When game is being bullish, few can play with Jordan

March 12, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

WASHINGTON - Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the former Wizards president who drafted or signed them all, then ripped them in public?

Why that would be the man, the legend, the one and only Mad Mike.

"We play in public ... the truth hurts," Michael Jordan said last night after the Wizards beat the Orlando Magic, 106-105, to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Jordan apparently had to drag his take-no-prisoners persona out of the closet. You remember the one from those angry days when, on the verge of all those championships, he'd take Steve Kerr to the hardwood and give the little guard a licking. Jordan is such an intimidating presence, even a nutcase like Dennis Rodman understood the rules: Keep your nose clean. Don't mess around with what Mad Mike wants.

The Wizards have kept afloat the dream of the playoffs with last night's nifty effort. Jerry Stackhouse got off for 31 points, eight assists and five rebounds to re-establish the prime-of-his-career Wizard most capable of dominating a game. So there's no question about it: Michael Jordan knows how to go to the whip.

To recap, here's how Mad Mike verbally blow-torched the Wizards on Sunday after they wasted his 39-point effort and lost a one-point game to the Knicks. With their loss to the Bucks on Friday, the loss against the Knicks and last night's matchup looming large for a spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Jordan was working it.

"At this point, if you make a mistake in October, you shouldn't be making the same mistake in March. You have to have some growth," he said.

"I'm doing everything I can to try and verbalize as well as physically show what it takes to win. It's up to them to see that," he said.

These are reasonable criticisms to air in public. Then Jordan took it a step further. He turned the issue of the Wizards' struggles so that it was ultimately an issue about his own greatness. He said the kids should put down the video games, take extra practice, ask an elder for a few pointers and stop acting so macho and cool and start learning to play the right way. In other words: Be like Mike.

But wasn't that why Mike was Mike? Because no one was like him?

A 40-year-old man should not be showing more desire than 20-year-olds, Jordan said.

But who ever did show more desire than Mike? Jordan has been veering close to this level of threat since the All-Star Game, when he confessed that his willingness to leave the game was emboldened by knowing the generation gap was complete. The league is not his playground anymore. He can't relate, unless it's to the oldsters like Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing that Jordan's brought in to keep him company.

Where this latest threat crumbles at the edges, and where it is inherently different from the times Jordan ruled during the Bulls two championship trifectas, is that Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant and Bill Cartwright and Charles Oakley knew they were going to have to deal with Jordan for a long time. He was ascending to the glory land and everyone was afraid of not getting to go with him.

This season, Jordan's self-proclaimed swan song, the young Wizards have been in a sort of developmental limbo. This year, the kids were supposed to start, Jordan was supposed to come off the bench and play the role of teacher. That changed about 15 games into the season when Jordan blew his first gasket, saying the kids weren't ready and he was going out with no bullets left in the chamber.

But next season, Jordan's gone. Next season, the entire dynamic changes. Which puts a funny spin on the former president's urgency to make this squad jell so fast and at the expense of establishing younger players.

Question: If Jordan weren't so desperate to get the Wizards into the playoffs, would Brown and last year's first-round pick, Juan Dixon, be getting as little playing time as they are?

Then there's the question of Stackhouse. It's not a question so much as a conundrum. Stackhouse had a terrific game last night, but if people mistake it for being a result of Jordan's tongue-lashing, remember that Stackhouse carried the Wizards' offensive load much of the season, when he wasn't hurt or wasn't in foul trouble.

Along with Jordan's tirade, Stackhouse decided to unload Sunday, too. It's not a system that best suits him. He's used to more isolation plays. He needs the ball to be effective. This could be mistaken for whining, except that Stackhouse has been eagerly searching for a way to establish himself with the Wizards while not over-aggressing Jordan.

Stackhouse may not be considered a front-line player like Kobe Bryant or Tracy McGrady, which is funny since Stackhouse has heard his whole life how he's going to be the next Jordan. But for the Wizards, Stackhouse can be the attacking scorer capable of carrying the Wizards along with Jordan and, more important, on his own, for the next few years.

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