WASHINGTON - Chris Whitney and Popeye Jones have each played eight years in the NBA, yet little that they have done before prepared them for what they've experienced over the past month as members of the Washington Wizards. Being a teammate of Michael Jordan can do that.
Off the court, it has meant more media attention, bigger crowds and the kind of national spotlight usually reserved for teams contending in the NBA playoffs. On the court, it has meant more open shots against defenses designed to shut down a 38-year-old legend whose talents are still considerable.
Of all the Wizards, Whitney and Jones have made the quickest adjustment to gaining Jordan's trust. Coming off their first victory of the season Thursday night in Atlanta, the 1-1 Wizards will continue the process in the team's home opener tonight at 6:30 against the Philadelphia 76ers (0-2) at MCI Center.
While Jordan took his usual share of the spotlight by scoring 31 points in a 98-88 win over the Hawks, Whitney made some big shots and Jones some crucial plays down the stretch. Whitney finished with 16 points and Jones pitched in with nine points and 13 rebounds, five on the offensive boards.
"Chris is like my Steve Kerr or John Paxson," Jordan said of Whitney, comparing him to the two Chicago shooters whose role with the Bulls was enhanced the more confident Jordan became in them. "If he's hitting his shots, it allows me to operate under the radar screen."
Whitney and third-year guard Richard Hamilton, who finished with 22 points, gave Jordan the kind of support he got accustomed to during his six championship seasons in a 13-year career with the Chicago Bulls. If Jordan's comebacks deserve numbers, just call this group the Jordanaires II.
"It can go either way," said Whitney, who scored 18 points off the bench in a season-opening loss to the Knicks in New York on Tuesday but started against the Hawks. "Some guys can look at it as a lot of pressure playing with Mike. Some guys can relish the opportunities."
Said Jones, who had 13 points and seven rebounds against the Knicks, "He makes the game so much easier when you're on the court because he draws so much attention."
Having that trust in his teammates is not easy for Jordan. Though as president of basketball operations for the Wizards, he was responsible for bringing everybody but Hamilton, Whitney and center Jahidi White to the current roster, he still has the memory of a team that went 19-63 last season.
Replay Thursday's game at Philips Arena to see how that confidence grew as the night went on. After taking 20 shots in the first half and hitting nine for 19 points, Jordan knew he had to get others involved. He wound up taking only 10 shots in the second half, but Whitney took nine and Hamilton eight.
"When it came down to it, it wasn't just Michael, it was other guys making big shots," said new Wizards coach Doug Collins. "Rip Hamilton did. Chris Whitney did. Michael, at 38, if we asked him to win games in the last four minutes by himself every night, he cannot do that. It will wear him out."
Jordan didn't want to sit down for his usual three- or four-minute rest at the end of the third quarter, but acquiesced when Collins told him, "Trust your teammates. You don't have to carry us." Seeing his teammates come out of the quarter with a slim lead helped them gain Jordan's trust.
Collins "wanted to see if my teammates could survive without me," said Jordan, who would play 40 minutes, his longest stretch on the court since he returned from a three-year retirement.
Collins left Jordan with another thought.
"If I don't rest you," Collins said, "we can't finish this game."
A rested Jordan returned to start the fourth quarter, with the Wizards pulling away in the last four minutes after reserve center Etan Thomas' dunk gave Washington a 90-85 lead and a three-pointer by Whitney made it eight with 39 seconds to play.
Jordan switched between playing the point and setting up on the low post and trying to draw double-teams. In New York, it resulted in a couple of late turnovers when he forced passes to teammates. In Atlanta, it resulted in easy jump shots and layups.
"In the closing minutes like that, it's important for me to get down in scoring position and create a focus to where I can find the shooters," he said.
Identifying the shooters is only part of this equation.
Figuring out who the true Jordanaires are could even be more important.
NOTES: The 76ers have lost their first two games, at Minnesota and at home to Dallas. The reigning Eastern Conference champs are still without Allen Iverson, who is recovering from elbow surgery, as well as Aaron McKie (knee surgery) and Eric Snow (broken thumb). ... Team officials are suggesting fans attending tonight's game should arrive early, since there will be a street fair held adjacent to MCI Center beginning at 4 p.m.