It wasn't supposed to end like this. Everyone involved seems to agree on at least that much.
Michael Jordan doesn't do bad endings. He might do corny, impossible, save-the-day endings, but not bad endings and definitely not endings in which he might be perceived as anything but the hero.
Like a lot of other stories, this one carries a wistful preamble: and it had started out so well. Jordan was back in the game as the Washington Wizards president of basketball operations, a piece of team ownership in his pocket. This was the king of the NBA finally taking his rightful place on the throne. Most everybody felt good about it in January 2000, including owner Abe Pollin, who would enjoy the fruits of Jordan's presence until distrust on both sides poisoned their relationship.
The nation's capital was positively elated about Jordan's arrival, especially with the juicy idea that MJ could, might, pretty please don a uniform and come out of retirement. It was the tantalizing possibility that wouldn't go away, especially at street level.
"It excited the whole city," said Otis Walker, pastor of the Signs, Miracles and Wonder Learning Institute in Washington, as he stood outside the Verizon Center one August day. "Everybody kept saying, 'He's going to play, he's going to play.' "
After more than a year of sitting around his Wizards office, Jordan announced in September 2001 that he indeed was going to play again. It wasn't a sign, a miracle or a wonder. It was a man bored out of his mind.
Washington Post reporter Michael Leahy, whose book "When Nothing Else Matters," chronicled Jordan's two seasons as a Wizards player, remembers sitting in Jordan's executive office in December 2000 and seeing a person who didn't know what to do with himself.
"He was looking out the window for a while and at some point I asked him what he was looking at," Leahy said. "He said, 'Nothing really. Sometimes you'll see a kid dribbling a basketball and you wonder where that kid is going.'
"He just so missed it. We talked about Phil Jackson and Allen Iverson. All these people had games -- Iverson, Phil, the kid with the ball. He was stuck like a butterfly under glass in this office."
So out of retirement he bounded, this time as a late-model Superman flying at lower altitudes. He tortured his 38-year-old body into shape and began a two-year journey that made a lot of money for a lot of people. Coming back meant giving up his executive title and his ownership stake, and it took away any control he might have had over his future. It would come back to haunt him.
But at the beginning? It was a glorious thing.
"It was really a dream come true," said Popeye Jones, who played with Jordan in 2001-02. "You knew you were going to play with Michael Jordan. You wanted to show that you belonged on the court with, in my mind, the greatest player who ever played."
Washington came down with a bad case of Wizards fever, a rare condition in a town that had seen years of bad to mediocre basketball. The year before Jordan came out of retirement, the franchise ranked 18th in NBA home attendance. In the two seasons he did play, the Wizards were third and second, respectively. They were 26th in road attendance the season before he decided to come back. They finished second in his comeback season and first the next season.
In his Wizards debut -- more than three years after his final game for the Bulls -- Jordan scored 19 points on seven-of-21 shooting in New York. He also had six assists, five rebounds and four steals. Yet to Chicagoans who had watched him lead the Bulls to six NBA titles, he looked odd in that Washington uniform and somehow reduced.
As the season went along, he improved. He was extraordinarily smart as a player, a side of him that had always gotten lost in his absurd talent and relentless competitiveness. He adapted his game to compensate for the athleticism that age had stolen. Instead of the powerful first step that had reduced opponents to nervous tics and spasms, he developed a step-back jump shot that was as merciless as a contract killer.
Until he tore cartilage in his right knee in February 2002, the Wizards were thinking about making the playoffs. But the possibility of a physical breakdown was always implicit in the deal: You'd get glimpses of the old Michael, the superstar, but you'd also get an old Michael, an injury risk.
He was able to come back later in the season, but the Wizards were out of the playoff hunt and finished 37-45, as they would the next season. He led the team in scoring at 22.9 points a game. The next season, he averaged 20 points and was the only Wizard to play in all 82 games.
This was not the Michael Jordan whom America had watched wide-eyed for so many years, but what he was able to accomplish from ages 38-40 was impressive. And the Wizards improved by 18 victories in his first season in uniform.
"It was amazing," said former Bulls coach Doug Collins, whom Jordan hired to coach the Wizards before the comeback. "Obviously, I coached him when he was 25, 26. Michael used to just eat up practice, devour it. At age 40, he couldn't do that. All of a sudden, you have Michael practice for 30, 35 minutes. You say, 'Michael, go put ice on your knee.' Then you have the rest of your team practice a little longer.
"Sometimes the younger players took exception to that, like it was punishment. I said, 'This guy doesn't have that many miles left in those legs, and we've got to preserve that.'
