S1: This podcast contains explicit language.
S2: We do this in the second down to my wife coming down, I felt like I was getting married.
S1: You know, the familiar baritone voice you just heard belongs to Michael Jordan. It’s January 13th, 1999, and he’s in a crowded room at the United Center home of the NBA Chicago Bulls.
S2: I am here to to announce my retirement from the game of basketball. It won’t be another announcement to baseball or anything to that nature.
S1: This winter afternoon in Chicago felt like it was really, truly the end. Jordan’s first retirement in 1993 had been hastily organized affair. He was 30 then coming off of an exhausting third straight championship run. He was also mourning the recent murder of his father, James, and had been dogged by rumors about his gambling habit. That 1993 season had been a hellish experience. He’d needed a break to go play baseball and to clear his head. Jordan came back to the bulls after fifteen months off and he’d win three more championships. He got the last one by nailing a game winning jumper over Utah’s Brian Russell. It was the perfect ending. Jordan’s legacy was secure. This second retirement ceremony was different, more polished, more of a Michael Jordan production. He came to the dais with his wife, Juanita, NBA Commissioner David Stern and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Jordan was now nearly 36, coming off of his second three peat. This time he didn’t just need some time off.
S2: I’m at peace with a lot of those things. I know you know, from a career standpoint, I’ve accomplished everything I could as an individual. And right now I don’t have the mental challenges that I’ve had in the past to to proceed as as as a basketball player.
S1: Jordan sounded certain, but the reporters at the United Center couldn’t help prodding Michael. Is there any chance whatsoever that you’ll change your mind somewhere down the road in return?
S2: No, I never say never, but ninety five ninety nine point nine percent. I’m very secure with my decision.
S1: You’ll notice that Jordan didn’t say 100 percent. The reporters notice to Michael one last time. For the record, why do you have to walk out of here with that one percent in your pocket?
S2: Because it’s my one percent and not yours.
S1: That’s why this time Michael Jordan stayed away for two full seasons. There’s front page news tonight from sports to absolutely no one’s surprise. He’s back again. Can he put the air back into his game if the advanced basketball age of 38, Jordan didn’t care about that perfect ending, he was going to write a new one for new team in a new city. Jordan’s years as a shooting guard for the Washington Wizards have mostly vanished from our collective memory. ESPN 10 hour documentary The Last Dance ends with his sixth and final championship with the Bulls. As if his tenure with the Wizards never happened. That ESPN series was about a champion, one who pushed and sometimes punched his teammates to victory in that story. Jordan’s commitment and competitiveness were the not so secret ingredient to his and their success. But the story of Jordan. Chicago isn’t about winning. It isn’t a fairy tale. With the storybook ending in Washington, Jordan’s strengths became weaknesses. And as a wizard, the ultimate champion turned his back on his teammates and they turned their backs on him.
S3: How did Michael Jordan end up in Washington, D.C., why couldn’t he make the Wizards into winners? And what does the final chapter of Jordan’s career reveal about him as a player and a person? My name is Joel Anderson, this is a special episode of Hang Up and Listen The Last Last Dance. Michael Jordan goes to Washington.
S1: Washington’s NBA franchise wasn’t always a joke.
S4: They actually won a championship in 1978 back when they were known as the Washington Bullets, and the celebrations began in Washington about and Bernie Bickerstaff, I am placing over there as the Washington Bullets jubilantly file off the floor.
S1: And the crowd here and the owner of the team was a Polan. He’d bought a stake in the then Baltimore bullets in 1964, then move them to the D.C. suburbs. A decade later, that championship the bullets won in 1978 was a big deal in Washington, the first title for one of the city’s pro franchises in 36 years. Abe Pollin died in 2009. Here’s his son, Robert Pollin.
S5: It was huge to him. We have this picture of him on the airplane going back with the trophy, big smile on his face. And he wore his ring every single day the rest of his life.
S1: The bullets made it to the finals again the next season, but this time they lost. In the years that followed, the bullets went into a tailspin. Phil Charnier played on that Seventy-eight championship team, then became a broadcaster for the bullets.
S6: We had some good players and exciting players at the beginning of every year. We’re looking at, OK, if this happens, if this guy plays that this guy plays, this happens. But overall, the team just wasn’t being successful and the frustration was getting bigger and bigger as you pushed on without being a playoff team, without sniffing the playoffs. It was tough.
S1: The franchise won just a single playoff series in the 1980s and 90s. They were bad and totally irrelevant as Michael Jordan, Chicago Bulls came to dominate the NBA. If you watch the last dance, you may remember one story about the bullets. In March 1993, a young player named La Bradford Smith scored a career high 37 points in a close loss to the Bulls. He scored a lot of those points while defended by Michael Jordan. Charnier was watching from a few feet away and he kept his eyes on Smith. After the game.
S6: He kind of made a beeline over towards where Jordan was. And you could kind of see this exchange and it looked like he had him on. But it was something to stand to say, hey, nice game.
S1: It’s unclear if the Bradford Smith actually said nice game, but this is going to be one of the tiny perceived slights that Michael Jordan used to motivate himself, a lesser player scoring on him and then having the gall to talk shit. Jordan wouldn’t have that. Unfortunately for Smith, the bullets in the Bulls played again the next night.
