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COMMENTARY

Jordan Has Himself to Blame for Job Loss

May 11, 2003|Sally Jenkins | Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Michael Jordan lost a job because his boss didn't like what he was doing, a quite common career reversal that happens to people all the time, especially in basketball, but apparently it's not supposed to happen to Michael Jordan.

Why? What exempts him from everyday setbacks, and accountability for his role in them?

The decision by Washington Wizard owner Abe Pollin not to rehire Jordan as president of basketball operations couldn't possibly be the result of a personal failing on Jordan's part. It must be something more sinister.

If you listen to John Thompson on the radio, or to Jordan's friends and associates, it's everybody else's fault, everybody but Jordan's. It was a conspiracy, a sandbagging, a political plot.

"Basically it was a very, very tough decision but I made the decision by myself and I made it for what I thought was best for the franchise," Pollin said in a phone interview Thursday. "Now, I can take the heat. But I'm not going to get into any tit for tat with anybody. That's not my style, never has been and never will be."

One of the more popular sentiments around town was that Jordan was "exploited" by Pollin, a charge leveled by Thompson and echoed in a column by my friend and colleague Michael Wilbon. According to that view, Jordan was used for two seasons to put people in the seats, and then Pollin discarded him.

Much as I respect Thompson and Wilbon, this inflammatory crack very conveniently shifts attention from Jordan's actual performance as an executive and places it unfairly on Pollin's character.

"I want to make one thing real clear," Pollin said. "I spent my life in this city that I love, and I've been involved with all kinds of citizens, and in its growth, and I've been involved with its rebirth. I put everything I own and created all on the line to build the MCI Center, to be the catalyst to revive the nation's capital. So for people like John Thompson to come up with a bogus racial innuendo is offensive to me ... and really beneath him. And one more thing. I have never lied in my life and I did not lie to Michael Jordan."

To say that Jordan was "exploited" is not just to demean Pollin, but to demean Jordan, to suggest that the richest and most powerful athlete in modern history, one who prides himself on his shrewdness, couldn't take care of himself in a business deal.

Frankly, if that's the case, Jordan had no business running a team. It also ignores the pertinent facts that Jordan's comeback as a player revived his flagging businesses and endorsement deals -- his latest signature shoes go for $175. Maybe he should have paid more attention to his relationship with his owner than his relationships with Nike and Gatorade.

One reason Pollin let Jordan go was vividly illustrated on the front pages of newspapers Thursday: photos showed Jordan spinning away from MCI Center in his convertible. Note the tag on the Mercedes. Is it D.C.? Maryland? Virginia? No, it's Illinois, which promised the same lack of commitment to the team that he had the last time he was an absentee executive. Mystery solved.

Pollin owes something to Jordan for filling seats? Yes. He owes him exactly what he agreed to pay him. This is a business we're talking about here. The problem was, people were coming to see Michael, but the team was losing. It was like an old-time exhibition tour by Babe Ruth.

Jordan defenders say that at least he created buzz, even in a suit on a losing team. But if Jordan's mere buzz is so vital to the franchise and to the town, why doesn't the Smithsonian set up a Michael Jordan diorama, like the ones for cave men and forest Indians? Except he'd be live, shooting baskets, or sitting in a convertible, or maybe holding sway at a mock-up of a table at Cafe Milano.

All Jordan had to do to keep his job was produce a winning team instead of a losing, downward spiraling one. If he had done that he'd have been untouchable. Instead he rebuilt the roster to no improvement, and was an agent of dissension among his own players and staff. It was a Jordan production start to finish.

As one source says, "If Michael Jordan had won, Abe Pollin would have had no choice but to bring him back."

Instead, Jordan lost and then subtly -- but habitually -- blamed others for the Wizards' failures. It was as though he had a knee-jerk compulsion to be the hero of every situation, and when he wasn't, he quietly shoveled the responsibility on others.

One especially neat trick was to put distance between himself and his No. 1 draft pick, Kwame Brown. When it became apparent that Brown, the first player ever chosen No. 1 out of high school, needed remedial work, his associates whispered that Brown wasn't really Jordan's choice, others had talked him into it.

Enough with the whispers. And enough with Jordan's contention that he wasn't to be blamed if the deadbeats around him refused to dive for loose balls. Jordan hand-picked the team. If the players were deadbeats, exactly who is accountable for that? The exec, that's who.

Jordan was in charge for 3 1/2 years and failed to produce a winning record. How many chances is he supposed to get?

The Wizards' next move, Pollin says, is to search for a president of basketball operations and to fill the job "as quickly as possible."

Jordan's replacement will, almost inevitably, lack the projection-sized image he cast, and will no doubt appear dull by comparison. Whoever he is, if he can't get it done, then he should take responsibility for the failure and gracefully move on.

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