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When Nothing Else Matters: Michael Jordan's Last Comebackby Michael Leahy
From Chapter One: The Purge, May 2003
From his start in Wizards management, Michael Jordan courted danger. He liked to signal that he did not have many equals and certainly not any superiors. He referred to the team's principal owner, Abe Pollin, who had bought the team before Jordan entered kindergarten and hired Jordan as club president, as nothing more than a "partner." He spoke about him in a kind of modified conditional tense, couching explanations of his possible future moves by saying once that he would be consulting "my guys..." and "Abe, if he's still a part of the situation." His lieutenants dropped hints that Pollin blocked trades and acquisitions; that Michael couldn't wait for the tightfisted elderly owner to sell the team, so he could be replaced by a younger, bigger-spending visionary — someone who would be a suitable match for Michael's style and ambition. They sent signals that Michael wanted to dump or demote the owner's right-hand woman, Susan O'Malley, who was as close as a daughter to Pollin.
During Jordan's comeback, the Wizards' top brass silently endured his presumption. The new revenue sparked by Jordan's return, and the franchise's hunt for national respect, drove everything on ownership's end. Pollin, a septuagenarian builder and philanthropist who wanted his life story known and who had never found anyone to publish a book about him, had won basketball's version of the Lotto. Everyone suddenly wanted time with Pollin. His arena became a salon for rappers and Cabinet members, foreign titans and Hollywood's royalty. His luxury boxes swelled with new tenants. Jordan's presence on the court turned the Wizards into the league's biggest home draw and made Abe Pollin's floundering franchise profitable, by better than $10 million during each of his two playing seasons in Washington. But the bountiful times obscured the mounting private irritation of Pollin and O'Malley, who liked the burgeoning revenue but chafed under Jordan's slights.
No one thought about it much at the time, but Pollin and O'Malley always held the only power that mattered. They treated Jordan deferentially until his last game had come and gone and the money stopped. Then they moved on him. A mere three weeks after he had taken off his uniform for the last time, Jordan exited the MCI Center alone in a Mercedes convertible with Illinois plates, banished, an out-of-work man trying to navigate his way through traffic, on his way to throwing down a few drinks that evening and flying into jock exile.
Like Babe Ruth, he saw the truth too late. The truth was this: A sporting god enjoys supreme power only as long as he plays, earns and fills seats. The moment he ceases to be a team's principal revenue stream is the moment his dominion ends. One day Jordan enjoyed nearly all of the sway in his relationship with Wizards officials; the next day, none.
He knew basketball, but not much of real life, and seemingly nothing of the lessons from his own history: it was the second time in four years that he had been blindsided and outmaneuvered. His 1999 end in Chicago — where he had been spurned for a top front-office job and a slice of ownership after his playing days ended — should have taught him something about the cost of poor relationships. But, in their delusion, Jordan and his people thought Chicago was an aberration; that his longtime foil, Bulls vice president and general manager Jerry Krause, had sabotaged him with the blessing of an ungrateful owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, and that history would record the moment as Reinsdorf's and Krause's biggest folly.
When financially struggling Charlotte and lowly Washington offered him the reins of basketball and slices of ownership during 2000, Jordan felt vindicated. He asserted his supremacy immediately in negotiations with Pollin, guaranteeing that there would be strains in their business marriage. Their relationship already had been forced to overcome the memory of a heated exchange, a year earlier, at a meeting between NBA owners and players hopeful of resolving a player lockout and negotiating a new labor contract. Jordan, who would not be retiring from the Bulls for a few weeks, had come to New York to show his solidarity with players. When Pollin complained about rising player payrolls and his losses, Jordan snapped at him: "Then sell your team."
Pollin responded icily: "Neither you, Michael, or anybody else, is going to tell me when to sell my team."