"That didn't sit well."
As time went on, the relationships between Jordan and some of the younger players got ugly, especially his dealings with Kwame Brown, whom Jordan had taken with the first overall pick in the 2001 draft.
Brown is to Jordan's résumé what "Gigli" is to Ben Affleck's.
"Unfortunately, a lot of the good stuff Michael did get glossed over," Collins said. "I think people look at it and say, 'They drafted Kwame Brown and traded Rip Hamilton.' But I was there when the draft was going on that year, and Kwame Brown was the consensus No. 1 pick by so many of the teams. I can tell you our phones were ringing off the hook, people trying to trade to get to that No. 1 pick.
"The fact that Kwame didn't play well then came onto Michael, who took a lot of heat. But I know the Chicago Bulls wanted to move up to get him. We were going to make the deal and get Elton Brand. They eventually ended up making a deal with the Clippers and took Tyson Chandler."
There was no doubt Jordan saw Brown as lacking toughness, and there also was no doubt he saw it as his duty to point out that deficiency. According to a 2002 Washington Post story, Jordan used an anti-gay epithet to describe Brown after he complained about a no-call. At a later practice, Brown would break down and cry.
"No matter whether he could play or not, no 19-year-old right out of high school deserved to be treated like that," Leahy said. "He was getting it not only from Michael but also from Collins. But Kwame aside, for a while, Michael was quite good with the others, people like Hamilton, Courtney Alexander."
Brown, now with the Pistons, did not respond to several interview requests. Jones, who is retired and works in player development for the Mavericks, said playing with Jordan meant responding with maximum effort.
"With young guys sometimes, you get them coming in loafing in practice and they don't understand the true value of hard work," he said. "Michael was 39 when I played with him, and he was still trying to get better."
Collins agreed about the younger players.
"Michael is a very dominant personality," he said. "The guy is the greatest competitor of all time. If you're going to play with him, you better be able to step up to the plate and meet that kind of challenge. A lot of the younger players were overwhelmed by that.
"The one thing you had to prove to Michael was that under pressure, he could trust you -- and as a coach as well."
During a December game in Jordan's first season, the Wizards were getting crushed by the Pacers. Collins' decision to take him out of the blowout ended Jordan's streak double-figure scoring at an NBA record 866 games. Collins didn't know about the streak until afterward, and Jordan said publicly it wasn't a big deal that he finished the game with six points.
But when he walked onto the team bus, he sat down next to Collins.
"He looked at me and asked me a question that I'll never forget," Collins said. "He said, 'Do you think I can still play?' I said, 'Yeah, Michael, I still think you can play. That's why I'm here with you -- to try to help you out to get this franchise right.'
"And he said, 'Well, if you're going to be my coach, you have to believe in me.' I said, 'I believe in you.' He said, 'You did the right thing tonight, but I just wanted you to know that I can still play.' "
Two nights later, he scored 51 points against Charlotte. He followed up with 45, including 22 straight points for the Wizards, against New Jersey. And not long after, he scored his 30,000 career point, against the Bulls.
"I think in his heart of hearts, he wanted to know the guy that he was locked arm in arm with believed in him," Collins said.
By the second season, some of Jordan's teammates were not in lockstep with him. They were stung by his public criticism of them, especially when he questioned their hearts. At least one newspaper story said Jordan turned on players when they didn't pass the ball to him. There are those in the Jordan camp who point out that the roster wasn't exactly filled with scorers. Jordan's detractors respond that as the team's de facto general manager, he was in charge of that roster.
Whatever the case, there's no denying that what had started off so joyfully had turned messy. And Pollin's people were tiring of what they saw as Jordan's lack of gratitude for being given a percentage of the team for free.
Jordan's image was dented off the court as well. In October 2002, he sued his former lover, Karla Knafel, alleging that she tried to extort $5 million from him. In a countersuit, Knafel charged that Jordan owed her the money for remaining silent and agreeing not to file a paternity suit after she became pregnant.
DNA tests later determined that Jordan wasn't the father. Her suit died in the courts.
If there were a statue of Jordan in front of the Wizards' arena, what would it depict? Michael handing out money to wing-tipped businessmen? Or maybe something more post-modern? Jordan as an ATM -- Automated Teller Michael?
The area around what was then called the MCI Center (now the Verizon Center) already was going through a renaissance, but the addition of Jordan supercharged it. The Penn Quarter neighborhood sizzled on game nights. The same phenomena had happened on the West Side in Jordan's Chicago years, in the area surrounding the United Center.
He established a restaurant, jordans, in the Ronald Reagan Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, and it was an immediate hit.