S7: Gordon Banking with Bradford Smith Michael takes it on the turnaround.
S1: Oh, and the rematch. Jordan scored thirty six points in the first half. Bradford Smith had been one of the bullets best prospects. He was out of the league a year later. But 1997, the bullets finally had a promising young core led by John Howard and Chris Webber, that year they made the playoffs for the first time in nine seasons. The first round opponent was not the opponent you want to face in the first round.
S8: The ball had won and have eliminated the Washington bullets in dramatic fashion. Michael Jordan scoring 14 in the fourth quarter.
S1: A few weeks after Jordan in the Bulls swept that series, the Washington franchise changed its name. Apelin said that bullets cannot killing violence and death and that a sports team should not be involved with that kind of a name. The new nickname Wizards won out over Sea Dogs, Express Stallions and dragons. But changing names didn’t change the team’s fortunes. Neither did moving to a new arena, the MCI Center in downtown Washington, D.C. Poland’s team needed something or someone else and the best basketball player in the world. He was looking for a new job. In November 1999, Michael Jordan stopped by the Chicago Bulls practice facility, a young Bulls player, Corey Benjamin, had been talking about challenging Jordan to a game of one on one. Jordan showed up that day to kick Corey Benjamin’s ass, which he did, and he talked to reporters afterward.
S9: I never said I would stop playing. I still love him. Basketball doubt, but it’s still something. Are you happy with your life? It’s like I’m going back to pick up my kids right now. So, you know, it’s just little break until I can get back, pick them up. Swimming is full enough. I got enough opportunities on my plate. I got enough challenge to go.
S1: Here’s Jack McCallum. He covered the NBA for Sports Illustrated.
S10: I mean, Michael was a spokesman, but you didn’t have the sense that he was plotting the steps to become an executive. And I remember Larry Bird’s comment. What do you want to do when you retire? I want to be the fattest man driving out of Boston. In other words, I’m just going to golf.
S1: That’s what I saw from Michael, but Jordan was sincere about wanting to work in the NBA in no place appealed to him quite like Chicago. Problem was, the team he’d led to six titles, didn’t want him around.
S10: The Bulls were shut off. I mean, when that thing ended, they were gone for whatever reason.
S1: The reason is actually pretty clear. After enduring years of criticism and at times bullying from Jordan, the Bulls front office was done with him for the bulls. Jordan’s abrasiveness wasn’t worth it if they were no longer contending for championships. Jordan was now a free agent in 1999, he backed out of talks to buy a stake in the Charlotte Hornets, they reportedly wouldn’t give him enough control. Jordan also met with Denver, Milwaukee and Vancouver, all struggling franchises looking for a credibility boost. And then another suitor emerged. To get Jordan, the Washington Wizards would have to give him total authority over basketball decision making, that meant stripping those responsibilities from franchise legend Wes Unseld was its owner. Abe Pollin agreed to that. Jordan would also get a stake in the franchise, making him one of just a handful of black NBA owners. Steve Wyche was the Wizards beat writer for The Washington Post.
S11: The league was really behind it. I mean, they really want to get Jordan back into the NBA. David Stern had a great relationship with Abe Pollin, who was a wonderful man and who really wanted to win more than anything else. And he was willing to work with the league to make that happen.
S1: The Wizards were desperate. They traded away their young star, Chris Webber, and they started the nineteen ninety nine two thousand season by losing twenty eight of their first forty games. Jordan seemed like their chance at redemption. In January 2000, the Washington Wizards introduced Jordan as the franchise’s new president of basketball operations.
S12: In that press conference, he made it clear that he wasn’t a miracle worker, and as much as you guys may give me the respect of being here and certainly the expectations that I’ve kind of set for myself because I used to shoot a basketball through around pretty decent this team, and I made efforts to try to make this team a successful one, quite naturally. Going to take some time. But I look forward to the challenge.
S1: Michael Jordan came to Washington, D.C. in a suit, but there was always some speculation that he would trade it in for a uniform.
S13: Here’s Rachel Nichols back then, she was a sportswriter for The Washington Post, certainly anyone who covered Michael in the late 90s didn’t think when he walked off the court after that 98 season, that last dance season, that he was done as a player. Nobody thought, oh, man, he better retire. He’s lost it. Nobody thought that it wasn’t. However, Michael Jordan’s just coming here undercover as an executive and he’s really going to come play. It wasn’t like that. It was more of just maybe you never know.
S1: Jordan inherited players that weren’t good enough to win on their own. And from a spot in the front office, there were only so many levers that Jordan could pull. After 10 days on the job, he fired first year head coach Gar heard when the Wizards season was over, Jordan hired Leonard Hamilton from the University of Miami and things only got worse. On December 6th, twice in the four and 14 Wizards blew a huge lead to the five and fourteen Los Angeles Clippers. After the game, Jordan lost his shit. He stormed into the locker room and told the players they were a disgrace to the fans and had a loser’s mentality. Jordan said he wanted to trade them away, but that no teams wanted them. The boss wasn’t exactly leading by example. Jordan spent big chunks of time managing his personal business empire and playing golf. About twenty days each month, he’d be back home in Illinois, where he’d watch Wizards games alone in its basement. Mike Wise covered the NBA for The New York Times.
