WHAT'S TO LIKE, MIKE?
As a co-owner Michael Jordan would bring sorely needed cachet to
the woeful Wizards
When Michael Jordan retired from basketball for the second time,
on Jan. 13, 1999, his good friend and former Bulls teammate
Darrell Walker predicted that MJ wouldn't be on the sidelines for
long. "Mike's got to stay busy," Walker said. "I bet he owns an
NBA team within two years."
Walker could have cut that estimate in half. Jordan is poised to
take over as head of basketball operations of the
Wizards--contingent on a suitable agreement that will guarantee
him partial ownership of the team. Abe Pollin holds the majority
interest in the Wizards and the MCI Center, while a group headed
by America Online executive Ted Leonsis has a 44% stake and the
right of first refusal should the 75-year-old Pollin sell.
Pollin, who has repeatedly said he has no immediate plans to
relinquish the Wizards, knows Jordan well. The two jawed at each
other during the 1998-99 lockout; at one point an angry Jordan
admonished him to "just sell your team." Team sources say that
exchange has had no bearing on negotiations.
There was little doubt Jordan would return to the NBA in a
hands-on ownership role. He had the money, the time and the
backing of commissioner David Stern, who has sought qualified
minority owners for close to a decade. Last May, Jordan nearly
bought half of the Hornets, but when he wasn't guaranteed total
control by the team's tightfisted owner, George Shinn, he moved
on. Within a month, say league sources, Jordan turned his sights
But if ownership is inevitable, why the urgency? One thing Jordan
should have learned from his guru, Phil Jackson, is that when you
put your reputation on the line, make sure you're likely not to
fail. Jackson chose to coach the Lakers over the Knicks and the
Nets, and that was a relatively sure thing. The Wizards are not.
Washington has established itself as the league's most
underachieving franchise (notwithstanding Hawks president Stan
Kasten's claim last week that his team deserves that title). At
week's end the Wizards were 12-26 and last in the Atlantic
Division despite a roster that includes All-Stars Juwan Howard
and Mitch Richmond and perhaps the best current player never to
be an All-Star, Rod Strickland. That trio anchors a club that
lacks passion, leadership and any semblance of unity.
Can Jordan instill all that? Strickland says the mere mention of
Jordan's name will bring cachet to a franchise that at the moment
has none. He may be right. Two years ago Chris Mullin, looking to
get out of Golden State, had no interest in being traded to the
Pacers. But when he learned that Larry Bird would be taking over
as coach, Mullin changed his mind.
Washington is already excited at the prospect of Jordan's signing
one of the major free agents, Grant Hill or Tim Duncan, this
summer, but how would he compensate them? Howard has four years
left on his seven-year, $105 million deal; Strickland is halfway
through a four-year, $40 million contract; Richmond is in year
two of his $40 million pact; and disappointing center Ike Austin,
who wants to be traded, has two years to go on a three-year, $15
million deal. Richmond and Strickland are base-year players,
making them almost impossible to trade. Even Jordan can't click
his Nikes and make those salary-cap constraints vanish.
The high-priced Howard would be Jordan's most vexing problem. As
one Eastern Conference coach says, "Juwan's athletic talent is
not such that you can just throw him out there and expect him to
excel. He needs structure to highlight his strengths. He must
recognize he's not a superstar and stop trying to play like one."
Still, if MJ tells the crowd, "Please stop booing Juwan Howard,
it's not helping our team," my guess is the masses will be
reduced to a respectful hush. Were general manager Wes Unseld to
try that, he'd be hooted off the floor.
Maybe Jordan is the man to help Howard see the light. Or maybe
Jordan has already huddled with his (and Howard's) agent, David
Falk, and discussed scenarios that could move Howard. Oh, by the
way: Falk represents the lethargic Strickland, too. It's scary,
really, to consider what could happen down the line if Falk were
to steer top clients in the direction of the Wizards and Jordan,
who, after all, is the reason Falk wields the power he does. No
doubt the league will insist on a formal severing of Falk's and
MJ's ties as agent and client, but that's merely a tiny
While a three- or four-year plan to reinvent the Wizards seems
reasonable, a turnaround by next season doesn't. Of course, if
the 36-year-old Jordan wanted a quick fix, he'd sign himself.
Don't count on that, though. Sources close to him say that's not
part of the blueprint--not now, not ever.
When I asked Jordan's friends why he jumped at this opportunity
instead of holding out for a sure thing, the answers varied. He's
looking at the business, not the basketball. He's bored and
impatient. He loves the challenge of doing it the hard way. He
knows something we don't.
