become the best player he could be, and that meant he couldn't settle for just being average. Of whom much is given, much is expected. And Brown was given $11.9 million, guaranteed.
Will Brown or Jared Jeffries or Larry Hughes or any of the Wizards' other young charges take any of that to heart next season? Will they fight when they're down eight on the road to a good team, or meekly accept the loss? Will they be better, smarter players because they spent two years in contact with the best, smartest player who ever walked on the hardwood? I think so. It doesn't mean that playing with Jordan makes you a champion. But it has an effect. ("I would consult for Michael," Phil Jackson said the other day, though he added he wouldn't coach for him because he probably won't coach for anybody when he's done with the Lakers.)
I am well aware that this season didn't turn out as planned. Almost everyone expected the Wizards to not only make the playoffs, but win a round, maybe two. It was certainly what Jordan expected and demanded all season, so by that measuring stick alone, this year was a failure. And once again, Jordan's return to the court was the living embodiment of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle: His mere presence affected the very experiment he was conducting. His teammates, like so many before them, couldn't help but stand around and watch at times. Jerry Stackhouse was impacted perhaps most of all; used to having free reign to slash and drive to the basket, he was in the unfamiliar position of playing off Jordan, trying to be a standstill jump shooter, which is not his game at all. And with all due respect to Tyronn Lue and Hughes, the Wizards still don't have a legitimate No. 1 point guard, or big-time low-post scorer on their roster. Their halfcourt offense frequently disintegrated into Jordan or Stackhouse trying to beat the shot clock.
Were there jealousies? Of course; there have been every season of Jordan's career. The kids took turns believing Grandpa was picking on them, while the older players that Jordan personally recruited or paid well, Charles Oakley and Christian Laettner, believed that the kids weren't ready to play in prime time. "You earn playing time on the practice floor," Laettner said to me recently, a not-so-subtle reference to Brown's workout habits. Stackhouse seemed caught in the middle: He respects Jordan's game and Carolina roots too much to be a hater, but he is in the prime of his career and he believes himself an All-Star level player, too, not a member of anybody's supporting cast. Plus, he didn't sign on in D.C. for another rebuilding project, which certainly seems now to be the likely scenario.
I remain convinced by those in the know that Jordan will re-up with the Wizards, as long as Abe Pollin doesn't get any bright ideas about introducing a power-sharing arrangement. Jordan wants full say on all personnel moves, with everyone else reporting to him -- basically what he had during his first two years in Washington. I don't think, ultimately, Pollin will have a problem with that. But he may take issue with Jordan's frequent absences from MCI Center during the season. Methinks the current boss, Pollin, and the future boss, Ted Leonsis, would like to see Jordan around more often instead of taking a week here and there to go home to Chicago or attend some function. But Jordan doesn't want to be trotted out like Willie Mays, gladhanding the big wheels and smoking cigars with Pollin's friends. Most of all, he doesn't want to be subject to The Shot -- a different Shot than the one in Cleveland in '89, or in Utah in '98. This Shot is the one the local television stations always want, the shot of Jordan in the box when something goes wrong, All Eyez on him, waiting for him to throw something or cuss or glare at the floor.
I believe Jordan has some definite ideas of what he wants to do in the offseason. I sense another housecleaning. Lue and Laettner and Jeffries and Juan Dixon would all almost certainly be welcomed back, but after that, anything's possible. The Wizards know they need a point guard, a ball-handling three and a go-to guy in the paint. "But you don't get better when you have seven new guys on the roster every year," Laettner says, and he's right. The challenge for Jordan, if he stays on as an executive in Washington, is to reign in his own impatience. That goes for Collins, too.
One wonders what Collins is thinking about these days, whether he wants to be around at all next season. On Monday, he spoke angrily of not being respected as a head coach by unnamed players, and despaired at the Wizards' talent level, putting it behind the Knicks and Hawks. (I hate to again be a noodge on this, but it was Collins and Jordan that picked 11 of the 12 players on the current roster.) Collins called the disrespect "insidious." It was an odd bit of timing from Collins, picking Jordan Appreciation Night to vent about his own troubles.
This had all begun three hours earlier, when I'd innocently asked Doug to pick two or three memories from these last two years that he'd remember.
"The first day of training camp, because I didn't think there was any way Michael would ever be able to play this year," Collins said. "The game we played in Boston (an overtime Wizards win), I don't know if I've ever seen him smile or have such a good time playing the game. It was like he was really enjoying that. But I think that's sort of a microcosm of the way he feels about every game. It's just that sometimes, he shows it a little bit more."
And then ...
"His respect for me," Collins continued. "I've had guys on this team curse me. He would never do something like that, nor would he tolerate them doing something like that. Michael has always been respectful of coaches, and the way he's respected me -- I will never forget that. Just watching him come into the locker room every night and watch him get off by himself and start to get himself ready to play."
What Jordan the Executive will do with his team next season remains to be seen. Jordan the player, though, will be done on Wednesday. Give the endeavor a B-minus if you have to. If it wasn't an overall success, it was still worth the effort. I believe so. And if you'll allow me to be parochial for a second, having Jordan in Washington made one wish come true: My dad, who just turned 75, got to see him play on Monday. I don't think the fact that the Wizards aren't going to the playoffs mattered much.
You could ask him, I guess.
The first thing that went through my mind when I heard Earl Lloyd had been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last week was, "Earl Lloyd isn't already in the Hall of Fame?"
Chalk it up to being young and stupid, I guess. I just assumed that the first African-American to play in the NBA had been recognized for his remarkable achievement years ago. As congenial a man as you'll find, given the ugliness that he and players like Don Barksdale and Chuck Cooper had to face as pioneers, Lloyd should be a hero to every black player in the league. I have been afraid to ask, though, fearing that most of the young fellas won't even know his name. None of us know our history as well as we should.
Well, almost none of us. Thankfully, author Ron Thomas has chronicled the contributions of Lloyd and the NBA's other African-American pioneers in a terrific book, "They Cleared the Lane." In that book, Lloyd says that there were many who could have been first. "Here I am, an Alexandria (Va.) boy, and I was in the right place at the right time," Lloyd told Thomas. "I just hope I conducted myself where I made it easier for others, and I think I did."
Yes, Mr. Lloyd. You did.
David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.