Part-time D.C. residents have a history of making dumb proclamations during their stays here. Gary Hart’s cocksure “Follow meyou’ll be bored!” and Nixon’s “I am not a crook!” jump out. This summer, Michael Jordan, who is occasionally spotted amongst the locals, uttered what already looks like an entry for the ages. He handicapped his Wizards as a .500 team.
“Judge me by what [happens] this season,” said Jordan. “I will take full accountability.”
Given the early returns, Jordan might want to ask for a recant. The Wizards’ loss Friday to Indiana, their seventh in eight games, guaranteed the franchise its worst start since 1966, when the future athlete of the century and current Wizards president of basketball operations was but 3 years old. A few days later, Atlanta broke its horrific 22-game road losing streak by pasting the host Wizards 102-75.
Had he done his homework, Jordan would know that anybody who stakes his reputation on this franchise gets burned like Joan of Arc. The Wizards/Bullets haven’t had a playoff win in 13 yearsa record for futility that no other NBA team can touch.
The team has been so bad for so long, if NBA squads had homecoming games, everybody would want Washington as the opponent (though fans still might not show up: On Nov. 8, the Wizards beat the host Chicago Bulls in a game that was noteworthy only because it ended Jordan’s former team’s streak of 611 straight sellouts at home). The Wizards have apparently even replaced the Clippers as the laughingstock of the league among beat reporters. Peter Vecsey, the New York sportswriter/butcher, threw this into a column last week: “Michael Jordan’s Wiz have embarked on a holiday charity drive. Only trouble is, they can’t find any group in D.C. needier than they are.”
Few Washington teams have had so few redeeming qualities or such a dark future as the 2000-2001 bunch that sparked Jordan’s delusions of mediocrity. Nobody on the squad ranks among the NBA’s top 25 scorers. In its three seasons of playing together, the trio that Jordan has identified as “the nucleus” of his WizardsJuwan Howard, Mitch Richmond, and Rod Stricklandhas shown less chemistry than George W. Bush’s prep school transcript.
Howard’s destiny is to be remembered as nothing but a salary-cap buster, thanks to that $105 million contract he signed in 1996, back when he wasn’t a pariah. He’s due to make $16.7 million this year alone. Wizards fansand all the general managers around the league that Jordan tried to pawn Howard off on during the off-seasondon’t think he’s worth that sum in Monopoly money.
Howard was booed so severely at the MCI Center while his team was getting blown out by Portland last week that General Manager Wes Unseld went to the media to ask for a cease-fire. “It shouldn’t be taken out on an individual,” Unseld told the Washington Post. Well, if Unseld, being the very guy who committed so many of his team’s real dollars to Howard, ever polled the home fans, he’d see that they’re harboring an equal amount of hostility toward him. What’s more, if it hadn’t been for the booing, there wouldn’t have been any crowd noise at all.
For Richmond, it’s simply over. He was arguably the premier shooting guard in the league when he wore the Golden State and Sacramento uniforms, and he was a member of the 1996 Dream Team II that cruised to Olympic gold. This year, Richmond, who is paid $10 million per year, is hitting just 42 percent of his shots. And whenever the game’s on the line, he couldn’t hit a jumper if it hit him first. Remember Chris Webber? Sure you do.
Then there’s Strickland. Like Michael Westbrook of the Redskins, Strickland gets a big PR makeover during every off-season, in which the serial troublemaker is painted as reborn and recommitted to winning. And every season, the old dog proves he hasn’t learned any new tricks. “There are no more excuses,” Strickland said in August. Sure there are, Rod: The excuses flowed freely three days before the season started, when he was arrested yet again for disorderly conduct after an early-morning ruckus at Republic Gardens on U Street.
Three strikes and you’re out? Strickland’s got more strikes than Dick Weber. Along with all the fistfights with teammates, squabbles with coaches, and missed practices, Strickland has carved out a close relationship with law enforcement. He may never have made an NBA all-star team, but Strickland, another $10-million-a-year guy, can boast of arrests in 1990, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999, and now 2000. Maybe Jordan should tell him that real team leaders draw charges on the court, not off it. Strickland’s contract contains a clause that allows the Wizards to send him packing for a sum of $5 million when this season ends. That check is probably already filled out.
Jordan was able to pawn off Cherokee Parks, a big bust of a center whose many tattoos can’t cover up a pallid inside game. That leaves Jahidi White as the only White on the Wizards’ roster. The center and former AOL employee hasn’t exactly been the E-Mail Man on the boards that Jordan hoped he’d be when White was given a five-year deal worth as much as $25 million. Jordan has, however, two Mike Smiths: a 6-foot-8-inch forward who averages 2.6 points per game and a 6-foot-8-inch forward putting up 0.0 points per game. The scoreless Mike Smith is Jordan’s first and only draft pick as an administrator.
Jordan’s other big staff moves were the firing of Gar Heard and the hiring of Leonard Hamilton after what was billed as an all-hands-on-deck search. Hamilton had no professional coaching experience before getting the job but had posted a Wizardsesque 200-210 mark as an NCAA skipper. Jordan might also have been attracted by Hamilton’s overall losing records at both Oklahoma State and Miami, his only college stints.
But the NBA is a players’ league. So even if the coach is a sure-fire loser, Wizards fans hoped Jordan’s aura alone would be enough to lure the type of game-breaker free agents that historically had avoided Abe Pollin’s organization. But with “the nucleus” sucking up all the salary-cap money, and Jordan’s aura diminishing with his shrinking public presence, there’s no reason to expect the next generation of Shaqs and Grant Hills to come to town.
If Jordan is bothered by the bleak present and bleaker future, it’s hard for the average fan to tell. He hasn’t been seen with the team much since the Wizards left training camp, which for the first time was held not in this area but in Wilmington, N.C., Jordan’s hometown. His real hometown. Dave McKenna