`Wiz' would test Jordan's magic touch

January 18, 2000|By John Eisenberg

Everyone is rightfully excited about Michael Jordan's possibly buying a minority stake in the Wizards and becoming the team's director of basketball operations, but the idea that there's nothing to lose is wrong.

Maybe the Wizards, among the NBA's worst teams, have nothing to lose. Jordan does. He has his golden-touch reputation to lose.

That might not mean much to a guy worth a trillion dollars or whatever Jordan is worth now, but he might lose that unbeatable reputation unless he is willing to sign on for a painstaking rebuilding job that might take years.

It's easy to see why the Wizards want to join hands with Jordan, who would attract headlines, stir interest, raise credibility -- basically just make their whole enterprise exponentially more interesting than it is now. (Not that that's saying much.)

Jordan's interest isn't nearly as easy to fathom. Investing millions in the team makes financial sense -- sports franchises just keep going up in value -- but why take it another step and become accountable for one of the league's biggest losers?

He had a better chance of becoming a major-league outfielder than he does of turning the Wizards around as their front-office decision-maker.

As much as he needs something to do now that he's retired and obviously can only spend so much time with his family before another challenge calls him, this is a challenge that will threaten his bulletproof image.

The Wizards are a mess. A colossal mess. They haven't won a playoff series in 18 years. They don't have a 2000 first-round draft pick. And they can't make major changes because they're stuck with some of the most regrettable contracts in sports.

They have to pay Juwan Howard, the NBA's most overpaid player, an average of $17.8 million over the next four years. They also have to pay Mitch Richmond, 34, and Rod Strickland, 33, $10 million apiece every year through 2002 and 2003, respectively.

That well-paid, deeply entrenched nucleus has led the Wizards to a 12-27 record this season.

Anyone who thinks Jordan can just waltz into such a salary-cap catastrophe, snap his fingers and turn the Wizards into a winner is indulging in fantasy.

The Wizards are many years and many decisions away from becoming contenders again, regardless of who is calling the shots. And let's face it, a first-time GM might not be the best choice to take on such a project.

Unlike before, Jordan can't just call for the ball, hit a jumper and cure all ills. This is a different game, hitting draft picks and trades, not jumpers. A successful GM needs patience, judgment, vision and a thick hide -- a different set of traits.

Could Jordan succeed? Sure. He has terrific instincts and vast knowledge, and as much as he loves proving skeptics wrong, he'd certainly bring passion to the job. He could easily become another Jerry West.

But does he have the patience to live through some lean years? Can the man with everything live at the bottom for a while?

Few top players have even tried to make such a move, for the simple reason that they have control of situations when they're playing and they lose that control in the front office. Someone else has the ball now. Someone else has to hit the last shot.

If Jordan were coming back to play, sure, he could turn the Wizards around immediately. But that's the wicked tease in this scenario. This would be Jordan in a suit, not a uniform; Jordan in a new role, as an unknown commodity having to prove himself all over again.

Is he willing to roll up his sleeves, lose a ton of games, make mistakes and take merciless criticism? That's the job.

Is he willing to lower himself from his throne, haggle with impudent agents, live with no-cut, low-effort players and spend weeks in one-stop college towns trying to scout out the next Scottie Pippen? That's the job.

It's hard to imagine Jordan, whose name has become synonymous with excellence, signing on for such a bumpy ride.

True, his foray into baseball revealed a different side of him, an appealing side willing to get dirty, take risks and fail. But that was before he wrote the perfect ending to his playing career and hit his last jumper to win his sixth NBA title -- the definition of going out on top.

Coming back now to try to turn around the Wizards would amount to scrawling a mustache on that masterpiece.

NBA commissioner David Stern desperately wants him back in the game, and the Wizards, in that sense, would be astoundingly fortunate to get him. They're going nowhere, getting booed at home, a bona fide disaster. Now Jordan falls into their laps? That's hitting-the-lottery lucky.

But Jordan, in the end, would be the one assuming the risk. This wouldn't be a movie. This wouldn't be the fantasy that his playing career was.

This would be the harsh reality of trying to overhaul a terrible team.

As interesting as it would be, it's almost a shame that he'd want to try.

Whoops, there goes the perfect ending. And there aren't many of those.

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