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All the King's Men- Washington Post
This is long folks, long enough to need to separate posts, but it's well
Some might see some similarities in our own coach/player dynamic.
There's also a question about the media in general, in one case the Boston
media in particular, and their role in creating an image that wasn't always
it appeared to be.
All the King's Men
Why the team that Jordan built fell to pieces
By Michael Leahy
Sunday, June 8, 2003; Page W12
It was a kind of deathwatch. The NBA calls it "elimination" when a team falls
out of playoff contention for good, but it was more a liquidation for the
Washington Wizards -- the life of Michael Jordan's playing career down to four
April nights, the bitterness and recriminations around the team now palpable.
Back in Washington, Wizards owner Abe Pollin was quietly contemplating an
elimination of his own making. But the players knew nothing of that. They knew
that they had a few hours before they would be officially eliminated.
Jordan sank deep into a folding chair in a cramped visitors locker room in
Miami, his eyes occluded behind designer shades with charcoal lenses. On this,
the last night that one of his teams would ever be alive for a playoff spot,
Michael Jordan took refuge behind a pair of big silver headphones. Stevie
leaked out of them, muted and scratchy-sounding.
The sight of Jordan with the headphones on had the intended effect: It kept
people away -- the media, certainly, but his coach and most of his teammates,
too, who knew not to approach him in this period before a game unless a matter
couldn't wait. Now and then, feeling a stare or sensing footsteps getting
closer, he adjusted the headphones tighter over his ears, getting deeper into
cocoon. Mostly, he watched videotape of the opponent that evening, another
failed NBA team, the Miami Heat. Now and then, he just stared clear through
everyone, like a man looking out on an ocean.
Across from him, staying away, Miami reporters mingled among players they
didn't necessarily know, discreetly asking for names: There was Larry Hughes,
sitting in front of a locker alongside Kwame Brown, who plopped into a chair
to Tyronn Lue, who was down a row from Charles Oakley and Bryon Russell, who
sat across from, in order, Jerry Stackhouse, Juan Dixon, Brendan Haywood and
Bobby Simmons. Jordan, who had the locker closest to the television, sat next
to no one.
He had commandeered two lockers. In the locker next to his own, he had
conspicuously hung his gray herringbone suit jacket, his signal to any
might be thinking of taking the stall. He generally reserved the adjoining
locker on the road for a member of his entourage or a close friend not part of
"I want some popcorn," Brown was saying from his own folding chair across the
locker room, talking to no one in particular, talking to air -- Kwame Brown,
the Kid, as Jordan sometimes called him, once affectionately, now usually
pejoratively. Brown's season had started brightly, then swiftly became marked
distress. In late March, he cursed Coach Doug Collins in Phoenix after being
pulled from a game, and earlier had raged at Collins in Utah, where he had
benched after missing a couple of shots that Collins and the other coaches
regarded as out of his range, further evidence of bad judgment. "You wouldn't
take out M.J. or Stack for taking those shots," Brown had snapped at a fuming
Collins. Jordan told the team that such behavior would not be tolerated:
treat our coach that way."
Brown apologized for the Phoenix and Utah outbursts. But nothing in his
relationship with Collins had really changed, he said, privately telling
that the respect he had tried to give Collins had not been returned. Now
walked over to Brown and stood over him. Fifteen feet away, Jordan lifted his
head, glanced at the pair, and looked away. Collins bent over and whispered
something to Brown, who did not look up to meet the coach's gaze, just stared
straight ahead, in a kind of self-induced trance. Collins bent a little more,
if determined to make eye contact. It was a contest of wills by now. Brown
never looked up, staring into a little slice of nothingness that he had fixed
his eyes on, nodding at Collins while not really acknowledging him.
As losses and dissension had begun convulsing the team, other players had
railed at Collins, none more notable than the team's second star, 28-year-old
Jerry Stackhouse, who was the Wizards' major acquisition in the off-season. A
two-time NBA all-star obtained at Jordan's urging from Detroit, Stackhouse
arrived in exchange for Richard Hamilton, another player to have fallen out of
Collins's and Jordan's favor at different times during the previous season.
