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These must be tough times for Wilmington, N.C., what with losing the Wizards and Dawson’s Creek in such a short time. Well, losing Dawson’s Creek must be tough.
This season, the Wizards won’t be holding training camp in the coastal town where they’ve trained for the last three falls. There hasn’t been any official announcement yet, but they’re not going back.
They won’t be going to Wilmington for the same reason they ended up there in the first place: It’s Michael Jordan’s hometown. And, given how Jordan and the franchise parted companyany antonym of “amicably” will suffice, the stronger the betterthere’s no way to head back.
Brian Hendrickson, a sportswriter who covered the team the last three camps for the Wilmington Star News, the local daily, says the reaction around town, if any, to the Wizards’ departure is of the don’t-let-the-door-hit-you variety.
“Every year,” says Hendrickson, “we’d get the same calls and e-mails from people complaining that the practices were closed, that tickets to the [intrasquad] scrimmage were impossible to come by, that the Wizards wouldn’t make any appearances around here that would ‘make my son happy,’ and they’d always end up asking: ‘Why should we care they’re here?’ And every year, I’d respond very cordially: ‘I don’t know.’ People here never saw the Wizards as our team, and whatever novelty there was about having them here quickly wore off.”
In retrospect, there were hints from the start that Jordan didn’t really like D.C. One of the strongest and earliest signs came during his first off-season as the Wizards president of basketball operations, when Jordan dispatched Wes Unseld to Wilmington with orders to find a new training site near his old home.
The Bullets/Wizards had never trained outside the region before Jordan got here. Fort Meade housed the team every fall from 1964 through 1988, followed by short stints training in Gettysburg, Pa., and Emmitsburg, Md. Then in 1992, Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va., a town a little more than an hour’s drive from D.C., became the camp site.
But Unseld reported back to his new boss that the University of North Carolina at Wilmington had offered up use of the school’s field house, Trask Coliseum, and wouldn’t make the Wizards sign any long-term deal. So beginning in 2000, the city of around 250,000, located where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean, became the team’s fall home. Jordan is the most famous export from Wilmington, which over the years has grown into a popular production site for feature films (Blue Velvet, Sleeping With the Enemy) and television programs, including the teen soap Dawson’s Creek.
A lot of things around town, such as the gym at Jordan’s alma mater, Laney High School, are named for him. Along with giving Jordan a reason to go home, the naming of a new camp site told the world that neither Unseld nor owner Abe Pollin was calling the shots for the Wizards.
The folks at UNCW liked the attention the new tenant brought.
“A school like ours, you can’t pay for that level of exposure that having Michael Jordan here got us,” says Joe Simon, the assistant athletic director for facilities and event management at UNCW.
UNCW had a successful promotion in which anybody who bought a season ticket to the school’s basketball games got a pass to the Wizards’ intrasquad scrimmage in 2001, the game that reintroduced Jordan as a player and brought more media to Wilmington than any event in the city’s history. Simon also says the athletic department scheduled recruiting visits around Jordan’s presence in hopes of swaying better athletes. The strategy hasn’t hurt: The UNCW team has made the NCAA tournament the past two seasons, and it would have beaten the University of Maryland this year were it not for Drew Nicholas’ Hail Mary at the buzzer.
As soon as he heard that the Wizards had cut all ties with Jordan, Simon says, he figured that UNCW would have to come up with a new lure for recruits to replace His Airness. And he was right: Last week, he says, the Wizards called Simon to tell him they’re “going in a different direction.” (Also last week, the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier reported that Wizards trainer Steve Stricker came to town to scout the College of Charleston. That site became available when the New York Knicks, who trained there for the past 12 seasons, announced that they would hold camp in New York next season. Ernie Grunfeld, who took Jordan’s job with the Wizards, oversaw the Knicks’ camps in Charleston when he was New York’s general manager.)
Away from the UNCW athletic department, whatever buzz the Wizards generated wasn’t so positive. The team, mainly Jordan, showed the Wilmington media the same indifference shown local fans, says Hendrickson, so even sports reporters quickly tired of the return-of-the-prodigal-son story. At some point in a typical day of covering camp, he says, Hendrickson found himself muttering something along the lines of “This sucks!”
“The access to the team was so restricted that it was almost in violation of NBA rules,” Hendrickson says. “They’d let us watch maybe five minutes at the end of practice. I wrote one whole column of what a great walker and sitter Michael Jordan was, ’cause that’s all I ever got to see him do. I could only tell people that he looks really good sitting in a chair.”
Even without the Wizards, visitors to Wilmington wanting to get a taste of Jordan’s basketball prowess can check out the Cape Fear Museum. Thanks to donations from His Airness, there are Jordan’s kindergarten report cardperfect attendance!and a paycheck stub from Whitey’s El-Berta Restaurant, alongside, of course, trinkets from his just-concluded basketball career, such as a North Carolina Tar Heels jersey.
Not all phases of his playing days are represented, however. Eve Carr, the museum’s historian, says there isn’t any hint in the museum that Jordan ever had any connection to a team in Washington.
“But if he gives us a [Wizards] jersey, we’ll put it up,” says Carr. Dave McKenna