S14: His work ethic as a GM was suspect. He was often out of town. He wasn’t the guy working the phones. He was still ahead of Michael Jordan ink. This became a moonlighting gig almost for Michael Jordan.
S1: The Wizards finished the year nineteen and sixty three. A month after the end of the regular season, Jordan earned his first meaningful victory in the front office. The franchise won the 2001 NBA draft lottery, giving them the first overall selection and a chance for rebirth. Afterward, Jordan spoke to reporters on a conference call from the 12th hole of a golf course. Ehsaan Thomas came to Washington in the first big trade Michael Jordan ever made a toe injury, sidelined Thomas for the entire 2000 2001 season, which would have been his first in the NBA.
S15: So I came up to D.C. for like the last two games. It’s about two games. I was like, oh, lord, this is terrible. Like, it was like like I think they were born from the stands and it was like, you know, he was getting beat by a million. And I think we were like 18 games that year. So I’m talking to all the guys that I get when you don’t have all the chance to play here, because as you see, it’s this bad.
S1: Thomas was working out at the Wizards practice facility when a pair of highly touted prospects showed up. Both had just finished their senior seasons in high school. Their names were Tyson Chandler and Kwame Brown.
S15: And Kwame killed all of them like it wasn’t even close.
S1: If the Wizards had the top pick two years later, they could have taken LeBron James. But in 2001, there was no consensus about the best player available. Kwame Brown was an enticing gamble. Only 19 years old, Brown, already looked like a grown man, is six foot 11 inches and 245 pounds. By this point, a bunch of guys drafted at a high school had become huge stars, but none of them, not Kevin Garnett, not Kobe Bryant, had been taken with the number one overall pick.
S16: With the first pick in the 2001 NBA draft, the Washington Wizards selected Kwame Brown. Academy in Brunswick, Georgia, on draft night, Brown was the center of attention for just a couple of minutes.
S1: Moments after the Wizards picked him, the TNT crew turned its attention to the Wizards team president.
S17: What we got you there, Mike. How you feeling?
S1: By the way, I love that Jordan had broken two ribs in a pickup game the week before the draft. The injury fueled speculation that Jordan was thinking of returning to the court in March. Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly wrote that Jordan was 90 percent committed to making a comeback. Jordan denied the report even as the workouts continued. Back at the draft, the TNT panel featuring Jordan’s friend Charles Barkley pressed him about his plans and we tried to get some answers out of Charles here.
S17: Maybe you guys could share a special moment. You might have thought nobody will reveal what you say. I’m real sorry about it for like two or three weeks. Don’t worry about Charles. You can forget I’m still the boss.
S1: Later that night off camera, Barkley told a reporter Michael wants to play. It was true. Jordan was working out hard. Six days a week, up to six hours a day. Jordan, the executive, had ballooned to two hundred and forty pounds. He was now back down to his playing weight of 212. Here’s Rachel Nichols.
S13: It turned eventually into the worst kept secret in the world because he was holding these workouts with current NBA players to sort of get himself back into shape and gauge where he was. People knew that he was doing it, and you didn’t know if he was going to pull the final step of it and actually do it. But we knew that he was looking to see if he could.
S1: Michael Leahy was on the Jordan beat for The Washington Post. He’d later publish a book on Jordan’s time in D.C. called When Nothing Else Matters. Months before that 2001 draft, Jordan told Leahy that he’d never wanted to quit playing, that he’d left the Bulls only because his coach, Phil Jackson, had been forced out. Jordan fretted about his diminishing stature in the game about how Kobe Bryant and Vince Carter had replaced him as the faces of the league against the competitor Jimmy Going, he said. All the losses in Washington were also taking their toll when he did show up to games in D.C., Jordan sat in a luxury box and he looked down at the faces of Wizards fans staring up at him. To him, those faces said, get on the court and fix this. Here’s Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated.
S10: 60 percent of it was wanting to get back there and 40 percent of it was. I can be, you know, I can be better doing this. I think Michael saw himself that Michael as an executive wasn’t necessarily going to want to get it done.
S18: Good morning, Air Jordan is taxiing for takeoff, legendary basketball great Michael Jordan is getting ready to return to the game he loves. Today, Tuesday, September 11th, 2001.
S1: Michael Jordan’s comeback was everyone’s top story on the morning of September 11th. That changed at eight forty six a.m. Eastern when American Airlines Flight 11 crashed into the World Trade Center. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks, Jordan decided it wouldn’t be appropriate to call a big news conference. Two weeks later, he released a statement through his management agency. I am returning as a player to the game I love. Jordan said that the Wizards, a team that had just gone 19 in 63, would now be a playoff contender. A lot of people thought Jordan was making a big mistake. His friend Charles Barkley said that was nothing positive for Jordan to gain by coming back. Jordan responded at his first press conference as a Wizards player.
S19: I’m not walking in this scenario thinking I’m failing. You know, I’m walking and thinking. I’m confident and I’m pretty sure I can make it work. And if I sit here and listen to everyone else tell me that I can’t do it, then obviously I wouldn’t be here.
S1: His first game back was against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. A month and a half after 9/11, the attack still loomed over everything in American life. The 38 year old Jordan, who signed a two year contract with the Wizards with a one million dollar starting salary, had pledged that entire amount to victims of terrorism. The day before the game, Jordan paid a visit to Ground Zero on the court.