Earlier that day in Miami, Stackhouse had said he hoped the Wizards would be
running more next year, following what he called "the Michael Jordan farewell
tour." He said this casually, without edge: He knew better than any other
Wizard how best to walk the public relations tightrope when addressing
about Jordan. Articulate and seasoned, he had the unusual ability of at once
speaking respectfully about his fellow North Carolinian Jordan -- "The
player of all time, and he played in all 82 games this year, which says a lot
about him" -- while gently declaring that their styles were "contrasting" and
"did not always fit," that the idol's on-court presence limited his own play
and slowed down younger Wizards wanting to fast-break more. Smiling, he
summarized the season, noting that it had been built around doing "everything
to cater" to Jordan. He made this sound pleasant and benign, which took
considerable finesse. He had a future, if he wanted it, as a charming
Stackhouse had already begun looking past the final week of Jordan
veneration. "Michael can give the fans a last glimpse of greatness," he said.
think our focus has to be toward next year and trying to get our young guys
Toward that end, he did not want to play that evening. He told Collins that
his right knee was hurting him -- a flare-up of tendinitis, he thought -- and
that, unable to jump with any effectiveness, he wanted to heed his body's
message and not risk the possibility of a ligament tear. Now he only had to
the news to Jordan, who, not having moved from his folding chair, still
watching game tape, was trying to extend the team's hopes beyond that night.
At 6:55 p.m., with the game about an hour off, Stackhouse walked over to
Jordan wearing a plastic blue brace that ran from his right knee clear down to
instep. Stackhouse gently tapped on it and said, "Hey, Mike." He had to
repeat this, just to penetrate those silver headphones -- Jordan still had
Wonder streaming into his ears. "Mike."
Jordan looked up from his folding chair, squinting, and slid one flap of his
headphones down, slack-jawed, his face a question mark.
"Talked to Doug," Stackhouse began. "You know, I tried. Tried running. But
it's bothering me when I push off on it. Just can't push off on it any good."
There was a pause. Jordan did not speak immediately.
His head lowered, he faced the game tape on the television monitor. "Yeah?"
Stackhouse nodded quickly. "Feels a little weak. I plant and can't do it. It
hurts when I go up."
Jordan cocked his head to regard Stackhouse. "Yeah," he said vaguely.
Stackhouse paused, as if waiting for something more. The silence lengthened,
uncomfortably. Stackhouse resumed talking about his knee. Jordan languidly
nodded, glancing at the television, murmuring, "Yeah." It was in the gaps
their words that the truth revealed itself: A stiff courtesy prevailed
between them. They shared an alma mater, but really nothing else. They were
antagonists, but they were not close, either, merely two powerful partners in
enormous business who never had made a personal connection, in large part
because they wanted the same thing and only the titan between them could have
But now the titan was on his way out. That the younger partner would not be
playing that evening only increased the possibility that the end would be
swifter. It was awkward. "I wanted to be out there," Stackhouse went on. "I --
Jordan interrupted, gently, and looked at him, still holding up one of the
flaps on the headphones. "Uh, you rest it," he said in his deep bass. He
back at the television, subdued. "See tomorrow how it feels."
"Wish I could be out there."
Now Jordan wanted to wrap up. "Rest it. It's about long-term value, not
short- for you -- right?" Stackhouse didn't say anything to this. Jordan went
"See tomorrow. Long-term value. All right then." He was already repositioning
his headphones, lowering his head, back in the cocoon.
"Thanks, Mike." Stackhouse walked away, unbuckling and removing the blue
Everybody scheduled to play was in uniform now except Jordan, who remained on
that folding chair in his gray herringbone trousers, not having so much as
undone his blue tie or a single button on his crisp white shirt -- waiting, as
was his way, for the media and strangers to leave, when he could at last have
The deathwatch was on everybody's mind. A few players listened skeptically to
talk of rival contenders Orlando and Milwaukee losing all their games. "Keep
hope alive," an encouraging Baltimore reporter said to Russell, whose chuckle
said he knew better.
