Wiz choose err over Air
By Gregg Easterbrook
Page 2 columnist

So Michael Jordan says he's "shocked" -- shocked! -- to be put out onto the street by the Washington Wizards. What's shocking about this? Every season the Bullets/Wizards make an astonishingly stupid management decision, and firing Jordan is this season's astonishingly stupid decision. Michael has been with the Wizards' organization for three-and-a-half years. If he hasn't noticed by now that there is an annual astonishingly stupid decision, and sometimes by him, then he deserves to be fired.

Michael Jordan
When Jordan said farewell to D.C. fans, he didn't realize it was forever.
In the last five years alone, the Wizards have traded away Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace, Ben Wallace and Richard Hamilton -- with a combined 23 playoff series appearances, and counting, since leaving the Wizards -- for players who have a combined zero playoff series appearances since arriving in DC, and all but one of whom is no longer with the team. (See details below.) In the same period the Wizards opened the window and threw out the first pick in the NBA draft. Every season, generally just after the season concludes, the Wizzies make an astonishing blunder. Summarily firing the most successful person in the history of their sport is just the latest astonishing blunder. This isn't out of character for the Wizards -- it's standard operating procedure.

Jordan should not be upset. Given he has been cast aside by the Wizards, this guarantees he will be incredibly successful as a general manager of some other NBA franchise. Everyone unloaded by the Wizards goes on to success elsewhere. Everyone who joins the organization instantly acquires a gray pallor and heads straight downhill. It's as if someone were poisoning the Wizards' cafeteria food.

All the Washington rumors say Jordan was fired in order to appease the Wizards' other players, who thought MJ was holding them back and hogging the limelight. Jordan was hogging the limelight. But to think of it: Washington has fired the greatest player in the history of the sport, and the man who single-handedly sold out the MCI Center for two years, in order to appease the other Wizards players. To appease a bunch of listless good-for-nothing losers who, next year, will be listless good-for-nothing losers, only before much smaller audiences.

Michael Jordan fired to appease Jerry Stackhouse, a me-first gunner. To appease Christian Laettner, who has dedicated his career to wearing out his welcome. (Minnesota, Atlanta and Detroit unloaded him.) To appease Kwame Brown, who should be a sophomore in college. To appease Brendan Haywood, a seven-foot 270-pound center who terrorizes the boards for a five-rebound average. The Wizards had to let Michael Jordan go to appease a bunch of guys indistinguishable from, if not inferior to, a CBA team. Since MJ arrived in Washington, the Wizzies have been 74-90 with him on the court and 36-89 with him off. Get rid of basketball's greatest-ever star to appease the guys who went 36-89! Note: to the Washington Wizards, this constitutes a canny management move.

Not that the other players didn't have complaints. In his Washington return, Jordan was openly selfish; demanded the Wizards be his supporting cast; threw tirades when the ball wasn't passed to him first on any possession, or whenever he waved for it. The Wizards have looked consistently horrifying on offense in the last two seasons with MJ on the floor, four guys standing around watching Jordan. It's just that they have also looked consistently horrifying when MJ was not on the floor.

Jerry Stackhouse
If Jerry isn't going to give up the rock, you think he's going to chip in for a gift?
Shortly after the Wizards' latest cover-your-eyes season ended, the New York Times the Washington Post and other sports sources pretty much simultaneously discovered that Jordan's ego had been poisoning the team, and that his teammates could not wait to see him leave. Key indicator: They refused to pitch in to buy him a going-away present.

According to the new consensus, Jordan wanted the rest of the Wizards to stand around watching him; in fact, Jordan liked the fact that the team was consistently bad, because this caused sportswriters to pen endless love sonnets about how Jordan was a god surrounded by insects. "You are a god surrounded by insects, and don't ever let anyone tell you differently," the head evil mutant Magneto says to an aspiring evil mutant in "X2." Maybe Magneto also counseled Michael.

The recent spate of anti-MJ stories -- which surely influenced Wizards owner Abe Pollin in his annual search for an astonishingly stupid move to make -- left TMQ wondering something. Why didn't sportswriters, especially those of whom do nothing all day long but cover the NBA, notice the problems involving Jordan until after the gentleman whose favors they sought was gone?

According to the new consensus, Jordan's return to the Wizards was not about trying to win a playoff series with this woebegone team, rather about Michael receiving adulation at the expense of the team and about Michael reviving interest in his restaurants and his line of shoes, both of whose sales were flagging. See Sally Jenkins making the latter point in the Washington Post. But if all this was true, why didn't sportswriters notice until after Jordan was gone and no longer in a position to grant them interviews for fawning coverage?

Were it not for his star status and ability to sell out the house, a Jordan firing might have been justified simply on the grounds that he was a terrible executive. Last fall Jordan traded the effective, young Richard Hamilton -- who won a collegiate championship, is having a red-hot postseason right now and seems a likely all-star next year -- for the me-first, negative-energy-projecting Jerry Stackhouse. Why? Because Hamilton violated taboo by telling Jordan to his face that he had become spoiled and forgotten about the team game. Jordan should have admired Hamilton for having the guts to tell him this -- and to his face, not through the media. Instead MJ cashiered Hamilton, making him the latest budding Wizards star shipped out in return for a fading player other teams didn't even want.

Michael Jordan, Kwame Brown
Jordan only treated Kwame like a kid when he was scolding him.
Michael threw away the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft on high-school kid Kwame Brown, then made matters worse by publicly ridiculing Brown for acting like a high-school kid. If Jordan had jumped straight from high school to the NBA, he would have been awful initially. If some famous star had then ridiculed him for being awful, Jordan would have gone into his shell and never developed. Brown shouldn't have been chosen first in the first place, and now may never develop. Total screw-up of this situation rests on Jordan's shoulders, not those of a confused teenager who belongs in a dorm room somewhere.