S20: The starting line ups were introduced alongside members of the military from the United States Navy aviation storekeepers second class Sonia Gandhi.
S1: Michael Jordan, it was quite a buildup, even by the standards of Michael Jordan in New York, the game didn’t live up to any of it. Jordan missed his first shot, a pull up jumper in transition. He made a second, a layup. His third was an air ball. And the final seconds with the chance to tie the game, Jordan threw the ball away, but then Washington stole it back. Jordan, wearing his trademark number 23 on an unfamiliar dark blue jersey, had one last chance. Michael Jordan. With witness had the hot hand wizards down by three. Jordan.
S7: Driven Father Thomas to the.
S1: Jordan’s had some open looks, five games into his first comeback in 1995. Jordan has scored 55 points against the Knicks and Madison Square Garden, his famous double nickel. On this night, he finished with 19 or seven for 21 shooting in a Wizards loss. Three weeks later, Jordan shot eight four twenty six and another defeat that dropped the Wizards record to two and nine. Worst of all, Jordan’s body was breaking down. And the Wizards training room eight on Tomizawa Jordan put himself through to get on the floor, you would have to get his knee drained.
S15: And it was like the grossest thing that I’ve ever seen, like his knee was swell up, like the Elephant Man. And then they would come in with this long needle and drain it and they would be like this black tar goo stuff that would come out. It was disgusting. And so I don’t even know if he was supposed to even be played with some of those times. I remember what time we’re sitting in the locker room and I looked over to my ass and I was like, why are you doing this? Like, honestly, I was like, you don’t have anything to prove your age. You didn’t really answer. But I was serious. I was like, what are you even play for? That’s the part that people didn’t see.
S1: The incredible thing was a physically compromised Michael Jordan was still Michael Jordan. Here’s Steve Wisch of The Washington Post.
S11: He had some moments. I mean, he had some I mean, more than moments where he really he really played like MJ.
S1: One of those moments came on December twenty ninth. Twenty one. Jordan went to that game against the Charlotte Hornets, having scored a career low six points two nights earlier. This would be a better night, Shorten for his first shot of the game, where he already has a third of what he got Thursday, short for his second straight shot. By talking about this, he scored 24 points in the first quarter, he had 34 by halftime, and at the end of the night, Jordan was flirting with history, scored 15. I think they’re probably probably going to end a hundred, Jordan was the oldest player to ever score 50 points in a game. Afterwards, he said, I wanted to make a statement offensively. Jordan was recovering from pre-season injuries to his ribs and knee in recapturing his old magic. Two nights later against New Jersey, he put up 45 and another was its victory, lifting the record to 16 and 14. A month after that, the Wizards trailed the Cavs by one point with one point six seconds left, everyone knew who was getting the ball Jones to trigger.
S21: Jordan for the. Good grief in the city of Cleveland.
S1: Jordan’s young teammates mobbed him, everything was working and everyone was happy. All across America, Michael Jordan was king. Etan Thomas saw it firsthand.
S15: You know those little videos where you see like where MJ is, like it’s all about the Jackson, where he’s like going overseas and stuff like that. You see big crowds there and they’re all just yelling and screaming his name and like trying to touch his arm and stuff like that. Or they like, you know, they touch him and they pass out, you know, is something like that happens. That’s how it was with Michael Jordan. That was the craziest thing. And I don’t remember. Sounds like is this is this what the NBA is like? You don’t say it is. This is a of love. They’re like, no, they’re not for it, not for us.
S1: Brendan Haywood was another young player on that Wizards team.
S22: All our games on TV, like other players, were coming into the locker room trying to get shoes signed. It was it was crazy to see, like, you are going to walk over there, like you start to shoot. And it’s not for his son. It’s when my boys sit in the stands. I think the craziest story told me was there was a dad and a son that was sitting behind him that Mike wasn’t playing well. That night is like daddy to Jordan. They got it no more, he said. He said the Democratic senators don’t have to say that about Michael Jordan. It’s un-American.
S1: In late 2001 and early 2002, Michael Jordan was still one of the best basketball players in the world. Heading into the All-Star break, Jordan and Kobe Bryant were the only guys in the league averaging more than 25 points, five rebounds and five assists, the Wizards with twenty six and twenty one and led the league in home attendance. Mike Wise of The New York Times had been skeptical of Jordan’s latest comeback, but now he thought Jordan was an MVP candidate. Wise wrote in January that Jordan had done the improbable again. He got his teammates, the once woeful wizards, to believe in themselves.
S14: I forgot that. I wrote that. I guess there was a real sense of excitement. Abe Pollin, you know, his business plan is paying off, but Michael Jordan is getting his end of the bargain and he’s getting scratch that itch again. And he worked really hard to come back. And I do think there was a belief early on it wouldn’t last.
S1: The good times ended against Sacramento in the final game before All-Star Weekend. After hitting a jumper in the second quarter, Jordan banged into Agent Thomas. Jordan dropped to the court, grabbing at his right knee.
S15: I was like, You got to be kidding me. I know. I know that this did not happen. And it was weird because it’s not like we hit that hard. It was just where it hit his knee.
