Jordan's newest challenge: turn Wizards into winners

Ex-Bulls star to try owning, running team

January 20, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The legend has become an owner.

A little more than a year after announcing his retirement from the six-time champion Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan was introduced yesterday to a packed news conference and a live national television audience at the MCI Center as the president of basketball operations and minority owner of the long-floundering Washington Wizards.

Jordan, 36, appeared as confident in promising to turn the Wizards into a winning team as he was during a 14-year career that saw the All-American from North Carolina turn into a player most consider the best ever to perform in the National Basketball Association. But he was also realistic enough to know that the Midas touch he has displayed on the court and in the business world would not be as immediate here.

"It's not going to happen tomorrow," said Jordan. "I didn't get to a championship in one year in Chicago. It took seven years. But once we got there, we stayed there."

The franchise Jordan will try to turn around was once among the NBA's elite, first in Baltimore and later when it moved to Landover. But since winning the championship in 1978, the team formerly known as the Bullets has fallen on hard times. The club has not won a playoff game since 1988 and is currently last in its division.

Terms of the deal that Jordan struck with longtime Wizards owner Abe Pollin and his minority partner, Ted Leonsis, were not disclosed. But Jordan made it clear he had invested some of his own fortune in the team. Jordan was also clear in his assessment of the Wizards' performance this season.

"I think it's a team that's underachieving," he said.

While the team's hierarchy will remain in place, Jordan is second only to Pollin when it comes to making decisions. Jordan said he will meet with general manager Wes Unseld regarding personnel moves, but that ultimately he will report only to Pollin.

"If we do not have an agreement, I have the authority to overrule Wes," Jordan said.

But Jordan said he had no plans to get rid of Unseld, who has been part of the organization since being drafted by the Bullets out of Louisville in 1968. Unseld was named Rookie of the Year and the league's Most Valuable Player that season and went on to a Hall of Fame playing career. He also coached the team from 1987 through 1994.

"I have the utmost respect for [Unseld]," Jordan said. "There have been a lot of stories saying that Wes is going to be kicked to the curb, that he's not going to have any input in terms of what happens with this team. That is certainly not the case. I've always respected the players before me because they've always given me the opportunity to compete. I anticipate Wes being around."

Though he has no intention of returning to the court as a player -- NBA rules prohibit owners from also being players -- Jordan wouldn't rule out joining the team on the floor in practice.

"The best evaluation of a basketball player I can get is to look in his eyes and see how scared he is," said Jordan, known throughout his college and pro career as a player who worked as hard in practice as he did during games.

First-year coach Gar Heard said he would welcome his new boss at practice, and admitted it might motivate a number of players that he has not been able to reach so far. "That would make them compete harder," Heard said before last night's game against the Dallas Mavericks. "If you don't [work hard], that might be the quickest ticket out of here."

Jordan said he has been interested in getting back into basketball in an ownership and executive role since retiring in January 1999. With the help of NBA Commissioner David Stern, Jordan first talked with Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn about obtaining a financial interest in the team closest to Wilmington, N.C., where Jordan grew up.

When those talks fell apart, Stern contacted a number of other owners about bringing Jordan in as a minority partner. One of those Stern spoke with was Pollin, who talked about it with Leonsis.

Leonsis, president of America Online Interactive Properties, had bought controlling interest of the Washington Capitals last summer from Pollin and 44 percent of the Wizards. Along with partner Jon Ledecky, Leonsis has the right of first refusal to buy Pollin's share of the Wizards once Pollin, 74, decides to sell a team he has owned since 1964. Leonsis contacted Jordan last August through his agent, David Falk.

"If you could be in the meetings to see the interaction between Michael, Abe, Wes and myself, you could see that this really clicked," Leonsis said. "Michael had his choice to go anywhere and he chose to come here."

Said Pollin: "This is a very special day for me. When I decided to look for a partner in some of my activities, I decided that the guy had to be the best of the best. Who's the best athlete ever to play this game, the best guy who refuses to lose? I said, `God, I hope that one day that guy would be part of what I do.' "

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