Summing up his canny management moves, Jordan traded Courtney Alexander, Juwan Howard and the young budding star Hamilton, three gentlemen who have since combined for seven playoff series appearances (with Hamilton still playing and eligible to advance), for players who have since combined for zero playoff appearances. Jordan used the cap space saved by unloading Howard to sign such below-average players as Larry Hughes, a shooting guard with a lifetime field-goal percentage of .415. Jordan's assumption seemed to be the player's common assumption that NBA front-offices types are pampered idiots who spend their days playing golf and auditioning cheerleaders ("dancers," always, in the NBA), then briefly glance at rosters and announce sweeping decisions. So when it came time for Michael to make management judgments, he followed that formula -- acted like a pampered idiot who spent his days playing golf, briefly glanced at rosters and then announced sweeping decisions.

On the court, Michael's return with the Wizards was of low aesthetic appeal. In the management suite, his performance was poor. The Wizards were a long-running embarrassment when he arrived, and he leaves them as a long-running embarrassment. It's been almost 20 years since the last Bullets/Wizards playoff series win, and even Michael Jordan himself proved powerless to change that.

But considering the team's low state, wouldn't it have been better off to form an enduring bond with the greatest player ever? Of all franchises in all sports, only the Washington Wizards could be so stupid as to believe they would benefit by jettisoning Michael Jordan.

At Least It Wasn't a Hummer with Carolina Plates: Camera crews showed Jordan driving away from his dismissal at team offices in Washington in a Mercedes CL55 AMG, a car with a 500-horsepower engine and top speed of 150 MPH, selling for about $100,000. Jordan's ride also had Illinois plates. This means ones of two things. First, Jordan may be evading the law that requires any car within the District of Columbia for more than 30 days to get DC tags, and for which regular people have recently been receiving $100 tickets in a city-wide crackdown. Or, second, it means Jordan may be claiming to be a full-time resident of Illinois for the purposes of declaring all his expenses in DC tax deductible.

Michael Jordan
Jordan took his ball (and his $100K ride) and went home.
Verily, It Doth Seem There Are Also Basketball Gods: In other woeful Wizards news, two weeks after Tuesday Morning Quarterback called Wizzie general manager Wes Unseld "one of the dumbest front-office people in sports", Unseld announced he was taking an indefinite "leave of absence." Presumably with Jordan's farewell, Unseld will depart permanently.

Unseld, once an excellent player, was the brains or lack of same behind what may have been the worst string of trades in the history of any sport. Starting in 1998, he swapped away Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace. Since leaving the Wizzies, these gentlemen have combined for nine All-Star Game appearances, 21 playoff series appearances and counting (with Webber and Ben Wallace still playing and eligible to advance) and two Player of the Year awards. In return, Unseld acquired five gentlemen who made zero All-Star and zero playoff appearances for Washington, and all of whom have since been released by the Wizards squad. Ye gods.

Starting in 1998, had Unseld simply done nothing at all -- spending his time on long expense-account lunches, reenacting Civil War battles with painted soldiers at his desk -- by the time Michael Jordan arrived, the Wizards would have had the talent for a title run. Instead Unseld systematically exchanged young top-flight players for aging, forgotten who-dats. Ye gods.

Shameless Praise Watch: Congratulations to ESPN The Magazine -- "Published On Earth The Planet" -- for winning the National Magazine Award for general excellence in its circulation category. From a standing start, and handicapped by a weird name, ESPN The Magazine has become a great read and a publishing-industry success story in record time. This magazine's ascension to must-read was, in football terms, a 4.3 40.

Yes, I'm shamelessly praising ESPN here, so let me also shamelessly praise my beloved Atlantic Monthly, which won for general excellence in its circulation category.

Michael Jordan
Get free shipping if you send Abe Pollin a threatening e-mail!
Let me also shamelessly praise Slate.com, where Tuesday Morning Quarterback began, which won for general excellence on the Web. Slate is owned by Microsoft. In future versions of Word, a little cartoon face will pop up that says, YOU LOOK LIKE YOU'RE WRITING A NATIONAL MAGAZINE AWARD WINNING ARTICLE. CAN I HELP?

Want That $1,699 Jersey Sent FedEx? It's Extra: The official Jordan website boldly proclaims, "This is the final retirement." Just how many times did Sinatra announce that? As of late Thursday, the official Jordan website said nothing about MJ's firing. If you want an authentic Jordan autographed No. 23 Wizards jersey for $1,699.99, better snap it up here before Jordan orders the rest taken out and burned. Note: if you buy the jersey at $1,699.99, you still must pay $8.98 for shipping.

In Other News, Princeton University Announced that the Search for a Replacement for Albert Einstein Would Begin Immediately: The Wizards' official announcement of the firing dryly notes, "The search for a replacement for Jordan will begin immediately." Good luck, fellas, finding a replacement for Michael Jordan.

Gregg Easterbrook is a senior editor of New Republic, a contributing editor of The Atlantic Monthly and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is believed to be the first Brookings scholar ever to write a pro football column. You can buy his book, "The Here and Now" here ... and now.





AIRING IT OUT

ALSO SEE:


Gregg Easterbrook Archive

Wiley: Will history repeat itself for MJ?

TMQ: Making the grade

TMQ: Making a mockery





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