Mr. Jordan goes to Washington

The most popular jock in the world was bigger news than the snowstorm that arrived in the nation's capital a few hours after he did.

Published January 20, 2000 10:00AM (EST)

"The guy's like Elvis," said Ted Leonsis, an owner of the Washington Wizards and the man most responsible for bringing His Airness, Michael Jordan, to Washington. Yesterday afternoon's press conference to unveil Jordan as the Wizards' president of basketball operations and minority owner (culturally and fiscally) was moved from MCI Center's press room to the Wizards' practice gym because of the media's mania. But even though the Jordan story broke a week ago, that venue was barely big enough to handle the crush.

Earlier this season, Leonsis, a high-ranking America Online executive, had been seen rubbing elbows with D.C. super-agent David Falk at Wizards games. Those discussions were taken as a sign that former Georgetown coach John Thompson, a Falk client and local hero who now has a radio talk show in town, might soon be brought into the perennially struggling organization. As is now apparent, Leonsis was actually schmoozing with Falk in hopes of landing another recent retiree in the agent's stable. That would be Jordan, winner of six championship rings with the Chicago Bulls, ESPN's "Athlete of the Century" and a man generally regarded as the most popular jock in the world.

Jordan's desire to get back into basketball wasn't a secret. He'd talked with the Denver, Charlotte and Milwaukee franchises about front office and ownership slots, but those fell through. The Wizards, however, were perceived to be among the last squads Jordan would end up with. Majority owner Abe Pollin, who moved the Baltimore Bullets to the Washington area in 1973 (the name was changed to Wizards in 1997, allegedly to send a message of non-violence to the community), had a much-publicized verbal spat with Jordan during the labor negotiations that held up the start of last season. Jordan had reportedly yelled at the then-74-year old Pollin from across the bargaining table to "sell your team."

But the equity share in the Wizards (and, to a lesser extent, hockey's Washington Capitals) offered by Leonsis and Pollin, and the chance to bring in the greatest basketball player in the world, caused both sides to bury the hatchet.

"That would have been a great fight," Jordan laughed at the press conference, when asked about the feud. "But that was never an issue in our talks here. We didn't even mention it."

Wes Unseld, a Hall of Famer as a player with the Bullets and currently the team's general manager, handled personnel decisions for the franchise up until Jordan's hiring. Unseld, a wide-bodied, 6-foot-7-inch former center, didn't arrive early enough to the press conference to get a seat. He had to watch his new boss from the handicapped access ramp leading to the practice court, behind a group of MCI Center maintenance men in monogrammed work shirts. Unseld didn't show any emotion as Jordan announced he "won't kick Wes to the curb" anytime soon. He didn't say what Unseld's duties will be from now on, though.

Jordan may yet show Unseld a curbside seat once he takes a harder look at the team's roster. The Wizards/Bullets assembled by Unseld haven't even won a playoff game in 12 years, and, with a pre-Jordan record of 11-28 and a slot in last place in the Atlantic Division, that streak won't end this season. Jordan acknowledged the Wizards' lousiness during the press conference, and announced that Coach Gar Heard's job wasn't safe. He even said the players weren't earning their checks, using the term "underachievers" on several occasions.

Jordan didn't name names, but the team's two highest-paid players, Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland, rank high on disgruntled fans' lists of underachieving Wizards. Howard had a great reputation when Pollin made him one of basketball's first $100 million men in 1996, but a drunk-driving conviction and haggling over child-support payments have tarnished his image in the community. When he went on the MCI Center public address system before a game last week to push his eponymous charity, boos rained.

Strickland, who signed a $40 million, four-year contract last season, has been ignoring fan-appreciation functions and local laws since coming to the team for the 1996-97 season. He's been arrested twice for drunk driving on local streets, and beat up teammate Tracy Murray in 1997. His stats -- 40 percent from the field and seven assists per game -- aren't sitting well with the ticket-buying public, either.

Jordan may have trouble unloading either Strickland or Howard, however. Not just because of the league's salary cap rules, but because both players are also clients of Falk, the most powerful agent in the NBA. Jordan denied, however, that this apparent conflict of interest will impact his personnel decisions.

"People are going to make it seem like David is running the team," he said. "I don't work for David. David works for me."

After the conference, Jordan walked across the hall and met with Wizards players in the home locker room as they prepared to meet the lowly Dallas Mavericks. Whatever he said didn't work. With President Clinton drawn to the building by the presence of the new president of basketball operations, the Wizards took an 18-point beating. Howard made two of nine shots; Strickland hit two of 12.

By Dave McKenna

Dave McKenna is a writer in Washington.

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