Just as the lost souls in Harry Hope's saloon wait hopefully for Hickey, so do the Washington Wizards live for every appearance of their bald-headed, earringed savior. The Mike Man Cometh. The world seems a little brighter, a little more intense, a little more meaningful when MJ is around. He may be in town for only a day or two, but that is enough—enough time to impose a dress code; to microwave a rookie in a postpractice, one-on-one session; to get a commander in chief to come to a game at the MCI Center. The Wizards don't exactly disappear when MJ's not in the house, but they become once again pedestrian, the sports equivalent of, say, the Department of Agriculture: Everyone knows it's located in the nation's capital, but no one really cares.
On Jan. 19 Michael Jordan bought an estimated 10% of the Wizards (for between $20 million and $30 million) and became the moribund franchise's director of basketball operations. As of Monday he had been with the team in D.C.—at a practice, at a game or huddling with team officials over possible personnel moves—for seven of the 19 days since he took over. The Wizards were 3-6 during that period, better than their .307 pre-Mike winning percentage but not suggestive of a McCain-like surge.
The team was 1-1 with Jordan watching, pontifflike, from suite 102, the owners' box at the MCI Center. Jordan had yet to take in a game on the road, though he said he was trying to see every one by satellite at his Chicago home or at some celeb-sympathetic refuge. On the evening of Feb. 1, for example, at the Shark Club in Bethesda, Md., he watched the Wizards- Cleveland Cavaliers game until the gaga factor got a tad high. "I think some people there made a few phone calls," Jordan said.
However seldom he showed up in D.C., no one was complaining. "I'm sure Michael will figure out the right formula to do this job," said coach Gar Heard. Well, Heard said that on Jan. 28, the day before Jordan fired him and assistants Butch Beard and Mike Bratz, making Heard the third Wizards coach to plunge into the Potomac in the past nine months. Jordan did not inform Heard of the decision; that was left to general manager Wes Unseld, who showed Heard the door after a 103-98 win over the Cavs, while Jordan was in Chicago. "I hired him," Unseld told Jordan, "so I should fire him." Reluctantly, Jordan agreed. He immediately regretted it.
"From this time forward," he told Unseld after a barrage of criticism for his treatment of Heard, "I'm going to do the hiring, and I'm going to do all the firing." Axing Heard in absentia without ever having had a one-to-one talk with him was a heartless act, never mind that it certified Jordan as a member of NBA management, a fraternity that specializes in the heartless jettisoning of coaches.
If one thing is clear from the early days of the Jordan-Wizards marriage, it is this: MJ is in charge. This goes way beyond last week's installation of a clothes rule for road trips—sport coat, dress shirt, slacks, no sneakers. Unseld, who has been with the franchise for 32 years as a player, coach, general manager and surrogate son of majority owner Abe Pollin, has stepped stoically aside, much as Jordan's fellow Chicago Bulls did when he had the basketball and hankered to take it to the hoop. Technically Jordan works for Pollin, who owns 56% of the team, but the 74-year-old construction magnate and longest-tenured owner in the NBA, whose franchise hasn't won a playoff game since 1988 or a playoff series since '82, says Jordan will have the last word on basketball decisions. Asked last week for a scenario in which he would overrule Jordan, Pollin said he couldn't think of one. "I will not make a move that would stand in front of something Michael wants to do," he said.
Though Jordan has not established his credentials as a judge of talent—his previous forays in that area consisted chiefly of "Get me John Paxson!" or "Get rid of Bill Cartwright!"—His Airness will also call the shots on trades and college drafts. "I think he's open-minded and realizes he can't make himself the standard for players," says Chuck Douglas, the Wizards' longtime director of player personnel, "but he's quite clear and quite opinionated about who he likes and who he doesn't."
Jordan reinforced the point last Thursday. "I won't rely too much on outside influences to decide [on player moves]," he said.
Heck, MJ is even an unofficial coach. In the final moments of practice on Thursday morning, the day after a 103-93 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves and the day before a 99-92 road loss to the Miami Heat, the Wizards ran gassers, rare for an NBA team at this stage of the season. It was Jordan, dressed in jeans, a gold pullover and tan boots, who good-naturedly but relentlessly pushed the team. "Come on, Rod," Jordan chided point guard Rod Strickland. "Don't kill yourself, but push yourself." It was Jordan who gave interim coach Darrell Walker, a former Chicago teammate who was his second choice to replace Heard, a subtle hand signal that the torture should be concluded. It was Jordan who then ordered the team to the foul line to "shoot 'em while you're tired."
But what does all this mean? Can a Jordan in mufti turn around a franchise? Can he meet the demands of the job while commuting from the Windy City? Is he committed? Does his mere presence supercharge the league, as it did when he played? And why did he take a job that everyone considers difficult and that the Detroit Pistons' Grant Hill suggests is "beneath him"?