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Aging Jordan Still Had Game


Has there ever been a bigger name to wear a Wizards uniform? (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images)


The man regarded by many as the greatest to ever play basketball had just played a game that could easily be described as the worst he'd ever played. Michael Jordan scored six points on 2 of 10 shooting in a blowout loss in Indiana in December 2001 and gave his critics and cynics more reason to second-guess his decision to leave behind his role as part owner and team president of the Washington Wizards to come back out of retirement for the second time -- as a creaky-kneed, 38-year-old man with nothing more to prove, on a team that had no chance of continuing his championship legacy.

Jordan had to take that long, rhythmic, pigeon-toed stroll to the Wizards' team bus, a superhero humbled by the performance resembling a mere human. He grabbed a seat next to his handpicked coach, Doug Collins, and Collins recalls Jordan looking him in the eye and asking, "Do you think I can still play?"

"Absolutely, Michael," Collins remembers telling Jordan.

Collins said he wasn't surprised by Jordan's question because he believed that the inquiry had less to do with Jordan's self doubt and more to do with his need for a loyal ally. "I know Michael's big thing. If you're with him, you better believe that you can win every night and you'd better believe in him," said Collins, who coached Jordan for five seasons, including three in Chicago. "I was around him for a long, long time. I know what burns inside him."

Collins assured Jordan that he had confidence in him and wouldn't have come back to coach the Wizards if he didn't believe in what Jordan was trying to accomplish --- leading a once proud franchise back into the playoffs. He also explained to Jordan that he didn't play him the entire fourth quarter of a 108-81 loss because he didn't feel it was necessary. Jordan, whose streak of 866 consecutive games scoring in double figures had ended, told Collins that he agreed with him, adding, "I just wanted to know if you think I can still play."

At the time, Collins and Jordan both lived at the Ritz-Carlton condos in Northwest Washington and Collins estimates that they arrived back home around 3 a.m. Collins said that his wife, Kathy, went to the Washington branch of Sports Club/L.A. about five hours later and spotted Jordan already lifting weights with his personal trainer, Tim Grover.

"That tells you right there and sums up his competitive drive," Collins said. "If you're going to play with Michael, if you're going to coach Michael, you're going to have to bring it every night, cause he's going to bring an incredible intensity and competitive spirit, because he thinks he can win every night. Sometimes that can be overwhelming, especially to young people who have not been around that kind of competitor."


The old man's still got it. (AP Photo By Stephen J Boitano)

What followed over the next three games with likely stand out as the most memorable period of Jordan's time in Washington. He scored 51 points against the Charlotte Hornets, becoming the oldest player in NBA history -- by three years -- to score 50 or more, and set a then-franchise record 34 points in the first half. He followed that up with 45 points the next game against New Jersey. Then, he scored 29 points against his former team, Chicago, to reach 30,000 and showed that there was still some air in the man called Air.

After having his shot blocked by Ron Artest, Jordan sprinted down court to catch Ron Mercer attempting a layup. Jordan leapt, pinned the ball against the backboard with two hands and pulled it down in one motion.

"My favorite memory was when he caught Ron Mercer's shot," said center Brendan Haywood, the last of Jordan's former teammates remaining in Washington. "He came out of nowhere. We didn't even know he had that in the tank."

The Wizards would eventually enter the all-star break with a 26-21 record and the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but the season faltered in the second half, as Jordan's right knee began to deteriorate and he eventually was forced to have surgery. Collins adds that Jordan's injury, combined with injuries to Hamilton and Haywood derailed what would've been a playoff team. "If he hadn't gotten hurt our first year and Rip Hamilton had not got hurt," Collins said. "We would've probably won 42, 43, 44 games and made the playoffs."

Would Jordan's time with the Wizards be looked upon differently if the team had made the playoffs?

Jordan will enter the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame on Friday because of the six NBA championships, five MVP awards and 10 scoring titles that he won in Chicago. His two seasons in Washington are mostly remembered for what he wasn't able to accomplish -- leading the Wizards to the playoffs, building a quality team, getting his job back after he finished playing. Looking back, both Jordan and the Wizards would like to ignore his time here. On most nights he was an old Jordan instead of the Jordan of old, but for an aging perimeter player, he was relatively successful in the District.