S1: Jordan shook it off and led the Wizards to the fifth straight win. But the toll of that collision and the grind of the NBA schedule showed up three days later at the All-Star Game in Philadelphia. Jordan was only a week away from turning thirty nine when he went up for a breakaway dunk in the first quarter, he looked a decade older. Two weeks later, in a lawsuit, Miami, George Anthony was so sore that he couldn’t play most of the fourth quarter after the game, he told reporters, My mind is still consistent, but my body isn’t. That admission was a huge deal. The legend of Michael Jordan had been built around his indestructibility that he won no matter what, Jordan was finally born to the obvious. His knee wouldn’t get better if he kept playing on it. He had torn cartilage and injury, likely exacerbated by his refusal to give the knee arrest. His competitiveness had made him vulnerable. Jordan had surgery on February 27th, 2002, Jehadi White, who played Center for the Wizards, saw everything they built that year start to slip away.
S23: Less than halfway through the season. We started to gel it. We were definitely in the playoffs. Like Mike said, you know, when the playoffs come, anybody can win. I’ll be a different person, he said. And it might wind down. Got hurt.
S1: Three weeks after Jordan had surgery, he tried to give it another go. He averaged a little more than twelve points in the next seven games. On April 2nd, he scored just two and a loss to his old coach, Phil Jackson, to Los Angeles Lakers. For Jordan, that was it. He was done for the season. So were the Wizards. They’d finished the year thirty seven and forty five and out of the playoffs.
S24: Jordan could have ended his comeback here. He’d shown that he could still play before his body betrayed, stopping would have been reasonable. But Michael Jordan didn’t become Michael Jordan by being the Wizards coach, Doug Collins said that the greatest player of all time wasn’t ready to quit.
S25: What he said to me was he’s going to shut it down, let the thing he’ll get the information out of there and whether that’s six weeks or eight weeks or whatever might be. And he’s doing it with the idea that he wants to play next year.
S1: Michael Jordan had always been a winner, and he expected his teammates to be winners, too, Jordan demanded excellence and he didn’t make those demands politely. Here’s Rachel Nichols.
S13: Michael Jordan did not have mercy for anyone when he was a player and or even as an executive. And that included guys that he possibly should have been trying to nurture more. But that’s just not true.
S1: Michael Jordan is in the fall of 1995. He punched his Bulls teammate Steve Kerr in the face during a team scrimmage in 1997 and 98. He tormented another Bulls teammate, Scott Burrell, calling him a dumb ass, a bitch and a ho. In the last dance, Jordan argued that he was toughening these guys up so that they’d come through when it mattered and the bulls did come through. You can’t argue with six championships, right? But maybe you didn’t have to be that way, those bulls teams had a lot going for them. They had Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and then Dennis Rodman, plus Phil Jackson is the head coach. It’s hard to imagine that Jordan calling Scott Barela Ho is what put them over the top. The truth is, some guys would have been better off if they’d never met Jordan. Dennis Hopsin wasn’t featured in The Last Dance, but he played for the Bulls in the early 90s. One of their teammates said that Jordan’s abuse ruined Hobson, that it broke him down mentally. The Bulls traded Hobson in 1991. He was out of the NBA in 1992. The Wizards players I talked to said that Jordan was a little easier on his teammates in Washington, his jehadi white, he didn’t have to do that as much.
S23: And I think, you know, he was more optimistic and he kind of probably could understand that some some time before I could take a different perspective, a different route and trying to do it. So the only person he really was tough with was Kwame.
S1: In his first NBA season, Kwame Brown averaged four and a half points in three and a half rebounds in 14 minutes a game. Those were the worst numbers for number one draft pick in nearly 30 years. Michael Jordan, the executive who drafted the 19 year old Brown straight out of high school, and when Brown struggled early on Jordan, the player lashed out.
S13: It was a tough relationship. I don’t think that you can say the crime would have been a superstar if he had been somewhere else, but it certainly was a lot harder because he started under that spotlight and he was never able to do everything Michael wanted him to do. And it caused a lot of friction.
S1: Like Kwame Brown. Brendan Haywood was a Wizards rookie in 2001. Unlike Brown, Haywood had spent four years in college where you started at the University of North Carolina.
S22: He’s trying to learn all that stuff on the fly. But more importantly, no one ever identified him there. This is an immature kid right now that’s trying to fit into a grown man’s world and might be needed. But, you know, he’s might be the greatest player of all time. He’s won championships. He expects a certain level. You never played with a high school guy before, so he didn’t understand. We had to dumb it down for him or we needed to talk to him a certain way.
S1: After Jordan’s first season as a Wizards player, Michael Leahy wrote in The Washington Post that Jordan had been patient with Brown for week. Jordan thought the rookie didn’t work hard enough. And then one day in practice, Brown complained that he’d been fouled. According to Leahy, Jordan exploded when he heard that, and he called his teammate a homophobic slur. At the time, Kwame Brown didn’t confirm or deny that account. All he said was it was pretty rough. But that’s Michael Jordan. More recently, Brown has denied the Jordan ever called him a slur. He said it was just gossip to sell more papers or magazines. I don’t know what Michael Jordan said to Kwame Brown in practice that day, Leahy declined an interview, but he told me that he stands by his reporting. Jordan and Brown both turned down my interview request. Head coach Doug Collins didn’t want to talk to either. Steve Wyche, the Wizards beat writer, told me he didn’t hear it. Jehadi White said the same thing. There is one thing I can say with certainty, Kwame Brown was desperate for a kind of affirmation that Michael Jordan would not give him.
