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Jordan gets busy in search of Wizards spell

Mark Woods

Michael Jordan has enjoyed a busy first fortnight in his new role as President of Operations at the NBA's Washington Wizards. First he joined in basketball training. Then he fired the coach. Now he's trying to make some player trades. Just part of the course when you've been charged with turning around one of the worst franchises in the league and you're putting more than a reputation on the line.

If nothing else, the former Chicago Bulls star has already demonstrated that the intensity he brought onto the parquet each and every night until his retirement last year will be translated into his front office duties in America's capital. But there remains some surprise that an icon such as Jordan should forego the less strenuous goal of lowering a golf handicap to return to work as a mere employee in a perennially failing organisation.

With a reputed £200 million in the bank already and a continued stream of income from lucrative endorsements, it certainly wasn't for the money that Jordan accepted the call from Washington's owners.  After a failed attempt to take over the Charlotte Hornets, most observers expected Jordan to bide his time until a suitable alternative opportunity arose. 

Instead his reputed £17m investment has bought him a 10% share of a holding company controlled by Internet mogul Ted Leonsis, which itself only holds a minority shareholding in the enterprise which controls the Wizards, the WNBA's Mystics plus the MCI Center venue. 

Leonsis, who also directly holds ownership of the NHL's Washington Capitals, was the dealmaker in tempting Jordan back into the limelight and when Wizards' supremo Abe Pollin threw in control of basketball activities as part of the sweetener, the deal was sealed.

"It's different," admitted Jordan, looking as athletic as he did when he hit his final game-winning shot in the deciding game of the 1998 NBA Finals. "I don't get to wear the Wizards uniforms, but hopefully I can influence those players that wear the Wizards uniforms. I have an attitude about the way I play, I have an attitude about the way I win. My job and my responsibility with this organisation is to see if I can pass that on to the players that wear those uniforms."

That assessment has been undertaken at close hand, the five-time NBA Most Valuable Player lacing up his Air Jordans to join in with practice in order to, in his words, "to look in (each player's) eyes and see how scared he is." 

It will not be an easy task to revitalise an ailing team. Washington has made the play-offs only once in the last 11 seasons and are on course to extend that streak this year.  Their four ageing principal stars - Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland, Mitch Richmond and Issac Austin - have all fallen far below their best form and carry the burden of long-term, high-salary contracts which will limit Jordan's room to manoeuvre on the personnel front.

"I think we have to find a way to make them understand their responsibility for the cheques they're being paid with," was his frank assessment. "That's not going to happen overnight. We have a lot of problems with the (salary) cap room. Those are issues that we're going to have to deal with as we move further into this relationship."

The first stamp of the new authority arrived last weekend when coach Gar Heard was dismissed, a casualty of the 14-30 record which leaves them in last place in the Atlantic Division. However naming a replacement was not so simple and the manner of execution taught the new boy in the boardroom that he has much yet to learn. 

The initial choice was Golden State assistant Rod Higgins, an old Bulls team-mate of Jordan. Having revealed his choice of supremo to both players and media insiders before contacting the Warriors management to ask for his release, Jordan found himself having to make an embarrassing U-turn when the eventual approach was rejected, the Wizards instead turning to former Toronto playcaller Darrell Walker.

Despite daily speculation, Jordan has played down talk of immediate player trades although some eventual change is inevitable. Nonetheless in the interim, the players have been challenged to raise their games or face the consequences.

"The onus is on the players," Jordan said. "Gar is not here. I still think we can make the playoffs, although we really have to get in gear and play hard and play like I think we're capable of playing. I want to see the effort in that direction. I don't want to see it go the opposite direction." 

The hardest and toughest decision for Jordan may yet lie ahead. All of the Wizards' main playing assets are guided by super-agent David Falk, the man justly credited with developing Jordan's fame and fortune into hitherto untapped reaches of grandeur. The obvious conflict of interest between mentor and his newly-established negotiating adversary has caused disquiet. Indeed Heard accused Strickland and Howard of using Falk to pressurise Jordan into his removal.

However the NBA is basking in the return of its brightest star to the family fold. The charisma of Jordan cannot but help the ticket sales which has flagged since his retirement. Plus it provides a rebuttal to those who would accuse the league of not doing enough to promote ownership among the so-called "racial minorities".

In any case, it's clear that the legend of Michael Jordan has not yet reached its conclusion and that the most exciting part may only just have begun. And for a man who has never shirked from a challenge, don't bet against him casting his spell for success over the Wizards.

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