Michael Jordan's decision to play doomed his legacy in Washington

WASHINGTON – This was on the morning of the first home game, back in November 2001, when there was still hope for Michael Jordan as a Washington Wizard. And yet he already seemed tired by it all. We stood in an area beneath the stands of what was then called the MCI Center – myself, a reporter from Japan and a writer from Sports Illustrated.

"This is an elite opportunity!" shouted a man who walked Jordan to us. But it hardly felt elite. The Wizards had just finished their morning shootaround. It was cold in the arena, which also houses a hockey team. Jordan shivered. He smiled wanly at the Sports Illustrated writer, a man with whom he was friendly, but whose magazine he hated for once imploring him to give up his brief baseball career. The man, as a matter of routine, asked Jordan to let him interview him. Jordan, as had become his custom too, declined. It was almost a joke between them. The Japanese reporter handed Jordan a DVD as a gift. He took it awkwardly. He mumbled a couple of words about being glad to be back playing basketball and then he was gone.

Jordan played well enough that night, just as he did in the two seasons of his third comeback. He scored 20 points in a victory over a Philadelphia 76ers team that was missing its best player, Allen Iverson. Still, something seemed empty. This wasn't Chicago, where he had become the greatest player in the world. It had been three years since he walked away from that Finals winning shot in Salt Lake City. Now he was 38 on a strange team and already there were chips in the wall of reverence his teammates had always built for him.

When I asked Wizards guard Richard Hamilton, then in his third NBA season, what he thought about the nickname a national television broadcaster had made up for the team – "Michael Jordan and the Jordanaires" – he shook his head.

"Nobody on this team considers himself a Jordanaire," he said. At the time his words seemed almost like blasphemy. Jordan's Chicago teammates never questioned his omnipotence openly. But Hamilton had been in college when Jordan won his last championship. The Jordan he knew was from television, not this older, slightly paunchier facsimile who referred to the rest of his teammates as "the little guys" in his news conference that night.

Perhaps then it should have been obvious what a bad idea Jordan's return to the NBA really was. Still, the Philadelphia victory pushed the Wizards to 2-1. And after all, Jordan had once retired for nearly two years and came back to lead the Bulls to three more titles and even on this strange, vacant night, there seemed nothing he couldn't do.

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A year before, still unsure of what to do in retirement, he had bought a small share of the Wizards and been given the job of president of basketball operations. This was the idea of a part-owner, Ted Leonsis, then famous for his success with AOL. Leonsis had come to know Jordan through mutual friends and liked him. He thought Jordan would make a great executive and eventually the majority owner, Abe Pollin, agreed to make the move.

Yet running the team wasn't enough. Jordan needed to play again. Thus came the awkward arrangement of being the star player on a team whose roster he had chosen and playing for his hand-picked coach, Doug Collins. Of course it didn't work. The Wizards went 37-45 in each of the two seasons he played in Washington. A few weeks after the second season ended, Pollin fired Jordan as president. Jordan stormed out of the MCI Center, his Washington time done.

Three years ago, while interviewing Leonsis for a profile I was writing about him for the Washington Post, I asked Leonsis about Jordan. How did he ultimately see his decision to bring Jordan on as a part-owner and then push Pollin to make him president? Was it wrong? At the time, they had not spoken in the seven years since Jordan was fired and the mention of Jordan's name seemed to make Leonsis sad.

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"I think there were no winners in it," said Leonsis, now the majority owner of the Wizards. "I certainly thought I was doing a good thing. The Wizards, at the time, were struggling. And I had met Michael Jordan and he was very interested in being an owner and being in basketball, and I brought it to Abe and I said, ‘I can bring him in as my partner, but only you hire him to be president, that has to be your call.' Abe spent a lot of time with him and thought that was the right thing to do.

"For us, we thought: How could … having the greatest basketball player as a part of your ownership group not be a good thing? For Michael, [Pollin] thought he would eventually become an owner-operator of the team and the decision to come back and play basketball was the big change in it. You can't be an owner anymore. So once he went back to playing for his reasons, [Leonsis and his parters] were on the sideline and we weren't involved and the team didn't play very well and then he wanted to come back and run the team. We would have brought him back to be an owner and a partner with us, but Mr. Pollin didn't want that to happen. So when I say there's no winners, we were in the middle, but we couldn't be there on the court with him, we didn't own it and we weren't privy to the relationship between him and Abe when we was playing. We weren't there so Abe fired him. That's what it came down to."

Leonsis paused.

"That's highly unusual when there are three parties and no one wins," he said.

He was talking about the business relationship between he, Pollin and Jordan. But just as easily he could have been talking about Jordan's time as the Wizards part-owner, team president and shooting guard.

In the end, none of those three left Washington a winner.

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