Michael Jordan Week: Why His Tenure In D.C. Was Complicated


Editor's Note: This is a re-post of a 2007 piece I wrote when we were counting down the 20 best Washington Bullets/Wizards of all time. Jordan's placement in the countdown was somewhat controversial at the time, and this essay was a way for me to justify his inclusion. As we remember the 10-year anniversary of Jordan's departure from D.C., this was as good a time as ever to resurface it. -Mike

I'll be the first to admit that I don't have the historical perspective of many of you guys. I was born in 1987, started following this team in 1995, and have really only been there since. That's about 20 years of Bullets/Wizards history that I didn't even live through, and another 8 or 10 that I basically don't remember. So you can take this profile -- and the corresponding feelings -- with a grain of salt if you wish, but I think I'm speaking for a lot of people here, even if this is supposed to be personal.

Since I've been a fan, no Washington player has spurred more conflicting feelings than Michael Jordan. In fact, it really isn't close. Had everyone voted MJ out of the Top 20, I would have vetoed to get him back in, just because his tenure was such a strange time to be a Wizards fan. In the wake of its ultimate failure, lots of Wizards fans try to brush the Jordan era aside as if it never happened. In my opinion, that's a major mistake. Like it or not, the Jordan era was the first step in the revitalization of the team's popularity in this city, and for that reason, Michael Jordan has to be on a list of best Wizards/Bullets ever.

The yo-yo list of my own emotions began when Jordan first announced that he wanted to come back and play. When Jordan became an executive, it really didn't register much with me. I was in eighth grade, so all I really cared about was the team on the field, and Jordan being an executive didn't directly change that in my mind. But when Jordan first said he wanted to play, I was actually quite distressed. The Webber/Howard/Strickland teams I first loved had long failed, and the Wizards were going through their worst season yet, but I actually really enjoyed watching the last couple months of that 2001 season. I loved watching Richard Hamilton slither off screens, and I was fast becoming a fan of Courtney Alexander and Tyrone Nesby. To top it all off, the Wizards got the Number 1 pick in the draft.

A turnaround fueled by likeable young guys was on the horizon ... and then Michael Jordan wanted to come back. Was he really doing this for the youngsters, or was he just going out there for himself? Would this mean less playing time for Hamilton and Alexander? Either way. I wondered whether the homegrown players I had started to love would ever develop.

Things didn't exactly go well at the beginning, but slowly, Jordan started to make a believer out of me. After a 3-10 start, Jordan and the young Wizards played .500 ball the rest of the way. Maybe they didn't make the playoffs, but they overachieved incredibly. Hamilton was still Hamilton, and Jordan still had tons left in the tank. If there was any doubt in my own brain, it was eradicated on January 4, 2002. The Wizards were playing the Bulls for the first time since MJ came back, and they were about to pull away late in the fourth quarter. Ron Mercer stole a pass and went one-on-one against Hubert Davis. Davis didn't want to foul, so he let Mercer go for what seemed like an easy layup. Then, out of nowhere, Jordan came streaking back, and somehow pinned the ball on the rim with both hands. It was one of the most spectacular plays I've ever seen. Their playoff run fell short, but Jordan had the youngsters playing well, and Kwame Brown was going to get better, so all was good again.

Even after the 2002 offseason, where Hamilton was traded and guys like Byron Russell and Charles Oakley were signed, I was drinking the koolaid. If Jordan could get the 2001/02 Wizards close to the playoffs, surely he could do wonders with this team. I even believed the talk that he was going to be a sixth man, behind Larry Hughes and Jerry Stackhouse. Everywhere I went, I was touting my Wizards as a top team in the East, and I was even saying that they could be a championship contender. I was so struck with the aura of Jordan that I failed to see the hypocrisy in my thinking.

Then, when the season happened with the team so hopelessly mediocre, I took yet another emotional 180. I was angry as Jordan failed to live up to his words and stamped his ego on the team. I was angry when he entered the starting lineup, I was angry that he was messing Jerry Stackhouse up, and I was angry that he kept jacking up off-balanced shots. Even when he was hot, like he was against the Hornets that one night, I was pissed off. Most of all, I was angry with how he handled Kwame Brown. The year before, Jordan seemed so good with developing the youngsters, but as Brown continued to struggle, I blamed Jordan.

When Abe Pollin cut Jordan loose after the season, it was one of the happiest days of my fanhood. As a Wizards fan, I needed to restart again. I remembered how much I enjoyed the young Wizards of 2000/2001, and how Jordan had totally messed up their potential. If you ever wonder why I always defend Ernie Grunfeld and Gilbert Arenas, it's because they, together, saved my Wizards fandom. After the Jordan era ended, I needed someone to pick it up.

But even though remembering the Jordan era can be difficult, I recognize how much it revived fan interest, both for me and for other DC residents. Jordan may have used the Wizards as his own personal sideshow, but you can't deny that you suddenly started to care again. When we talk about Gilbert Arenas as some sort of savior, we must give Jordan an assist. That, despite all his problems here, is why he has to be on this list.

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