"Anytime there was a rumor he was coming to dinner, we'd get 150, 200 reservations that night," said Daniel Mahdavian, who was the restaurant's general manager. "It was remarkable. I had to schedule extra staff when I knew he was coming. He usually gave us a heads-up. I knew we were going to have a huge number of reservations and a huge number of people coming to see him."
Mahdavian said Jordan would come to the restaurant two or three times a week when the Wizards were in town. He would visit diners at their tables. Now it can be told: His favorite item on the menu was sweet-potato fries.
"I used to pick the music -- it was a voodoo-bar kind of music," Mahdavian said. "One day he said to me, 'I need to teach you about our music.' He sent his assistant to buy me 150 R&B CDs. He was very generous and giving."
Whether Jordan's presence had a lasting effect on the neighborhood around the Verizon Center is open to debate. It already was growing before he arrived. Businesses were setting up shop. Restaurants were thriving.
But when Jordan was playing, the Wizards were getting 5,000 more people a game than they were when he was an executive. The area felt it.
"I will say this -- I ain't seen any of them businesses close up," said Walker, the pastor. "They got established, and they're still here. In that sense, I guess you've got to say his footprint is on the city. He gave it a fresh life. I think we're better off that he was here for that short stint than if he hadn't been."
Whether the same can be said about the Wizards is also up for debate. Some argue that Jordan weakened the franchise by selling out the future for a chance to win while he was playing. A conflict between Richard Hamilton and Jordan reportedly led to Hamilton's trade to Detroit and the arrival of Jerry Stackhouse.
Collins sees it differently.
"He left them in a situation cap-wise where they had enough money to go out and sign Gilbert Arenas," he said. "The talent level was appreciably better when Michael left than when he started. I think a lot of that gets lost.
"And then you talk about the games he played. The games were all sold out. Washington was buzzing about basketball again. Again, a lot of that gets lost."
When Jordan's relationship with the Wizards ended, his restaurant closed soon after.
"He was the main reason that restaurant was going to be successful," Mahdavian said. "After he was gone, the management tried to keep the place alive by making it more of a bar scene. That was the end of that. A lot of people in the city felt like he was used [by the Wizards]."
On May 7, 2003, Pollin let Jordan go during an 18-minute meeting. Just like that. Jordan believed he had a verbal understanding that allowed him to resume his duties. He felt a keen lack of appreciation for helping the franchise make a huge profit with him in a Wizards jersey.
In turn, Pollin and team president Susan O'Malley were taken aback by Jordan's arrogance and what they perceived as his presumption that he would one day take control of the team, according to Leahy.
There were irreconcilable differences, though only one side, Pollin's, saw it that way. Right until the end, Jordan thought he was going to win. He always thinks he's going to win.
The night before the meeting, Jordan had dinner with Ted Leonsis, the Washington Capitals owner who owns 44 percent of the Wizards. Jordan being Jordan, he thought he could persuade Pollin to give him back his title and share of the team. A week before, Jordan had implied he was a front-office free agent, ready to take his pick of several jobs around the NBA. He was criticized heavily for the comment and later tried to get the car back on the road by saying he was fully committed to the Wizards.
It was too late. The organization already questioned his work ethic as an executive. His perceived lack of loyalty was the final straw.
"For the first time in his life, he was playing defense," Leahy said. "Nobody ever taught him how to play defense. He never said the words that might have been able to save him, something along the lines of: 'I might have chosen my words poorly. I really do want to be a part of this organization. I'm grateful for the chance I was given to come in here to be president, though I had had no executive experience before, and to have a free slice of ownership, for which I didn't put up a dime.' "
Jordan might have seen that sort of statement as capitulation or failure. Or perhaps, as Leahy said, he just didn't know how to do it. And for all the people Jordan employed to give him advice, he apparently didn't have anyone pointing him in the right direction.
Other than releasing a statement congratulating Jordan on his upcoming Hall of Fame induction, Pollin declined comment, as did Leonsis, who was considered a confidant of Jordan's while MJ played in Washington.
Five months after cutting ties with Jordan, Pollin did talk about his decision.
"It was an atmosphere on edge," he told the Associated Press. "It was not a healthy atmosphere to produce a happy organization or a winning team."
Collins, who found himself in the middle between Jordan and Pollin, said Jordan felt betrayed.
"I think he felt like that if he played those two years that he was going to be able to go back up into the front office and go back to building the team," Collins said. "He felt like he had lived up to his end. I think that was tough."
The story was not supposed to end with a seething, reeling icon driving away in a luxury vehicle.
But it did.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times