It's easy to dismiss the Washington model because it didn't compare with the Chicago model, but not many NBA players can suit up at age 38, 39 or 40. And those that do are usually big men and they rarely produce at the level that Jordan did.

When he came back to play for the Wizards, Jordan was way, way past his prime and weakened by right knee tendinitis, which shortened his first season (in his final game of the season, Jordan had just two points off the bench against the Los Angeles Lakers). But despite missing three full seasons, Jordan still averaged more than 25 points a game at the all-star break and finished averaging 22.9 points, which ranks as the second-highest scoring average for any player during the season that they turned 39 (Kareem Abdur-Jabbar was tops at 23.4).


You're right, Brendan. I still got it. But I meant it when I said I was done this time. (Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images; Charlotte Observer)

The next season, Jordan played all 82 games and averaged 20 points per game -- at age 40. Those seasons dropped his scoring average from 31.5 points to 30.12, but his effectiveness at a late stage in life isn't lost on Haywood.

"Some people didn't view [what Jordan did in Washington] in a positive light because he wasn't as dominant as he was before and how things went down with him and team and they view it real negative," Haywood said. "For me, he wasn't the same 30-plus per game scorer, but he was still one of the top 15 players in the league at like 40 years old. I view it as a great time because it was a testament to where his skill level was. I think what he did out there was phenomenal."

Haywood added that he believes that Jordan, now part owner and managing member of basketball operations for the Charlotte Bobcats, could still play right now. "Honestly, he could outplay probably about 50 percent of the NBA right now," Haywood said. "Give him a month to get in shape."

Even at 46?

"At 46, if you give Michael Jordan a month, two months to go over there with Tim Grover and get in shape, he could beat 50 percent of the league," Haywood said. "He wouldn't be at a LeBron James level, but he could compete because of his knowledge. He knew the game so well, as far as scouting reports and where he needed to get to on the court that he was always going to be effective. He couldn't jump quite as high, wasn't quite as fast and he still averaged 20 in the greatest league on earth because he was that talented."



By Michael Lee  |  September 9, 2009; 9:37 AM ET
 
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Comments

first

Posted by: prescrunk | September 9, 2009 9:45 AM | Report abuse

In that win over the Nets, he also scored 22 straight points (one shy of his NBA regular season record of 23 set in the mid 80's).

http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1S1-9200201010936308.html

Posted by: heybige1 | September 9, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

yes, but...

It was all about him.

Have we forgotten his humiliating the young guys on court in front of the crowd and the other team? Or his hogging the ball so he could miss the last shot or score a big total? Or his trading Rip, drafting Kwame and then, between Collins and himself, mugging the kid in public?

Yes, Jordan was a great player. Period.

Posted by: joe2chase | September 9, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

oh yeah...he blows as a GM.

But I agree with BTH in that folks seem to consider his years in DC as a personal failure when in fact he was still bringing it at age 40. His years in Chicago are incomparable but the DC version wasn't bad.

Posted by: original_mark | September 9, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

Jordan. One of them Tarheel fellas. He was a success in DC, not a failure, but it doesn't appear so because of his prior huge successes.

Time will tell how much of a success he really was in DC.

Haywood is one of Jordans acquisitions.

LarryInClintonMD.

Posted by: LarryInClintonMD | September 9, 2009 10:57 AM | Report abuse

People forget that Jordan actually laid the foundation for this time (however good or bad that may be)

Got rid of Juwan's contract and some other bad ones. Brought in Larry Hughes...so it's not ALL bad...but he could've been better.

Posted by: SDMDTSU | September 9, 2009 11:33 AM | Report abuse

I agree with LarryInClintonMD. I think BTH is trying to get a big pay day with Jordan in Charlotte just in case if he does not get resigned here after this season.

Posted by: JohnWWW | September 9, 2009 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Iverson to Memphis. Damn A.I.

