In 2003, after two years spent working as the Washington Wizards’ swingman and three and a half seasons working as the team’s personnel chief in either an official or unofficial capacity, Michael Jordan retired as an active player for the final time.
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Three weeks after the 2002-03 season ended, with the Wizards having missed the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, Jordan met with Washington owner Abe Pollin to discuss what he assumed would be the resumption of his career as team president – a role he held from January 2000 until September 2001, when he had to give up the gig in anticipation of his return as an active player.
Pollin clearly did not feel as indebted to Jordan as MJ (and many others) assumed he would, and though letting Jordan go would mean firing an NBA legend (while leaving his team GM-less during the upcoming NBA draft, in which they selected Jarvis Hayes ahead of several good-to-great players), it was something the longtime Washington owner felt needed to happen.
Abe Pollin has since passed away, but his widow Irene Pollin recently detailed the insides of the discussion between the pair in her memoir ‘An Unexpected Life,’ which was recently excerpted by Dan Steinberg at the D.C. Sports Bog:
After many carefully thought-out meetings with senior staff and lawyers, Abe agreed to meet with Michael in his office. Knowing this would be a difficult meeting, his advisers suggested he tell Michael that he had “decided to go in a different direction.” They felt, after reviewing his performance, they had no choice. It was not personal. They all liked and admired Michael; it was purely business.
This was not what Michael expected. He was shocked. What followed was a heated discussion of what had and had not been promised. But after Abe repeated his decision “to go in a different direction,” Michael lost it. He became very angry and began shouting. At that point, Abe walked out of the room as Michael called him several unflattering names. Michael stormed out of the room, went down to the parking garage, jumped into his Mercedes convertible with Illinois license plates, took the top down, and drove directly back to Chicago.
Jordan’s ire was completely understandable. Even if his work as a personnel director was misguided overall, he had filled Abe Pollin’s arena for two years (working on a minimum salary that was all donated to charity) and nearly led his team to the playoffs for what would have been the second time since the Reagan Administration. Say what you want about the folly of it all, but Jordan’s presence made some money.
When Jordan signed on to play with the Wizards in September 2001, he officially renounced his position as team personnel president and de facto personnel chief, hiring friend and respected NBA lifer Rod Higgins to work the gig. Everyone in the league knew, though, and didn’t mind that Jordan was still the one calling the shots. Former Bulls coach Doug Collins was hired before Jordan officially committed to returning as a player, but signing Charles Oakley and later dealing the young Rip Hamilton for the four-years older Jerry Stackhouse (a North Carolina product, like Jordan) had MJ’s fingerprints all over the sign sheet. So did drafting Jared Jeffries, star of the nationally televised NCAA Tournament, and local product Juan Dixon – a ready-to-go 24-year old rookie.
Drafting a high schooler in Kwame Brown No. 1 overall, as Jordan did three months before his return in 2001, did not; but Brown was the consensus top overall pick heading into that draft. Jordan and Collins badgered Brown to no end, and while Kwame never would have turned into the sort of Chris Webber/Jermaine O’Neal hybrid we were taunted with in 2001, it is possible that he would have gone on to enjoy a more successful, more confident career had Jordan not been in the locker room for his first two seasons.
Those two seasons included endless sellouts, high-end merchandise sales (which benefit the league as a whole), season-ticket packages and copious national TV appearances for the previously moribund Washington Wizards. Though Jordan did start off his tenure as president correctly – losing big contracts like Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond – his win-now streak and attempts at recapturing an approximation of his glory as a player obviously fell short.
What he thought – what most thought – was that there would be a president’s job waiting for him following his farewell tour. And because it’s just business, Abe Pollin was under no NBA-legal obligation to give MJ his old gig back. Any paperwork signed that promised Jordan that job would have been illegal under NBA bylaws, and Pollin took full advantage.
“Purely business.” As impactful as any player can be, they’re still not the one calling the shots in the end. They’re still not the team owner.
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