One thing we do know if this agreement goes through: Instantly
the Wizards will be transformed into an intriguing franchise.
That in itself would be an accomplishment.
LEARNING AT BILL WALTON'S FEET
When Cavaliers center Zydrunas Ilgauskas wakes up each morning,
his mind is racing before his eyes have opened: Pain--is there any
pain? When he sits up, kicks off the covers and feels no aches or
twinges in his surgically repaired feet, he can whistle in the
shower, smile as he shaves and relax over breakfast.
There has been no pain for several weeks. The 7'3" Ilgauskas has
yet to play this season because of a bruised navicular bone in
his left foot, the same foot that caused him to miss all but five
games last season with a stress fracture. That should not be
confused with the broken navicular bone in his right foot, which
sidelined him for the entire 1996-97 season.
But last week Ilgauskas was cleared to begin practicing when the
Cavs return from a West Coast swing on Jan. 23. "It's been hard,"
Ilgauskas, 24, says. "You see the guys, but you don't feel part
of the team because you don't practice and you don't play. I have
nothing to talk about with them. I want to give encouragement,
but what can I say when I am not out there? It is a helpless
feeling. It follows me 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
When Ilgauskas averaged 13.9 points and 8.8 rebounds two seasons
ago, Cleveland's future seemed bright. The stress fracture he
suffered the following season was disheartening. What happened in
training camp this fall was far worse. On the fifth day of
workouts Ilgauskas felt a familiar pain. He tried to play through
it for a day, then two, but it was excruciating. "I thought, Oh,
god, I've broken it again," Ilgauskas recalls. "It was terrible.
I said to myself, I don't know if I can go through this again."
After specialists confirmed that the bone was bruised, not
broken, Ilgauskas' options were surgery to insert a screw that
would stabilize the foot, or prolonged rest, with the caveat that
surgery would be necessary if the swelling and pain didn't
subside. He opted for rest. Some around the league understood his
decision, some didn't. Many assumed they'd never see him in
In Los Angeles, Clippers and NBC color man Bill Walton, who
estimates he had more than 20 operations on his feet, winced at
hearing of Ilgauskas' woes. "It's devastating," says Walton. "You
are so committed to being the best player you can be and to
outworking everybody, but because of the nature of a stress
fracture, the more you play, the worse it gets. You try
everything, and nothing works. So you lie awake a lot at night.
It wrecked my life."
If Ilgauskas does undergo surgery, it will sideline him for the
season. Walton, who has never spoken to Ilgauskas, offers two
pieces of advice: Practice infinite patience and develop a life
outside basketball. Walton initially struggled with both, and
even though he won championships with the Trail Blazers and the
Celtics and made it to the Hall of Fame, the emotional pain
lingers 14 years after his final game. "My career was one of
disappointment, frustration and embarrassment that I couldn't
play more," he says. "I'm left with that empty feeling that I let
my team down."
Ilgauskas can relate. He knows people grow weary of his setbacks,
and his teammates are frustrated because they aren't sure they
can count on him. "I have played basketball since I was seven
years old," Ilgauskas says. "When my career is over, I want to
look back and say I had a great one, not, 'It wasn't meant to
Warriors' Coaching Change
DID JAMISON GET A BAD RAP?
Warriors forward Antawn Jamison learned as a rookie last season
that basketball can be a cold business. After Golden State
acquired veteran Chris Mills as part of the Latrell Sprewell
trade, Jamison, who envisioned getting heavy minutes on a
rebuilding team, instead sat as Mills gobbled up the prime time
under coach P.J. Carlesimo. It was a major blow to Jamison, who
struggled while the player he was traded for on draft day, Vince
"P.J. had to win basketball games," Jamison says. "He's thinking,
Should I put in a rookie who doesn't know our defenses, or should
I put in a guy I know won't make a mistake? I understood that,
but I still didn't like it too much."
Hence, lesson two: When Carlesimo was fired three weeks ago,
Jamison was fingered as a guy who not only helped dig P.J.'s
grave but also danced on it. He was called a prima donna in one
newspaper and a Judas in another, characterizations that both
Jamison and the Warriors' front office insist are unfair. "I
think what happened was that people said, 'Antawn is going to be
a Warrior for a while, so you've got to make him happy,'" Jamison
says. "When P.J. got fired, they assumed it had been up to me.
P.J. and I had our ups and downs, but no one in the organization
asked me, 'Antawn, are you happy? How do you feel about the
coach?' I found out P.J. got fired the same time as everyone
The dismissal of Carlesimo has done little to help the Warriors.