Posted by: SDMDTSU | September 9, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

Michael Jordan made me love the Bullets again.

What he did, at that age, is absolutely remarkable.

He stunned people in his first few years. He stunned people with his 6 championships, and he stunned people by scoring 51 points at age 38.

I feel honored to have MJ as a former Wizard.

Posted by: iamse7en | September 9, 2009 11:51 AM | Report abuse

MJ greatest player to ever wear a wiz uni. it was a pleasure to watch him play in my hometown for 2 years. and the jordan 16 and 17 shoes came out while he was in dc, they are two of the best pair of jordans ever made.

Posted by: lilhollywood10 | September 9, 2009 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Watching that youtube clip all you see is Jordan hoggin' the ball. A total selfish hot dog but at least he still had a little game left.

Jordan was a great player in his prime but was ALWAYS a horrible basketball exec. Still is. He passed on Jason Richardson, Pau Gasol , Tony Parker, Bobby Simmons and Gil Arenas for # 1 overall pick Kwame Brown .

His next high profile pick was Adam Morrison as the # 3 overall pick for the Bobcats who turned into one of the biggest busts in modern history and was traded for a handful of magic beans. What a great evaluator of talent.

The two common links between Michael Jordan's time running the Washington Wizards and his stint running the Charlotte Bobcats have been wasted lottery picks and a lack of playoff appearances.

Posted by: Rocky420 | September 9, 2009 12:27 PM | Report abuse

I remember BTH purposely giving the Wizards a good deal so as not to kill the salary cap. He is not greedy and proved it. Will he do it again, I don't know. But he deserves the benefit of the doubt and hopefully will give the wizards a bargain.

Posted by: G-Man11 | September 9, 2009 12:34 PM | Report abuse

I think Jordan wasted the talent he had left by coming to Washington. He couldn't carry a team, but he could have be a major contributor to a real team like New York or Los Angelos.

He helped old man Pollin with 82 straight sellouts and thrown out after his playing days were over. Jordan helped bring the salary cap space to get Arenas and Jamison and Butler.....

Who's going to bail the Wizards out now???

Posted by: punchdaclock | September 9, 2009 12:47 PM | Report abuse

This says it all for me:
He grabbed a seat next to his handpicked coach, Doug Collins, and Collins recalls Jordan looking him in the eye and asking, "Do you think I can still play?"

"Absolutely, Michael," Collins remembers telling Jordan.

Collins said he wasn't surprised by Jordan's question because he believed that the inquiry had less to do with Jordan's self doubt and more to do with his need for a loyal ally.

no doubt Jordan is great, but his time here was about him, not the team. We got some good out of it and some bad. It's amazing how well he performed "at his age."

Best ever in a Wizards uniform? That would be fun to watch: 2006 Gilbert vs. 2001 Jordan.

Best ever while in a Bullets/Wizards uniform? I don't think so. If I recall, Bernard King had better numbers on another loser Washington NBA team. And that doesn't even go back to the "glory days."

Posted by: Blurred | September 9, 2009 12:50 PM | Report abuse

Michael, the last time you posted about MJ and asked for reaction, you were upfront about the fact that you weren't here in DC when the Jordan-era went down. Hey, put me in the camp that MJ is arguably the best player ever in the NBA. He did indeed bring enormous excitement to a team that hadn't been relevent in years. But this post reads like a fairytale. The MJ years were all about MJ. Many games digressed into being get-MJ-the-ball with everyone else standing around. Why? Because if you didn't there would be hell to pay in the lockeroom after the game from MJ himself. Of course, all of this was preceeded by MJ managing a major sports franchise from his cell phone at the gold course or his home in Chicago. As for Collins--he was a total Jordan sychophant. His after game press conferences were an embarassment: ball-hog Jordan could do wrong, but everyone else stunk up the place. MJ is truly a legend. But enough revisionist history about his tenure in DC. Good ridance.