S22: Brendan Haywood again, I don’t think might realize that, Kwame. You’re not a teammate to him, you’re a Michael Jordan. He looks up to you. So when you yell at me, you take off confidence. When you talk down to Quobba, he feels like he’s nothing.
S1: Kwame Brown wasn’t the only one in the locker room who failed to connect with Jordan. Jordan was at least 15 years older than most of his Wizards teammates. Many had grown up idolizing him. Jordan man being worshipped, but he preferred the company of people his own age. His closest friend on the roster was 39 year old Charles Oakley, a former Bulls teammate who the Wizards brought over in 2002 and given his extraordinary fame. Jordan was also understandably guarded around newcomers aside from Oakley. He mostly hung out with his bodyguards, his longtime trainer and a few other close acquaintances. That was no great loss to the younger players.
S22: We were just kind of like into different things, man, like Mike like to smoke cigars and drink and drink these little wine and play cards and gamble all night long and with the money that was on the table, but I couldn’t gamble with him. Do it on a rocket before I could. I could make it. I couldn’t even make it a West Coast trip, try to get with them due to my gambling. I’m playing video. Even when we do go out the club, I’m going to my game trying to go there most times, you know, I try to go to that type of spot.
S1: The Wizards didn’t need to get along off the court to get in sync on the court, but the court thing that wasn’t working either. Michael Jordan would be back in a Wizards uniform in the fall of 2002, his most talented teammate wouldn’t be. The Wizards had two guys who averaged 20 points a game in the 2001 2002 season, Michael Jordan and a 24 year old shooting guard named Rip Hamilton. Hamilton was the Wizards best young player, a building block that any smart franchise would want to keep around. But if the Wizards were going to win with Michael Jordan, they needed to do it immediately. He was too old and hobbled to wait on his teammates to develop just before Jordan’s second season as a Wizards player. The team traded Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse. Stackhouse had been compared to Jordan as a college star in North Carolina in the NBA. He’d averaged 30 points a game in the 2000 2001 season. The 27 year old small Ford could take some of the scoring load off Jordan, but he wasn’t going to defer to him.
S22: Brendan Haywood, again, likes looking for the next Scottie Pippen to be with a. Stacks looking for Mike, the pass, the torch. Obviously, that was a mix up of communication, so they had almost like a weird like. I will read relationship on the team, so the team was weird, it was weird, they never had words, but it was an uneasy tension.
S1: The Jordan who made it back to the court in 2002 needed help, agent injuries had clearly slowed him down even compared to the MJ of 2001. And yet Jordan wasn’t willing to play a supporting role. Here’s Jack McCallum of Sports Illustrated.
S10: He can’t come back to a team and suddenly become a guy that’s going to set picks and facilitate. It’s just not going to happen. How’s Jerry Stackhouse going to be Jerry Stackhouse with Michael out there?
S1: Nobody was a better scorer than Michael Jordan. But before Phil Jackson took over as the Bulls head coach in 1989, the knock on Jordan was that he was too much of a ball hog to win a title. Jackson’s greatest accomplishment was convincing Jordan that even the best player in the world couldn’t win on his own. Michael Jordan could be trusting under the right circumstances, but he always believed in himself more than he believed in anyone else. In the 2002 season opener against the Toronto Raptors, the Wizards shot 30 percent and scored just 68 points. After the game, Stackhouse said they were out of sync. Jordan said it was pretty ugly when Jordan missed a breakaway dunk. The crowd in Toronto laughed. The plan for the season had been for Jordan to come off the bench to save his energy and prevent another injury. Jordan in the Wizards quickly scrapped that idea. In January, he played 53 minutes in a double overtime win over the Pacers, finishing with 41 points and 12 rebounds. After the game, Jordan wondered if it was the start of something big.
S20: We really needed to see me playing well the last month or so, and we just had stretches where we really couldn’t put it together for the last three games.
S1: I think we’ve been putting it together, but Jordan only had so much left to give and it showed later that month. And another game against Toronto, the Raptors came to Washington having lost twelve of thirteen games and they had the NBA minimum of eight players on their roster. One of them was twenty three year old Damon Brown. He’d just been called up from the minor league North Charleston locaters.
S26: As time went on, I had a couple of possessions where I switched out on him or ended up on him and I did pretty good.
S1: That’s brown. At halftime, the Raptors coach Lenny Wilkins, told the six foot nine forward he’d be guarding Jordan in the second half.
S26: I’m not going to go out there and go like anybody and call myself a George Snapper or Kobe stop or anything like that. I think I just got. I got lucky on that day and was able to do my part of testing and making a difference.