They were 6-30 at week's end after losing 12 straight games,
though one of their bright spots had been the 6'9", 223-pound
Jamison, who was averaging 18.1 points and 7.9 rebounds. Coach
and general manager Garry St. Jean believes Jamison has only
scratched the surface of his abilities. "When he makes his move,
he's quick, but he's got to get his footwork down," St. Jean
says. "What he needs to develop is the kind of confidence that,
when he's isolated on the wing or at the elbow, he's the boss."
The Warriors have taken great pains not to promote Jamison as a
franchise player. They consider him just one piece of the puzzle
in their efforts to rebuild the team. Jamison is still learning,
and until he's finished, he must live with one gnawing criticism:
He's no Vince Carter.
Line of the Week
TRYING TIMES FOR DAVID WESLEY
Hornets guard David Wesley, Jan. 14 at the Knicks: 35 minutes,
2-of-11 FG, 1-of-2 FT, 6 points, 9 assists, 3 turnovers.
Charlotte's first game since the death of swingman Bobby Phills
was especially hard for Wesley, who police say was driving with a
suspended license and drag racing with Phills when his friend
lost control of his Porsche and crashed. Says one Hornets
official, "David is destroyed. Truly destroyed."
For the latest scores and stats, plus Phil Taylor's NBA mailbag,
go to cnnsi.com/basketball.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Strickland and his high-priced teammates would welcome the pressure of playing for Jordan.
COLOR PHOTO: RICHARD MACKSON (ISSEL)
COLOR PHOTO: WALTER IOOSS JR. (UNSELD)
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER/NBA PHOTOS The Warriors' Jamison hasn't measured up to fellow forward Carter, but his game is on the rise.
Around The Rim
Larry Bird is off the hook. Although the Pacers finished last
week with the best record in the Eastern Conference, Bird won't
have to coach in the All-Star Game, an event he hates because of
the hype surrounding it. Since there was no All-Star Game last
year because of the lockout, and since Bird coached the East in
the last one, in '98, he is forbidden to fill that role again
Nuggets guard Ron Mercer has dropped Master P's company and will
have Andy Miller negotiate his new deal next summer instead.
Says Denver coach and G.M. Dan Issel, "I told Ron I didn't
dislike those other guys, but they weren't up on the rules. Ron
didn't even know that once October 31 passed, we couldn't
re-sign him until July 1 even if he wanted us to." ...
Sources in New Jersey say it's doubtful that Jayson Williams
will return this season from the broken right leg he suffered
last April but that he should be fine for 2000-01, once he
regains strength with continued rehabilitation....
Trail Blazers forward Jermaine O'Neal, who signed a six-year,
$24 million extension last summer, is playing only 9.5 minutes
per game, which is a reflection on his work ethic. The
21-year-old O'Neal has quietly told the team that if he isn't
going to get more time, he'd like to move on. So why did
Portland pay him all that money just to sit? It's called
securing a tradable asset. If the Blazers hadn't forked over the
dough, they would have lost him and gotten nothing in return.
Wouldn't NBA players love to see their bosses match up? The
coaches have toughness and rebounding, but the head-to-head
matchups favor the general managers.
Coaches General Managers
Larry Bird (Pacers) Elgin Baylor (Clippers)
Paul Silas (Hornets) Kevin McHale (Timberwolves)
Dan Issel (Nuggets, above) Wes Unseld (Wizards, above)
Paul Westphal (Sonics) Geoff Petrie (Kings)
Lenny Wilkens (Hawks) Jerry West (Lakers)
Jerry Sloan (Jazz) Jim Paxson (Cavaliers)
Heat swingman Dan Majerle began the season 10th on the alltime
list of three-point scorers. At week's end Majerle, who hit a
career-high nine threes against the Timberwolves on Jan. 11,
ranked sixth with a total of 1,188. No player this season had
scored a higher percentage of his points from behind the arc than
the 34-year-old Majerle (minimum 200 points).
THREE-POINT THREE-POINT POINTS %OF POINTS
FIIELD GOALS FIELD GOAL % PER GAME FROM
MADE THREE-POINT FGS
Heat 74 43.0 9.0 68.5
Spurs 58 34.5 7.2 64.0
Knicks 50 40.7 7.3 58.8
Kings 60 32.3 9.4 56.1
Pacers 43 42.6 6.7 53.3
Rockets 45 43.3 7.3 51.3
Spurs 58 44.6 9.2 50.9
Mavericks 57 52.8 9.4 50.3
Wizards 33 32.4 5.3 49.3
Pistons 76 43.7 13.1 48.3