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Jordan to finish out of playoffs

Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Michael Jordan sounded like a dad let down by his kids.

''How many times have your parents told you not to do things, and the next thing you know, you go do it?'' Jordan said. ''And you realized you shouldn't have done it.''

Jordan was speaking after an emotional loss by the Wizards to the Boston Celtics last Wednesday night, a defeat that pushed Washington closer to elimination from the playoff race.

Milwaukee wrapped up the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference on Friday night with a victory over Toronto. But even before that, Jordan was left wondering why some of his teammates waited so long to show passion and energy.

''Sometimes you need to get hit in the head to realize that you're in a fight,'' Jordan said. ''It's unbelievable we had to come down to this moment, where we're really fighting and scratching to try to stay in the playoffs, when all season long we had great opportunities to win ballgames and take advantage of it.

''That's a young team. They realized late.''

Jordan's third coming is coming to an end, and from his perspective it's been marred by the very players with whom he chose to share his final season.

Certainly, little more could have been asked from Jordan himself, at least statistically: The 40-year-old superstar with six NBA championship rings has averaged 37 minutes and 20 points, and he is the only Wizards player not to miss a game.

But while he didn't embarrass himself like Willie Mays with the Mets or Johnny Unitas with the Chargers at the end of their careers, Jordan couldn't win in Washington, in part because his overwhelming presence skewed a delicate team chemistry.

''The pros were that you got to play with Michael Jordan, you got to learn from the best, you got to see how things were done,'' center Brendan Haywood said.

''The cons were maybe a little less patience, because the team's trying to make the playoffs right away. You didn't get a chance to play through some of your mistakes. You were getting taken out of the game and yelled at for it.''

Now that it's nearly over, what has the comeback meant for the Wizards? First, it depends on whether Jordan stays with the team.

If Jordan takes a front-office job in Chicago or Charlotte or does something else, his Washington rebuilding program will be done. The long-suffering franchise, which hasn't won a playoff game in 15 years, will have to start over again.

If he returns to his old job as the Wizards' president of basketball operations, which he says is his first choice, Jordan believes that his two years on the court will not have gone to waste, because he now knows the players inside and out.

''I've had a good look at the talent in this league and the talent on this team,'' Jordan said. ''Hopefully, I'll understand what it takes to build a better program.

''I didn't suit up just to create interest. I suited up to help these guys play with the passion that you need to play this game.''

But there is a popular counter-argument in Washington that Jordan's comeback somehow stifled the development of the younger players. At the very least, it was always going to be awkward playing with a retiring all-time great who also happens to be the boss of the franchise.

''It's deeper than what you see -- I'll leave it at that,'' guard Jerry Stackhouse said. ''The focus is not so much on the game. It's on the circumstances and situations around the game. You can't play basketball like that. ... When he goes back upstairs, guys will just kind of relax a little bit, and maybe that will be the difference. It will change a lot of things.''

Jordan called such talk a ''cop-out.'' As evidence, he pointed out that he didn't even start the first 15 games of the season.

''I wanted to come off the bench early on so that the young kids could get a chance to play,'' Jordan said. ''I'm willing to take a step back if someone steps forward, but me being in the locker room is going to make people afraid to step forward and play the game that they've been playing for years?

''When I go back upstairs, hopefully there won't be any excuses.''

How did Jordan's comeback create so much angst?

It takes a strong-willed person to play next to Jordan, but the Wizards are loaded with sensitive egos who don't mind complaining.

''The Bulls, when they won their championships, they surrounded Michael with guys that were tough-minded,'' coach Doug Collins said. ''You have to be that type of player. Michael's tough. He's going to expect the same out of his teammates.

''You can't shy away from criticism. I've always thought as a player, you'd much rather hear it from a player than a coach. But our group seems like it doesn't want to hear it from anybody.''

The team's hardworking players include Tyronn Lue, Bobby Simmons, Christian Laettner and Juan Dixon, who all got more playing time down the stretch. Those deemed to have created ripples include Stackhouse, Kwame Brown and Larry Hughes, who all to some degree have criticized Collins -- tantamount to picking on Jordan.

And it's certain that Jordan, if he stays in Washington, will keep those things in mind when he and Collins start tinkering with the roster.

''It'll be different,'' Collins said. ''How much different, I don't know.''

As for the possibility that he'll play again, Jordan keeps saying it won't happen.

The ''itch'' he had two years ago has been scratched. It's just that no one seems to want to believe it because he has un-retired twice before.

''I'm 100 percent, this is my last year,'' Jordan said. ''No 99.9. One-hundred percent.''

At least with this group.



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