Jordan stirring the pot

Basketball: The new man on the Wizards' scene has reached into his bag of tricks to shake things up, but, despite good signs, a turnaround seems far down the road.

February 09, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- He has fired a coach. He has put a scare into some of the players. He has watched games from the owner's suite, including a few minutes of his first with President Clinton, and participated in practice wearing his -- and Tim Legler's -- old uniform number.

In the nearly three weeks since he signed on as the president of basketball operations and a minority investor in the Washington Wizards, Michael Jordan has begun to energize a floundering franchise. It has given some hope to the team's long-suffering fans, as well as to majority owner Abe Pollin.

"There's a lot more energy, it's obvious," Pollin said after Saturday night's 110-102 loss at home to the Charlotte Hornets. "He's made an impact already. The players respect Michael and Darrell [Walker, the coach]. But it's going to take time."

While it has yet to translate into a higher percentage of wins or a significant increase in attendance at MCI Center, Jordan's presence has done wonders for the team's work ethic and started to bring what was viewed by many as a mom-and-pop front office operation into the NBA's new millennium.

"I'm going to be aggressive. I'm going to be fair," Jordan said one day last week, after helping Walker run practice. "I'm going to give our players an opportunity to produce. If I feel like I've given that and there's an opportunity to change certain things, then I will do that."

Though the 36-year-old legend has many virtues, patience isn't regarded to be one of them. That was evident in Jordan's decision to fire first-year coach Gar Heard 10 days after taking over. Jordan said Heard had lost the respect of the players and "he wasn't going to get it back."

Now, Jordan is trying to help the Wizards gain back the credibility as a franchise that has been in steady decline since the team, known as the Bullets, won the NBA championship in 1978. Its only playoff appearance in the past 11 years came in 1997, when it was eliminated in the opening round by Jordan's Chicago Bulls.

"I think what the organization needs more than anything is stability," said Jordan. "It starts within the organization. My success with the Bulls really didn't start until we had some sense of stability. It gives the players a certain respect about the organization. That is my first priority."

He has yet to reshape the roster, but that, too, could begin to happen shortly. With the Feb. 24 trade deadline approaching, there have been rumors about either point guard Rod Strickland or forward Juwan Howard going to the New York Knicks, and backup center Isaac Austin heading to either the Detroit Pistons or Los Angeles Lakers.

Jordan has yet to go on his first scouting trip, and that won't likely happen until the spring. Though Chuck Douglas, the team's director of player personnel, will do the bulk of the scouting for the remainder of the college and CBA seasons, Jordan will probably make an appearance at the final pre-draft camp in Chicago in June.

"Obviously, his main focus is the [current] team," Douglas said last week after getting back from a 12-day trip to several college campuses and before he went out to scout 7-foot-3 Brad Millard of little St. Mary's in Moraga, Calif. "There will be enough time to update him on the CBA and on some European players."

How much the Wizards do in the off-season depends on whether Jordan can move enough, if any, of the team's high-priced stars to bring a bloated $53 million payroll closer to the NBA's $34 million salary cap.

It also will depend on whether the Wizards get one of the top three picks in the draft or have to give their No. 1 pick to the Golden State Warriors as part of the deal for Chris Webber in 1994.

`Gang-tackling' at the top

Who aside from Jordan will take part in those decisions remains in question, though Pollin said Saturday that he has given general manager Wes Unseld a new five-year contract.

"Right now, we've been more or less just gang-tackling -- myself, Wes, Susan [O'Malley, team president] -- just trying to deal with the situation," said Jordan. "Some say we have problems with the cap. But I think what people tend to forget is that I think we have a pretty good team."

While working with Unseld and being properly respectful in public to the Hall of Famer, Jordan has made it clear he is in charge. He said during his first news conference that he has the right to override Unseld's opinions and go directly to Pollin for final approval on trades and other personnel moves.

Jordan also said last week that his longtime agent, David Falk, is not acting as the unofficial general manager when it comes to the wishes of clients Strickland and Howard.

"I'm not going to rely on too much outside influence," said Jordan, rejecting Heard's assertion that Falk helped orchestrate the ex-coach's ouster. "I'm going to see for myself."

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