The last time someone in charge of a basketball team sent him packing, Michael Jordan was a high school sophomore. He set out that afternoon to make sure the man who cut him would one day be remembered mostly as the answer to a trivia question -- and succeeded. (Clifton "Pop" Herring, Laney High.)
Whether Wizards owner Abe Pollin will suffer the same fate depends on whether the best player ever will work on his decision-making skills the way he once worked on his game.
Although there were hints in the final week of the regular season that it might happen, it wasn't until Wednesday that Pollin slammed the front-office door in Washington in Jordan's face. Not long after a brief meeting that, according to one report, ended with Jordan profanely yelling at minority owner Ted Leonsis, he cleaned up his language and issued a three-paragraph statement.
"It was well understood that when I finished playing, I would return as President of Basketball Operations and this was definitely my desire and intention," it said.
"However, today, without any prior discussion with me, ownership informed me that it had unilaterally decided to change our mutual long-term understanding. I am shocked by this decision, and by the callous refusal to offer me any justification for it."
There was no promise of a payback, but there was the offer of a job that would let Jordan do just that within hours from billionaire businessman Robert Johnson. After shelling out $300 million to put an as yet-to-be-named NBA team in Charlotte in time for the 2004-05 season, the founder of Black Entertainment Television said finding office space for Jordan would be a cinch.
"He can play any role he wants to play, frankly," Johnson said.
We should all have friends that powerful -- not to mention trusting.
Jordan's best move
Jordan served as Washington's president of basketball operations from January 2000 to October 2001, and the only slam-dunk personnel move he made during that stretch was convincing himself to shed his suit and put a uniform back on. Balance that against a lottery pick that has yet to produce and several trades that will never pan out.
Assuming Jordan isn't planning a fourth coming, Johnson would do well to find out how much his friend plans to work on building a basketball team from scratch, and whether he plans to do it from his home in Chicago.
Jordan's mission in Washington was slightly more complicated, because he had to free up cap room and roster space. But the rest has since become familiar ground: final say on draft choices, hirings and firings in the front office and coaching staff, and the formation of the roster. The Wizards gave him freedom to do things his way because he was, well, Michael Jordan, but the chances of him making the same mistakes again are hard to imagine.
For a guy who thrived on action, the drudgery of being an executive bored Jordan from the start. He judged talent by instinct more than research and dreamed of transforming the Wizards with a single bold stroke instead of plotting several moves that would make them better incrementally. Jordan was not a guy who liked to do homework, which is ultimately why Pollin asked him to return his key to the executive bathroom.
But here's the strange part: That was then, before Jordan went back down to the court and realized how much the situation on the ground had changed.
Now he knows firsthand how few hardworking ballplayers are out there. And why so many talented kids get moved two or three times before their 30th birthday. And what kind of commitment a general manager can expect from them in the future.
Learning to live with those frustrations spilled over in his final few weeks as a player. Even as his understanding of the game deepened, his body continued betraying him. All those things combined to make his departure a less-than-sweet sorrow. But it also made Jordan sharper, more at ease with his decision, more pragmatic and more intent on building a team than he was on the first go-round.
When someone asked Johnson to rate Jordan's job performance in Washington, he replied, "I wasn't there.
"But," Johnson added, "he knows more about basketball than I can learn in 100 lifetimes."
It could well turn out that Pollin's firing of Jordan is exactly the push he needed. Within days of being cut by Pop Herring, Jordan began skipping classes to work on his game and never really stopped.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press.