S1: Paul Brown is being humble, but this was the best night of his NBA career. He had 13 points, the most he’d ever score in the league. Jordan finished with twenty two, but it took him 23 shots to get there. The Raptors won 84 to 75. Michael Jordan had built his career and reputation by embarrassing guys like Damon Brown, but now it was Jordan who was getting embarrassed. The Wizards were 19 and 19 and going nowhere for Jordan. The rest of the season would be a glorified retirement tour at halftime of the 2003 All-Star Game in Atlanta. Mariah Carey serenaded Jordan. Carrie wore Jordan’s Wizards jersey as a dress, and at the end of a medley, she brought him out to midcourt. Jordan had tears in his eyes as he approached Kerry and hugged the original crying Jordan moment after a minute and a half standing ovation.
S27: Jordan addressed the crowd. I have passed on the things that Dr. J. Some of the great players, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird has passed on to me. I pass on to these all stars here, as well as the rest of the players in the NBA. I think for you, I thank you for your support. Now I can go home and feel at peace with the game of basketball.
S7: It was a poignant moment, a fading hero graciously stepping aside for the next generation of NBA stars.
S1: But the truth was, Jordan had been totally gracious, Jordan had finished behind Vince Carter, Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady into All-Star voting that meant for the first time in Jordan’s career, he was on the team as a reserve. But Carter had been pressured to give up his starting spot so that Jordan could hold on to the spotlight. This crowd.
S7: Wants so badly for Michael to hit that first shot. He’s old for three. And Michael. For five here at the start.
S1: Jordan would start the game for seven, he’d end up nine four twenty seven from the field, but in overtime, he got the chance for one last storybook finish the fadeaway. That should have been it, but Kobe Bryant got fouled inside the game with two free throws, Jordan got one more chance to win it, but this time, Shawn Marion swatted away a shot. Jordan clearly wended set out the entire second overtime. A week after the All-Star Game, Jordan celebrated his fortieth birthday at the Ritz Carlton in Washington, D.C., Charles Barkley was there. So were Jay-Z, Beyonce and Donald Trump, who brought along his model girlfriend, Melania. Trump told The Washington Post that Jordan’s wife, Juanita, did a wonderful job with the party and that was just great affection for Michael six nights later against the New Jersey Nets. Jordan made history for the final time. Another free throw for Jordan in the big. The first time a four year old has scored 40 or more points in an NBA game. That’s incredible. Jordan scored the go ahead basket with 34 seconds left, lifting the Wizards to the win. But nobody in Washington was feeling optimistic. Jordan and Stackhouse never resolved their chemistry issues in Kwame Brown wasn’t developing at all. Here’s Mike Wise again.
S14: The most damning thing I remember hearing, and God rest his soul, I can give up his anonymity.
S1: Now, West Sunsilk told me this was Unseld, who died this June at the age of 74, was the most beloved figure in franchise history. He’d been with the team since 1968 as a player and then an executive, and he’d accepted a lesser role in the front office when Jordan came to Washington.
S14: He said Michael has been great for many of us in this organization, in ways that has raised the value of the franchise, has made us respectable in other ways. And yet. He’s poised in the locker room and I go, well, how do you know that, how do I do that? And he goes, I just went around and ask every player if they would chip in for retirement, give for him, give him something nice. All of them turn their backs on me. And I said every plan is unanimous.
S1: It’s no wonder that Jordan’s teammates weren’t sad to see him go. Is Washington season slipped away? Jordan took the belittling the younger Wizards after he scored thirty nine points in a loss to the Knicks. He said it’s very disappointing when a forty year old man has more desire than twenty five. Twenty six. Twenty three year old people. After a blowout defeat in Phoenix, Jordan said, I’m not going to try to save this team. It’s not my job. This was the petty cruelty of a Chicago years, but without the victories that made it come off as motivational. Michael Leahy of The Washington Post asks Jordan if publicly blasting his teammates might hurt their morale. Jordan’s response. The truth hurts. Michael Jordan’s last home game on April 14th, 2003, was a total non-event, although it was officially a sellout, there were empty seats scattered throughout the MCI Center. The only bit of spectacle came before tip off when Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave Jordan an American flag. That flag had flown over the Pentagon on the first anniversary of the September 11th attacks. The game itself ended in another listless defeat for the Wizards. Jordan scored twenty one points and didn’t address the home crowd. Two nights later in Philadelphia, Jordan got a better sendoff. Sixers greats Dr. J. And Moses Malone gave him a personalized golf cart in late in the fourth quarter, with the Sixers leading by twenty in Jordan on the bench in warmups, the crowd demanded an encore. Jordan reentered the game with 235 left and hit two free throws, giving him 15 points for the night, and then he checked back out.
S28: There’s the end.
S1: Jordan was 36 in 89 as the Wizards team president, and they were 74, 90 during his two seasons as a player. The team never seriously contended for the playoffs. Jordan was no longer young enough to carry his teammates on the court and he couldn’t build a roster that gave him enough help. The Wizards had neither a strong foundation nor a bright future, especially given to Kwame Brown, looked like a bust. Jordan would not apologize for bruising his teammates confidence or even for picking the wrong players. He still thought he was the man to fix the Wizards, that he could fix everything that he never acknowledged screwing up Friday a my retirement papers whenever that I have to do that.
S19: And then from that point on, obviously, I want to move back upstairs.
S1: Here’s Steve Wisch of The Washington Post.
