A meeting planned for later this week between Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards' owners, Abe Pollin and Ted Leonsis, was intended as a discussion about Jordan's possible return to the team's front office, but it may instead end their partnership.
Mounting player resentment toward Jordan and ownership's concerns about Jordan's work ethic as an executive - along with Jordan's misgivings about the franchise's future - has changed the relationship between Jordan and the franchise, according to two team executives.
An Eastern Conference official said yesterday that Jordan's advisers have been seeking to set up meetings about Jordan's potential ownership of other NBA teams. The move has further infuriated the Wizards' ownership.
If the partnership does end, it would result in an organizational overhaul and the possible removal of coach Doug Collins.
"All issues pertaining to the future direction of the franchise will be discussed later this week," Pollin, 79, said through a spokesman.
A spokeswoman for Jordan said the recently retired player would not comment and a Wizards representative said Collins was on vacation and was not expected to return messages. Leonsis, the AOL vice chairman who is the majority owner of the NHL's Washington Capitals and an a minority owner of the Wizards, could not be reached to comment.
The first wave of change came Friday when Wes Unseld, the team's general manager for the past seven years, announced that he was taking a leave of absence after the NBA draft on June 26, although Unseld's departure had more to do with health concerns.
The Wizards, who finished with a record of 37-45 for the second consecutive season, did not make the playoffs for the sixth straight time. The offseason acquisitions of Jerry Stackhouse and Larry Hughes to complement Jordan and the team's young big men failed to produce the desired results. The Wizards' season ended in disarray, with Collins complaining about players' disrespect for his authority and with the thinly veiled criticism of Jordan by some of his teammates.
"Without Michael, we could be just as good of a team," Stackhouse recently told The Washington Post. "I look forward to that challenge and I know other guys in this locker room, even though they may not say it, are looking forward to that challenge, too."
Players who originally bought into Jordan's mystique soon became disenchanted with his constant criticism. That ill will, the officials said, may lead to Jordan's departure.
In the season's final days, when many of Jordan's teammates were asked whether they wanted to contribute to a goodbye gift, the Wizards arrived quickly at a collective decision: No.
When asked to pinpoint the demise of the team in exit interviews with Unseld, they bit their tongues. Seated nearby were Rod Higgins, the assistant general manager, and Fred Whitfield, the director of player personnel, both close friends of Jordan, who hired both men.
"I didn't feel like I could be honest," said one. "If Mike goes upstairs again, he's got control of my career."
According to the two team officials, Jordan thought he could use his executive position on the court to bring about change in his teammates. But players resisted.
According to one official, Hughes was explicitly told by Jordan to get him the ball if he wanted to play. When the point guard began passing it to Stackhouse as much as Jordan, he soon found himself benched.
Tyronn Lue, the official said, obliged and began finding Jordan every time the diminutive point guard played. "He was scared to death of what would happen to him in his career if he didn't," the player said.
Several players felt Collins was caught serving two masters: the organization and Jordan. Collins was told by management on several occasions to coach the team as if he were in charge and not Jordan.
But the players, according to the officials, felt Jordan's influence superseded that of their coach, and it led to much friction.
One of the officials said even the acquisition of Stackhouse came about partly because of a player unwilling to defer to Jordan. Late last fall, Richard Hamilton and Jordan got into an ugly shouting match. According to the two officials, it began when Hamilton told Jordan he was tired of being a "Jordannaire," the term used for Jordan's role players in Chicago.
"Rip was a young, brash guy who threatened the idea of Michael being the guy here," the official said. "He was promptly gotten rid of for Stackhouse."
A person close to Jordan denied Hamilton was traded because of a personality conflict. He said contractual issues led to the Stackhouse deal.