Can Michael Jordan rescue the Wizards?

When Michael Jordan was introduced as part-owner and head of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards Jan. 19, flashbulbs were popping as if it were a Broadway opening, with Jordan cast as The Wizard.

The ESPN athlete of the century had been recruited to salvage a pro basketball franchise that is in serious trouble. Jordan's first significant move as an NBA executive occurred six days ago when he fired head coach Gar Heard. He was replaced by former Toronto Raptors coach Darrell Walker.

Jordan told The Washington Post that he wanted to make a coaching change to salvage something of the season: "We've got to kick-start the team and that starts with the coach."

In a recent survey based on performance and attendance, Street & Smith's Sports Business Journal ranked the Washington Wizards 103rd among the 118 major-league sports franchises in North America.

The team is roiling from a host of problems, mainly personnel decisions that have left the Wizards with not only one of the poorest records in the league but also one of the highest payrolls.

To make matters worse, some of the highest-paid players with guaranteed contracts appear to have lost their competitiveness. "It's difficult to root for a team that doesn't seem to care," complains Robert Fetzer, one former fan.

Since last season, the number of season-ticket holders has fallen almost 25 percent. Somehow, Jordan must find a way to unload some of his highly paid players to make room for signing lower-salaried ones under the NBA salary cap.

And that's just the first challenge for Jordan, one of the most competitive players of all time.

But take a close look at the Washington Wizards, and one can see that there are many reasons to hope that Jordan succeeds. For the Wizards are more than a basketball team. In some sense, they're a historic experiment in urban renewal.

Abe Pollin, a local construction magnate who is their principal owner, bought the franchise when it was the Chicago Zephyrs in 1963. He moved the team to Baltimore and then to a new arena in suburban Landover, Md., in 1973. The Bullets, as they were called then, were a consistent winner. The team was NBA champion in 1978.

But in the mid-1990s, Pollin realized that his arena had become obsolete in an era of big buildings with corporate boxes, and he made a remarkable decision. He built a state-of-the-art arena with his own money in inner-city Washington, D.C.

Nathan Roberts, Channel 8 news anchor, remembers touring the construction site with Pollin. "Walking around in his hard hat, there was no mistaking his civic pride," Mr. Roberts says. "He'd point out, 'Here's where the subway station will go!' Abe was building the arena in D.C. because he felt it would help the city come back."

Today, walking around the MCI Center, it's evident that this part of the city has not come back. The arena is bordered by Chinatown businesses on one side and a scattershot of upscale restaurants and boarded-up storefronts.

"When the team started losing, people stopped coming down here to eat," sighs Brenda Jackson, a reporter for local radio station WPFW, who covers all the games. Nonetheless, two nights after Jordan was introduced as a new owner, a near-capacity crowd turns out for a home game against the Indiana Pacers, even though Jordan is not in evidence.

The crowd is 50 percent black. That's an unusually high percentage of black fans for the NBA, but not for the Wizards. The atmosphere is electric. As the Wizards tromp up the ramp from the locker room and peer up at the crowd, a large fan in a leather coat leans over the railing, pumping his fist. "All night long," he thunders at the players. "All night, all night, baby!"

The music is dynamic and multiethnic, featuring disco and rap. It's clear that the Wizards' multiracial fan base is no accident, and one suspects that the atmosphere is a good part of what Michael Jordan has been brought in to promote. But all these efforts to revitalize the city depend on a winning team.

On this night, the Wizards come through. After trailing much of the game, they pull ahead in the fourth quarter and send the Pacers - one of the best NBA teams - home with a 10-point defeat.

Juwan Howard, one of the veterans who has come under fire, finishes with a season-high 34 points. Rod Strickland, another disaffected vet, dives out of bounds after loose balls.

After the game, Mitch Richmond, the Wizards' all-star shooting guard, is asked to explain what happened. Richmond is on the injured list with a cracked rib.

Were these guys inspired by Michael Jordan being here? Or were they just afraid he'd trade them? he's asked. Richmond shakes his head. "Maybe some of that," he says, "but for the most part it was the crowd. When the players came out and saw all those fans, they just got fired up."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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