Posted by: jweber1 | September 9, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Haywood didn't "give" the Wizards anything. He took the deal he took because it was likely the best one he was going to get. He (and his agent) made a smart business move and took the Wizards extension rather than risking FA when there was nothing to suggest there was a better deal somewhere else. He wasn't doing the Wizards any favors. The only thing he "proved" was that he and his agent were smart enough not to let ego override common sense. It remains to be seen whether he'll be that smart a second time.

Posted by: kalo_rama | September 9, 2009 12:52 PM | Report abuse

Haywood said it back then and looking back on it now, the contract is wizard friendly, despite whatever spin you try to put on it.

Posted by: G-Man11 | September 9, 2009 1:10 PM | Report abuse

"Haywood said it back then"

He said what back then? That he was passing up bigger better offers to sign a moderate deal with the Wiz to help the team? If he said that, he was lying through his teeth.

I'm not the one spinning. He took the standard deal they offered him. Period. He didn't listen to offers from other teams and decide that D.C. is where he wanted to stay. He didn't turn down more money in order to give the team flexibility (that was Arenas). He took the best deal that was out there for him, which is what most players in his position would have done. Nothing more, nothing less. If he thought he could have gotten more money he would have gone after it.

As for the deal being "Wizards friendly" . . . more PR spin. The Wiz were already over the cap, so it's not like his deal gave them any advantage or help in that area.

Posted by: kalo_rama | September 9, 2009 1:20 PM | Report abuse

its like this. when it was happening, he said it. he could have tested the market and gotten a better deal, whether you want to give him the benefit or doubt or not. Being a young 7footer, he would have gotten a better deal, but he didnt do that.

Stop hatin!

Posted by: G-Man11 | September 9, 2009 1:26 PM | Report abuse

He was a "young 7 footer" with a rep for being a whiner and pouter coming off a season where he put up underwhelming numbers for a bad team. If you think teams were falling all over themselves to sign him, you're kidding yourself.

If there was a market out there for him to get a better deal, he would have pursued it, if for no other reason than to drive up the offer from the Wizards. Again, the team was already over the cap, so his supposedly "taking less money" did nothing to benefit the Wiz as a team. It didn't give them money to pursue FAs, make trades, or re-sign their own key players. So there was certainly no team benefit to the team by his supposed charitable "sacrifice." So why would he pass up all of this money that you claim was waiting out there for him?

Posted by: kalo_rama | September 9, 2009 1:57 PM | Report abuse

go ahead and discredit him if you wish, but his contract was a good deal for the wizards. I don't know whether he didnt want to test the market or what, but the fact is, he said he didn't want to hurt the team's cap in the future and he hasn't.

Your statement "that he didn't give the team room for signing FA's, make trade, or re-sign their own key players", is baseless. His contract was not like Etan's. He ended up being a bargain. What do you expect him to play for, peanuts? Don't be ridiculous.

I said it already, Haywood said at the time that he would give them a good deal and he did. Most people would have tested the market for a better contract or signed a 1-year deal. He did neither and deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Posted by: G-Man11 | September 9, 2009 2:11 PM | Report abuse

Jordan was the honorary chair for the 2002 DC Light the Night walk to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The reception for the event was held at his "steakhouse" downtown. He didn't show up.

For some reason, that has always summed up Jordan's tenure in DC for me. It was all for show, and at the end of the day a lot of people felt cheated.

Posted by: bryc3 | September 9, 2009 2:51 PM | Report abuse

And BRENDAN HAYWOOD, last of the JORDAN MOHICANS, will be the make or break factor for the WIZARDS this year, not AGENT ZERO.

Posted by: glawrence007 | September 9, 2009 4:06 PM | Report abuse

Michael Jordan at 40 brought some buzz and excitement to a moribund franchise. He filled seats and made the Wiz relevant. I can remember the excitement of the 51 point game against Charlotte or the last second buzzer beater against Phoenix. It was what is was. Jordan or the Wizards shouldn't try to forget it. It really wasn't that bad.

Posted by: thecomedian1 | September 9, 2009 4:58 PM | Report abuse

Alright, look, I don't know if anyone has mentioned it already but:

JORDAN got us KWAME so that we could eventually trade for CARON. Kwame Brown was good for something!

