A different road, but same old drive

NBA: Michael Jordan is in a new position as minority owner of the Wizards, and his peers say his competitive fire is what lured him to his latest challenge.

January 22, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Michael Jordan was supposed to be playing golf this week in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, the biggest name and easily the biggest draw among both the pros and amateurs in the California tournament that began Wednesday.

However, Jordan had something better to do that afternoon.

He was beginning the next phase of his remarkable life.

Jordan remains a celebrity of astounding proportion, but in his new role as president of basketball operations and minority owner of the Washington Wizards, Jordan will be a working celebrity.

He could have chosen to continue his yearlong retirement by doing what Jordan has done for most of his legendary career -- earn millions of dollars as a corporate pitchman.

Yet he chose to return to a familiar realm.

"It's not really coming back, because I'm not playing," Jordan said during his made-for-ESPN news conference at MCI Center. "I think this is a different challenge for me. Basketball has been my life. I know it inside and out because I've experienced it. So this is an easy transition for me to be involved with the team and have input on the talent on the team in the way the talent performs.

"Doing movies? No. If I look at the transition from where I was and what I'm about to embark on, this seems so simple. I don't think it's too much of a strain, too much of a pull to see myself involved with basketball. Basketball has been my life for a long time."

But it is not just the ease of the transition that attracted Jordan to the Wizards when minority owner Ted Leonsis first approached him last summer. This is not just another business deal for someone who Boston Celtics coach Rick Pitino recently called "the most conglomerized athlete of all time," though Leonsis' affiliation with America Online certainly had to arouse Jordan's interest in selling another product.

With Jordan, it is all about facing down challenges.

It was part of the reason he went to the University of North Carolina in the fall of 1981 after many folks in his hometown of Wilmington, N.C., told Jordan he was shooting too high to think he could play for the Tar Heels. After all, some locals reminded him, hadn't he been cut from his high school team as a freshman?

"I wanted to prove those people wrong," Jordan said during his sophomore year, a few months after his 17-foot jump shot in the waning seconds helped beat Georgetown in the 1982 NCAA championship game.

It was part of the reason that, after retiring from the Chicago Bulls for the first time, back in 1993, Jordan tried to play professional baseball. And it was part of the reason that, after showing his athletic talent, but not an ability to hit a minor-league curveball, Jordan returned to the Bulls. With six championships and his legend as the game's greatest player intact, Jordan retired again.

Now he is back, looking for another challenge.

"He's got to stay competitive in whatever he does," said Buzz Peterson, Jordan's former college roommate who is now the head coach at Appalachian State in Boone, N.C. "He said for a while, `Golf will do it for me,' but it's obvious now that he needs more than that."

Peterson has witnessed Jordan's almost ruthless attitude when it comes to competition, whether it was trying to gain a spot in Dean Smith's starting lineup when they were freshmen to their golf games in Chapel Hill with then-Tar Heels star Davis Love III to the time Jordan reportedly cheated while playing cards with Peterson's mother.

Larry Bird saw it during their NBA rivalry that began when Jordan scored 63 points against the Celtics during a 1987 playoff game and pronounced that "God came back today disguised as Michael Jordan."

"There's too much free time and only so much working out you can do, so much golf and fishing," said Bird, now in his third and final season as coach of the Indiana Pacers, before last night's 123-113 loss to the Wizards. "You miss the competition. The competition is the key."

Jordan's late father, James, once was asked if his famous son was addicted to gambling when rumors of that swirled before the first retirement. "He's not addicted to gambling," the elder Jordan said. "He's addicted to competition."

Jerry West, considered perhaps the most successful executive among former superstar players now working in the NBA, believes the transition Jordan has to make will be more difficult than the one West made in becoming the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers 17 years ago. It wasn't just because the Lakers were coming off their second championship in three years.

"It was a lot less complex than it is today," said West, now the team's executive vice president for basketball operations. "There is so much more money involved. You're really in a risk-taking business. But if anyone can do it, Michael can."

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