Their marriage was fraught with risks, complicated by Pollin's desperate need to rekindle fans' interest in his terrible team, and Jordan's belief that he deserved privileges unprecedented among executives of NBA teams. Jordan demanded the freedom to work merely part-time in Washington, leaving plenty of days for his business endorsements, television commercials, golf and gambling outings. He made clear he would not be obligated to scout, working mostly out of his house in Chicago. He would attend only a handful of Wizards games, and accept only minimal marketing and promotional responsibilities. He did not sound like a man interviewing for a job, because he wasn't: He had a superstar's presumption, a conviction that the owner would, must, give in to him because the owner needed his magic.
But no longer did he have the same magic, because he was no longer a playing superstar, a reality he never fully embraced. It had hurt him in his final dealings with the Bulls, whose ownership never had confidence in his potential as an executive. Bulls officials privately questioned his work ethic off the court, viewing him as a guy who could not sit still in an office, in constant need of games and adrenaline fixes. They had treasured his sway on the court, as this translated to a box-office bonanza, but after his retirement announcement in Chicago, the Bulls no longer saw the margin in genuflecting.
The Wizards immediately sold a few hundred season tickets upon his hiring as president, but, as an executive, Jordan's allure proved short-lived, proof of what Chicago executives understood: People do not crowd into arenas to stare at executives in luxury boxes. Moreover, Jordan did his best Howard Hughes imitation, out of sight generally, watching most games, even when in Washington, alone, on a flat-screen TV in his office. His tenure as Washington's club president was undistinguished: a losing club, thousands of empty seats on most nights. He worked part-time — flying in to meet with his staff, watching a few games, good-naturedly dismissing suggestions that he scout some college kids in person, flying home. He groused in 2000 about how an executive's job couldn't compare to playing, and when, in returning to the court, he gave up the presidency and his slice of ownership — as mandated under NBA rules — he released the Wizards from any further obligations on his voided executive contract. Unshackled, Pollin could now do with him what he wished when Jordan's playing days ended.
The sagging performance of the Wizards during his comeback — thrilling nights bracketed by many more sour ones; a falling out in his relationships with teammates; and successive seasons at 37-45 under the volatile Doug Collins, the Jordan-tapped coach with a proven record of alienating players in two other cities and now self-immolating amid a Washington team weary of his eruptions — had augured a long, cold winter ahead in the 2003-2004 season. Remarkably, even in the face of two disappointing seasons, Jordan acted like he enjoyed leverage in his upcoming negotiations to regain the club presidency. He said he had "options" if the Wizards did not give him the authority he wanted.
It was a star player's way of negotiating, the bluster of a sports god. Only he was a lesser god now, and not even a player. In his final Washington days, with the assistance of his personal staff, he took out a full-page newspaper advertisement, in which he thanked scores of little-known basketball industry figures for their contributions to his career, and conspicuously failed to mention Pollin. It was petty payback, and a kind of assisted suicide.
And now Jordan learned what Ruth did: There was a price to be paid for so flagrantly offending ownership. Ruth never could get a managerial job, doomed by his rakish appetites and long indifference toward ownership's feelings. Jordan never grasped the concept of consequences. It was not that Pollin lacked empathy for former players. The Wizards were famous for keeping underachievers on the payroll — staffers at all levels of the organization whose work reeked of complacency but who could always rely on Pollin to remain their steadfast patron. One Pollinphile, Hall of Famer Wes Unseld — whose management of the Wizards played a part in rendering the franchise one of the league's worst, but who referred to the owner at all times as "Mr. Pollin" and exuded respect — had held onto his Wizards executive job for seven years, proof that the owner would overlook even catastrophe in the case of a loyal subservient.
However, if a Wizards player crossed management, something cold awaited, past the 79-year-old owner's grandfatherly smiles and parting gifts. In Pollin, Jordan finally met a man whose zest for merciless payback matched his own. Pollin did not request, and would not wait, for NBA officials to intervene and orchestrate a face-saving Jordan exit. There would be no face-saving allowed. Damning stories about Michael Jordan's work habits and relationships leaked out, and it was no secret that Pollin's people did most of the leaking. Tired of the god's disrespect, and aware that a retiring Jordan could make him no more millions, Pollin didn't wait a month before kicking Jordan out on the street. "I don't want you as a partner, Michael," he told him during their brief meeting.
Copyright © 2004 by Michael Leahy
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