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Over the Thanksgiving weekend, Michael Jordan insisted that his retirement plan remains in effect. The timing of big announcements in this town is rarely coincidental. The White House, for example, chose the same weekend to disclose that it had turned over control of the nation’s forests to the loggers—not because that’s when the fine points of its anti-environment program were finalized, but because nobody pays attention to the state of our union on Turkey Day. Jordan’s motivation could be equally calculated.
By now, anything Jordan says about quitting or not quitting has as much credibility as J. Lo’s marriage vows. But when Jordan told a reporter from the Carroll County Times that he’ll never play again once his two-year deal with the Wizards expires, it passed the man-bites-dog test of most sports editors. Showing no pretense about who makes the basketball decisions for the franchise, Jordan said that if he had had any intention of playing next year, “I would have extended myself,” meaning he would have given himself a contract extension.
The revelation, if that’s what it was, came just days after Jordan told the press he wanted a bigger role on the team, which was in the early stages of turning the best 10-game start in a decade into a very Wizards-esque losing streak. That contradicted comments throughout the preseason from Jordan and coach Doug Collins that the Greatest Player of All Time would be happy as a clam just sitting on the bench and teaching the young guys how to win. The retirement pledge guarantees that Collins will have to get Jordan back in the starting lineup so the fans can watch this last hurrah, even if it means cutting into the time he spends teaching the young guys how to win.
And in Saturday’s game with Philadelphia, the first home game since Jordan’s announcement, he was indeed in the starting lineup for the first time this season and was on the floor at the buzzer of the team’s sixth loss in a row.
But Jordan had other reasons to leak the news of his re-re-retirement when he did. Stories about it appeared in local newspapers and on radio and TV stations just days before the Wizards began running advertisements that single-game tickets for the rest of the season would be on sale as of Monday, Dec. 2.
As of Saturday’s one-point loss to the Sixers, the team had sold out 50 home games in a row—every game since Jordan stepped down from the front office and laced up his Air Jordans. Before Jordan said that this season would be the end, that streak seemed in jeopardy. On Nov. 8, the Washington Post ran a story titled “Public Is Less Sold on the Wizards” about the decreased demand for Wizards tickets, in which a local ticket broker attributed the decrease to a combination of the novelty of Jordan’s presence having worn off and the team’s continued woes.
And Jordan must know by now that if he’s going to leave any legacy with the Wizards, it’s at the box office. His announcement insured that the single-game sale, with tickets from $10 to $290, would go gangbusters.
Jordan also disclosed last week that when his playing days are over, he’s going to return to the same Wizards front-office position he had before suiting up. Fans don’t know whether to take that as a promise or a threat. He’s brought the same instability to the Wizards that Dan Snyder brought to the Redskins. Different coaches (Gar Heard, Darrell Walker, Leonard Hamilton, Doug Collins), different players (Q: What player now on the Wizards roster has the longest tenure with the team? A: Christian Laettner. You can look it up), same result. There may have been some teaching going on about how to win since Jordan got here, but not a whole lot of learning.
The Wizards went 17-26 after Jordan took over as president of basketball operations in the middle of the 1999-2000 season. The team went 19-63 in his first full year as president, after he’d said, “Judge me by what happens this year.” That’s the worst record in the history of the franchise. Then came the 37-45 mark the Wizards put up last year, Jordan’s first in uniform. Add in the team’s 6-10 record through the weekend and you’ve got 79 wins and 144 losses under Jordan, or a winning percentage of .354. And, of course, no playoff appearances.
Nothing Jordan has done in the front office has paid off yet. Any GM could have gotten Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond to accept cash not to play—Richmond has $10 million of the Wizards’ money and a championship ring to show for getting cut. And though Jordan got all sorts of accolades for sending Juwan Howard and his big contract to Dallas two years ago, even that deal has lost all its luster over time. Howard’s contract would have been up this year anyway, and none of the players that the Wizards got from the Mavericks in return—the already departed Hubert Davis, Loy Vaught, and Courtney Alexander, along with Laettner and Etan Thomas—ever put up close to Howard-like numbers.
Nobody Jordan has brought in through free agency has panned out, either. And for all the bashing Howard took when he was here, it remains true that the Wizards’ record has been a lot worse without him than it was with him.
But Jordan has that sellout streak. —Dave McKenna