He came. He saw. He couldn’t bear to watch any longer, started logging 38 minutes a night, thrust himself back into the starting lineup, routinely chewed out Kwame Brown and Co., wasn’t voted an All-Star starter for the first time in 14 seasons and fell short of the playoffs a second straight year for the first time in his career. In short, he didn’t conquer.
When Michael Jordan decided to “unretire” for a second time in September of 2001, his goals and objectives were unlike those he adhered to for so many years as a Chicago Bull. In Washington, there was no Phil Jackson. No Scottie Pippen. No triangle offense. No bronze statue of himself outside the arena. Approaching 40 years of age, Jordan was no longer looking to shoulder the load. He wanted to be on the floor, up close and personal as the Wizards’ brood of young talent learned and grew. His plan was to transition from the game’s all-time valedictorian to its most inspiring teacher.
Easier said than done. Like the impatient child who snatches a video game controller away from a younger sibling, Jordan could not sit idly by as his team struggled to execute the fundamentals that came so easily to His Airness. After 15 games as a sub, Jordan – not head coach Doug Collins – decided that it was time to move into the starting lineup for the rest of the season. At that moment, the focus of the Wizards’ season shifted from planning for the future to winning immediately. Here, Jordan made his first mistake as a teacher – he abandoned his lesson plan.
After losses, Jordan publicly berated teammates for playing soft, not hustling or giving less than a full effort. Following his last game at fabled Madison Square Garden, Jordan was furious that, “a 40-year-man has more desire than a 24-, 25-, or 23-year- old.” Never satisfied, Jordan was constantly frustrated and disappointed.
As is customary in sports these days, fans and media critics everywhere will want to evaluate Jordan’s final final lap. Whether it was a success or a failure is certainly up for debate, and a case could be made for both sides.
A horrid 19-63 the season before Jordan returned as a player, the Wizards were legitimate playoff contenders for much of the 2002-03 campaign. With MJ in uniform, Washington sold out 82 home games and enjoyed a spike in merchandising revenues.
Everyone – fans, opponents, former teammates and coaches – enjoyed watching Jordan run the court one last time. But while the rest of the league may have enjoyed Jordan’s swan song, it sent the Wizards into a swan dive.
How could that be possible? It’s heresy to suggest that MJ didn’t help the Wizards.
Sure, Jordan increased ticket sales and had Washington in the playoff hunt for the first time in years. But in the process, he may have done more harm than good. Because of Jordan’s presence on the court, other players who were ready to assume a leadership role had to take a temporary backseat to the 40-year-old point-forward. Fragile youngsters such as Brown were reamed on a regular basis instead of receiving the patient nurturing they needed to mature and improve.
But perhaps the worst mistake Jordan made was making the games all about him. Any good teacher knows the best measure of their effectiveness is not what they know and do but what their students can demonstrate.
Last Saturday, with four seconds left on the game clock and the Wizards down a point to Atlanta, Jordan hoisted the final jumper of the game. He missed long, but the outcome was of little significance as Washington had been eliminated from playoff contention the previous night.
Jordan is entitled to a proper sendoff, and perhaps Collins believed that giving MJ one last go at a buzzer beater was a fitting gesture.
Unfortunately for the rest of the team, Collins’ sentimentality is not making them better players. Where was Jerry Stackhouse – the man who will be pulling the trigger at the end of games next season – on that play? How about Ty Lue, or Larry Hughes, or Juan Dixon or even the power forward Brown? They were all standing around as their veteran leader took the last shot of the game, and took another invaluable learning opportunity away from the team’s future stars.
In his mind, and with Jordan’s consent, giving MJ one last chance to do what made him a basketball god was a gesture of loyalty and respect. But a greater gesture to the franchise, its fans and, most importantly, its players might have been to let Stackhouse pop out to the top of the key and let fly.
After all, one of the primary lessons MJ attempted, but in the end failed, to impart to his legions was that basketball is a team game and not about any one man.
Michael Jordan walked away from his final game last night with the challenge to learn from the greatest lesson sports can teach – losing.
If he can grasp the concept, his legacy should shine even brighter. But if not, he’s surely no Wizard.
Gerton can be reached at email@example.com.