Jordan's fine, Wizards stink

Posted: Friday, October 12, 2001

The news is not good. Not the news on Michael Jordan. He's going to be fine. In time. The Wizards are another story. Right now, they'd be lucky to beat the Washington Generals.

Sure, Thursday night's game against the Pistons was an exhibition. And the Wizards only lost 95-85. But cover your eyes once the NBA starts playing for real. Jordan would have a hard time carrying these guys in his prime, and he's nowhere near it.

For someone who took so much delight in finding opponents' weaknesses, Jordan had to be stunned to find so many glaring ones among the ballplayers wearing the same uniform. The Wizards don't rebound particularly well, they barely defend and they can't move the ball around the perimeter fast enough to get Jordan space to operate. Even their layup line could use some work.

But it's not as if he hasn't put his stamp on the franchise already, in ways large and small. The Wizards travel better, practice harder and new coach Doug Collins is sharper than the half-dozen men who preceded him in the job -- combined. And their new go-to guy, even in the unfamiliar blue, black and bronze colors, will be going to the Hall of Fame when he finally gets this retirement thing down pat.

But none of it might make the difference Jordan envisioned when he stopped working on his induction speech. Getting this team to the playoffs will test his determination in ways baseball never could.

At least when Jordan was still employed in the Wizards' front office, he could rage at the TV in the privacy of his skybox. There will be no hiding his frustration on the court. And if this first competitive scrimmage is any indication, frustration is the only thing the Wizards won't need help generating.

How Jordan deals with that is the X-factor. He could take being shown up by Allen Iverson's crossover dribble or muscled away from a rebound by Karl Malone, but that's because the Chicago Bulls teams Jordan won six championships with found ways to give him the chance to win at the end of nearly every game.

With work, Jordan might reclaim his reputation as the best finisher in basketball. Less certain is whether the Wizards can put him a position to finish often enough to keep him happy.

''This is a whole different situation,'' Jordan said. ''I can't worry anymore about Phil Jackson coaching me and Scottie Pippen and the rest of those guys being around.

''It's not going to feel quite the same. But I'm getting over it.''

As if to prove that, the game was only 18 seconds old before Jordan was up to some of his old tricks, sneaking over from the weak side to block a shot by Detroit's Corliss Williamson. But things went pretty much downhill from there.

With five minutes left in the opening quarter, Jordan made a nice baseline cut to get free for a layup, only to have the Pistons' Ben Wallace block the shot from behind. Even more embarrassing, he got whistled for palming the ball while trying to drive around Michael Curry in what turned out to be a disastrous second quarter.

''That was a rookie call,'' Jordan said, before flashing a mischievous smile. ''I guess that means I'm a rookie again.''

In one important sense, that's true. Jordan arrived in Chicago as the third pick in the 1984 draft, expected to make a terrible Bulls team better. He was a marked man from the start, but he was also capable of beating anybody in the league one-on-one. As that gap widened, it created opportunities that his fast-improving teammates cashed in.

Jordan will get the same attention again with the Wizards, but his upside won't be anywhere near as great. The real danger is that might be true of his new team as well.

''Nobody is going to have mercy on him,'' Detroit's Jon Barry said. ''I don't care if he's 38 or 58. He had his feast on us, and maybe, if things don't work out, we can feast on him a little bit.

''I got him once tonight and he said, 'That will never happen again.'''

Watching these Wizards, though, you can't help but think it will, again and again. The play Barry ''got'' Jordan on was a backdoor cut that earned him a lane to the basket. The defensive helpers Jordan used to count on, like Pippen and Horace Grant, are playing elsewhere, or in the case of Dennis Rodman, playing at something entirely different.

''I don't know how good they can be, but Michael will make them better,'' Wallace said. ''He's always made everyone around him better and I'm sure that will be the case again with the Wizards.''

Jordan said he was coming back for the love of the game and to teach the young kids in Washington how to play it the right away. Losing will test that love like never before, and teaching these Wizards will take the kind of patience a young Jordan never bothered to learn. Back then, he was too busy trying to win.

After the game, someone asked what lessons the youngsters alongside him could learn by watching him play through 17 sometimes-frustrating minutes.

''Don't think that you know everything,'' he said, ''because this game will teach you something new every day. It's still teaching me.''

And what Thursday night's loss should have taught Jordan is that it's going to be a very long season.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at

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