S11: Everyone expected that when MJ is playing tennis was over, he was going to move back into the front office. The succession plan and ownership was already set in place. And within a day or two of Michael’s final game, you really began to hear like Abe’s going to let him go. I don’t think MJ knew that. But you began to hear, like, something is not right here. Something doesn’t smell right here.
S1: Wizards owner Abe Pollin was indeed wary of bringing Jordan back. He had alienated players in the locker room and failed to distinguish himself in the boardroom. Plus, Jordan has shown little interest in building a relationship with Pollin, who was technically his boss.
S11: You could sense that Abe said it was a wonderful man who felt disrespected because, you know, looking like a lot like old times through the organization, like it didn’t exist before him.
S1: It was also clear that Jordan had no particular loyalty to Poland or the Wizards. Jordan had hinted as much after his final game at the MCI Center.
S19: We had to have some discussion with management here. And, you know, hopefully things go smoother than expected. And if not, then I’m I have other options.
S1: Jordan believed that he’d done a huge amount for the Wizards and that he’d sacrifice for the franchise, giving up his ownership stake when he resumed his playing career. Now, Jordan thought he deserved to be rewarded.
S11: I raise your profile, your arena sold out, the value of your team is two or three times greater than what it was when I came here, you should be grateful for that. You had just had two different perspectives in two different worlds trying to operate together, which, of course, ended very ugly apelin far Jordan on May 7th, 2003.
S1: To the Wizards owner, it was the inevitable dissolution of a partnership that had run its course. Here’s a son, Robert Pollin, who’s now an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
S5: Michael felt like he had been promised something. And my father said you never were promised your job back. In fact, it would have been against the league rules to have done that. So, yeah, Michael Jordan getting fired is not something that Michael Jordan was used to. So naturally, he was very bitter.
S1: In a statement, Jordan said that he was shocked by the decision and the callous refusal to offer me any justification to it. Jordan’s teammates were shocked to hear the call game, you know.
S15: That’s all it is. It’s Thomas. They basically use that day for two years to drive up all their revenues, change the entire franchise. And then they said, OK, you know, that’s it. Thank you for your service also.
S1: And here’s Brendan Haywood.
S22: I think that taught me more of a life lesson. No matter how big you get, big bank can take little bank, especially if you’re black. You know, when you’re twenty two, twenty three, twenty four years old, you’re not really thinking about stuff like that. I’m just like, yo. How they treat Michael Jordan.
S1: That was Jordan’s final L. In Washington, the six time NBA champion couldn’t leave town fast enough. He went down to the media center parking garage, got into his Mercedes convertible, put the top down and drove away.
S13: Rachel Nichols, when he drove out of that parking lot, nobody was sorry to see each other have the door hit them on the way out.
S1: Three years after getting fired in Washington, Jordan bought a stake in the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats. In the past 14 years, Jordan’s team has lost 58 percent of their games, it hasn’t won a single playoff series. Robert Pollin says that track record confirms that his father made the right decision.
S5: You look at what he’s done in Charlotte, I mean, he is not a good. Team presidents or owner, he doesn’t have to build a champion. It doesn’t include him, it’s just a fact.
S1: And the Wizards, two years after Jordan got ousted, Washington finished 45 and 37 and made the playoffs for the first time since 1997. The guy who led them there, head coach Eddie Jordan. Whatever his shortcomings as an executive, Michael Jordan’s legacy as a player wasn’t diminished by his time in Washington. He’d already gotten his perfect ending that sixth championship. But Jordan wanted a seventh title, and he was willing to risk his reputation to go for it. All he cared about was winning. That’s what made him a great player, perhaps the greatest ever in a very difficult person.
S13: I think sometimes fans watch athletes and to them they’re just characters on a screen and they want the story of the character to end a certain way. But the character is a real guy. And I think what he did in Washington showed in some ways the stretch of his greatness was even longer and wider and deeper than we thought. The idea that people who love Michael Jordan just want to forget it is actually always a little silly to me.
S1: One person who doesn’t seem to agree with that take is Michael Jordan himself. When Jordan was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2009, he spoke for 22 minutes. He told the guy who’d beaten him out for varsity sport in high school that their coach had made a huge mistake. He told his children that he was sorry that they’d had to live in his shadow. And he recalled telling a Bulls assistant that there’s not an I in team, but there’s a Nyan Win.
S3: But Jordan didn’t say a single word about his time with the Washington Wizards. To him, that wasn’t a story worth retelling. This special episode of Hang Up and Listen was produced by me and Melissa Caplan with Editorial Direction by Josh Levine. Sophie, some Rugrat is our assistant producer. Michael Leahy’s book on Jordan’s time with the Wizards is titled When Nothing Else Matters Special, thanks to Ryan Roberts and Slate’s Megan Karlstrom, child to Ben Mathis, Lily, Stefan Fatsis, Katie Raeford, Alison Benedikt, Gabriel Roth, Alicia Montgomery, June Thomas and Jared Holt. Thanks for listening.
S1: If you like this episode and want to hear more, you’re in luck. Later this week, Slate plus members will get a bonus episode of Hang Up and Listen with me, Josh Levine and Stefan Fatsis. Dig deeper into the making of this podcast and what I’ve learned about Michael Jordan and his stint with the Washington Wizards next week. We’ll be back with our regular hang up and listen in this feed. Thanks for your support.