Posted by: funkydancinmonk | September 9, 2009 5:08 PM | Report abuse

MJ brought excitement to the district. I recall gathering a bunch of RealGM guys for dinner at his restaurant and game tix. MCI Center was a happening place, each and every night.

Jordan came to the franchise when we were loaded with totally useless contracts and he played for cheap. That was good.

For fans of a franchise which had sunk to Detroit Lions levels, suddenly we were on TV all the time.

Sure, MJ wasn't the MJ of old. But after years in the wilderness, it was great to be a fan of the franchise again and wear the Washington colors with pride.

For that, I thank Michael.

Posted by: Hawaiiexpat | September 9, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Mike, good article on MJ, but you should have dropped the hammer on Abe with how he duped MJ.

Also, MJ drove out of the phone booth in a convertible Aston Martin, not Benzo.

Posted by: DC_MAN88 | September 9, 2009 8:16 PM | Report abuse

I like Gilbert Arenas more than I ever liked MJ (in a Wizards uniform, anyway). MJ was like some sort of mythic, untouchable figure. Gil is refreshingly human, and much more into DC than MJ ever was.

Posted by: pjkiger1 | September 9, 2009 11:49 PM | Report abuse

...with MJ, the Wiz got what they paid for. A rush adrenalin and then a crash of emotion. It was fun while it lasted and at least it broke the cycle of the mind-numbing bumbling era of Wes Unseld as coach/gm--ugh.

...as it turns out BTH was a late bloomer; so the contract he signed was probably fair to both sides. I think it was pretty much the only sensible option either side had at the time.

Posted by: oddjob2 | September 10, 2009 7:36 AM | Report abuse

Mike, good article on MJ, but you should have dropped the hammer on Abe with how he duped MJ.
DCMANN88

Don't be naive. Abe allowed Jordan to do with the team as he pleased. Jordan wanted a coach, he got the coach. He wanted Kwame, he got Kwame. Jordan wanted Rip gone for a Carolina Boy, he got a Rip for Stack trade. Jordan wanted to shame the other players into greatness; he was allowed to try it. Jordan wanted the ball for 100+ touches a game, he got the ball for 100+ touches a game.

How'd that work out for us? Full stands and TV time don't get you to the playoffs.

In short, Jordan played himself out of a job. You must be a government worker who's performance doesn't have an impact on your future employment, but in the rest of the world, if you suck at your job, you get fired.

Posted by: Blurred | September 10, 2009 8:18 AM | Report abuse

"Don't be naive. Abe allowed Jordan to do with the team as he pleased. Jordan wanted a coach, he got the coach. He wanted Kwame, he got Kwame. Jordan wanted Rip gone for a Carolina Boy, he got a Rip for Stack trade. Jordan wanted to shame the other players into greatness; he was allowed to try it. Jordan wanted the ball for 100+ touches a game, he got the ball for 100+ touches a game.

How'd that work out for us? Full stands and TV time don't get you to the playoffs.

In short, Jordan played himself out of a job. You must be a government worker who's performance doesn't have an impact on your future employment, but in the rest of the world, if you suck at your job, you get fired.

Posted by: Blurred | September 10, 2009 8:22 AM "

You must be a moron who can't understand.

It's not about MJ's performance as a player or GM.

It was about MJ having an ownership stake, giving it up to help the franchise with the "promise" that he could get it back, and the showing him the door afterwards when the promise was reneged.

Abe supposedly cut MJ loose b/c he said MJ was a poor GM.

Well, what has dishonest Abe done the past 30 years besides being a suckee owner? Who was the one who hired Gar Heard b/c "he blew me away during the interview?"

Who was the one who made Unseld a GM?

Who was the one who lowballed Juwan when he was the most popular guy in town?

Who was the one who announced Gilby's season ending injury after season ticket holders renewed last year?

Going by your direction of discussion, who was the one who allowed MJ to be GM and hire the coach?

Yes, it was all Abe.

Puhleaze....go back to panhandling...

Posted by: DC_MAN88 | September 10, 2009 9:15 AM | Report abuse

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