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Michael Jordan’s best millennium sure seems behind him.
Jordan was introduced as Wizards president in early January at the biggest sports-related press conference this city has ever hosted. He used the forum to malign his new employees with labels like “underachievers” and to boast that agent David Falk would become nearly invisible.
But now Jordan, if given the chance for a do-over, would likely insert a hint of humility into that speech: The already woeful team has become even more of a laughingstock in his brief tenure. And in that time, Jordan himself has underachieved with mind-boggling consistency. Truth be told, he’s yet to provide a clue that he’s up to running a major sports franchise.
Things aren’t going much smoother back in Chicago, where former business partners are tagging Jordan a has-been. The restaurant that bore his name has gone bankrupt, and they’re blaming him for that, too.
The pace of Jordan’s descent to mere mortal has never seemed quicker. And he’s got nobody to blame.
In separate searches for head coaches, he’s managed to make previous Wizards/Bullets regimes—the ones that earned the organization the tag “Clippers East”—seem as organized as the Lombardi-era Packers. (When he was a player, Jordan often cited Elgin Baylor, a player for the ages who has had a horribly unsuccessful run as Clippers general manager, as an idol; maybe Baylor’s influence carried over to the front office, too.)
Jordan couldn’t have botched his first personnel move as a Wizard much worse. While partying in Atlanta over Super Bowl weekend, he ordered Wes Unseld to fire coach Gar Heard, then leaked word that Rod Higgins would be Heard’s replacement. The absentee president looked like a buffoon when word got out that he’d ordered the hit on Heard before bothering to work out a deal with Higgins.
Higgins, it turned out, was still under contract with Golden State, which denied the Wizards permission to take him off the Warriors bench. So Jordan and the Wizards settled for Darrell Walker. Walker had previously posted a record of 40-91 as an NBA coach before being demoted to the Continental Basketball Association, where he piloted the Rockford Lightning to the cellar of the minor league’s American Conference.
Walker coached to form in Washington, keeping the Wizards at the bottom of the NBA’s Atlantic Division for the balance of the season. In April, Jordan announced another coaching search, insisting that the job would be filled before the NBA draft lottery. That deadline came and went two weekends ago. Not only are the Wizards still coachless, but if there are any contenders for the job, mum’s the word.
Jordan did little more than peruse his own Palm Pilot during this latest search. Of the five most serious candidates interviewed, three—Higgins, Walker, and John Paxson—were once Chicago teammates of Jordan. A fourth, Mike Jarvis, coached Jordan on a high school all-star squad. And the last, Lenny Wilkens, the winningest coach in NBA history, was already a member the Hall of Fame when Jordan dialed him up. Jordan was apparently too busy finding his Titleist off the fairway to look for a diamond in the rough during his coach quest.
As it turned out, Higgins and Walker were eliminated from consideration for the coaching job and accepted front-office positions; Paxson said he wanted to keep his job as the Bulls’ radio announcer. For the Wizards, an organization that has long looked for new coaches via either the good-ol’-boy network or the has-been bin (Gene Shue, where are you?), Jordan’s approach was deja vu all over again. So much for that introductory bluster.
The most embarrassing part of the coach search, though, is the revelations that the various candidates for the job have made about their dealings with the green Wizards president. Wilkens claimed in televised interviews that Jordan had offered him the job, but added that he wanted to talk to Vancouver management before getting back to Mike with his answer. And Jarvis, through his representatives, withdrew his name from consideration after bitterly insisting that Jordan had lowballed him with an opening offer of $1 million a year. That same week, Atlanta had failed to entice Michigan State’s Tom Izzo to leave the college ranks with a bid of $3 million per season—so Jarvis’ revelation made Jordan look stupid, cheap, inexperienced, or some combination thereof.
There is plenty of precedent for the type of second-career failure Jordan seems destined for here. Chevy Chase couldn’t host a talk show, and Dr. Koop can’t carry a dot-com. But, because Jordan lives in the realm of the immortals, it may be the Beatles who provide the closest parallel. Jordan, as Falk testified in court last week, may be “the most popular human being on the planet”; the Beatles were once, well, bigger than Jesus. In 1968, with their concert-playing days over and their domination of the pop culture complete, the Fab Four decided they could run their own record label. Because none of the yes men surrounding them said otherwise, they founded Apple Records. As history shows, the Beatles ran the record label, all right—right into the ground. Transcendent as their music surely is, they found Apple to be so distasteful that they ended up literally giving the label’s assets away to anybody who showed up at company headquarters.
Unfortunately, because of the NBA’s salary cap, Jordan can’t give away the Wizards’ most expendable resources—Rod Strickland, Juwan Howard, and Mitch Richmond.
As he flounders here, Jordan is also suddenly fallible in Chicago. Gene and Joseph Silverberg, who beginning in 1990 were partners with Jordan in Michael Jordan’s Restaurant—an eatery that, during his playing days, boasted revenues of over $8 million—have become legal adversaries. The Silverbergs say that Jordan’s name alone was no longer enough to keep the business afloat, and they blame his failure to show up at the restaurant for its bankruptcy. (Similar complaints, of course, have been lodged about Jordan for his playing hooky from all but a handful of Wizards home games.) Jordan’s lawyers contend that the Silverbergs have watered down their client’s trademark with such criticisms. A trial to settle the claims and counterclaims began last week. Jordan didn’t take the stand but had Falk talk for him. The agent insisted that even in retirement, Jordan’s name was “like magic in a bottle” to marketers.
“If the cap ever came off that bottle,” Falk told the court, “I’m not sure if we could get it back in.”
Once the litigation with Jordan is resolved, the Silverbergs say, they plan to reopen their restaurant at the same location, but with a new name: Sammy Sosa’s.
With all the negativity swirling around Jordan these days, there is at least one spot in D.C. where he can find reaffirmation of his superstardom. Should he actually visit the city where he’s now employed, Jordan could catch the IMAX film Michael Jordan to the Max. The career retrospective debuted to rave reviews earlier this month at the National Air and Space Museum, alongside hundreds of other exhibits dedicated to folks who no longer soar.—Dave McKenna