Jordan spent most of the game guarded by a lean, supple 6-foot-7 rookie out
of LaSalle named Rasual Butler, who, not yet in kindergarten when Jordan began
his NBA career, now could routinely outleap and outrun the older man, but not
outthink him. Jordan abused him. It was Bobby Fischer against the chess
champion of the Fort Lauderdale YMCA: There were too many moves and gambits
kid to process. Jordan made Butler look silly a few times, no more so than
when, Meadowlark Lemon-like, he extended his arm with the ball on the end of
beyond Butler's head and pulled it back as if on a wire to the oohs of 20,000,
just before blowing by the entranced kid for a layup.
That would have been a windmill dunk at one time, but since the beginning of
his comeback, with his athleticism eroding, he had done things on a lower
plane. It made him a different kind of marvel. He still drove the lane
only to find it a shrinking aperture. Competing in ever-diminishing space,
with the air around the rim virtually off-limits to him, Jordan had morphed
a habitual jump shooter.
His most artful move now came off what players call a jab step -- an
aggressive one-dribble move meant to scare a young defender like Rasual Butler
backing up. Jordan's version of it included a sweep-back dribble that carried
him into reverse -- basketball's answer to Michael Jackson's moonwalk -- and,
voil`, into free space for another jumper. Sly improvisation, and the handicap
of being consigned to distant spots on the court, made what he did
confounding. The scoring jumpers came like a flood in the first half, eight
in total, and after each he ran backwards in his familiar canter. If his name
had been not Jordan but Michael Jones, his on-court productivity at middle age
would have been deemed miraculous. But he was competing each night not merely
against a defender but against the ghost of his younger self. He ended the
half with 23 points, with the crowd torn between marveling over the fallaway
jumpers and longing for a high-altitude dunk.
It would be his career's last great half.
He'd score just two more points that night, those coming on free throws,
missing all eight of his second-half field-goal attempts. A year of long
of 40-plus-minute nights, a regimen meant for a twentysomething, appeared to
have worn him down late in the season: He admitted to being tired sometimes.
Miami was his comeback in microcosm: bursts of brilliance, punctuated by a
middle-aged man's limits and fatigue.
"He would have had 46 points in his younger days," Collins said after the
Still, the Wizards won narrowly. And there was excitement: The deathwatch
might be on hold for at least a night; a reprieve might come. Milwaukee had
but Orlando was locked in a close game with the formidable Indiana Pacers. The
Wizards' locker room remained closed as Collins and Jordan and the rest of
the team waited out the returns from Indianapolis. Then word floated out that
Orlando had increased its lead to 11 points with about four minutes to play.
Collins appeared to say it didn't look good. He talked with the media for a
minutes, then went back inside the locker room, where the TV showed Orlando
putting the game away.
"I'm very disappointed we didn't get there, Michael," Collins softly said to
Jordan, according to an onlooker. "I'm very disappointed. You know how much I
wanted you to get there."
Twenty minutes later, having rushed in and out of a steamy shower, Jordan
emerged in his gray suit, with sweat running in rivulets alongside his left
and down his cheek, to face the media. It had been two years since, as the
Wizards' president of basketball operations, he sat in his Washington office
dreary winter afternoon, looking like a prisoner, and began flirting with an
idea. Two years since he looked out at the inglorious vista of a parking lot
and distant pharmacy and, patting his paunch, said that managerial power did
compare with playing -- that there was nothing in money or a title or an
office that could compare with "takin' the shot, to bein' it." Two years since
eyes scanned a seafood restaurant and some panhandlers in snow, as he talked
of what the "insanity" would be like if he could take on Vince Carter and Kobe
Bryant. It seemed like 15 minutes ago. It had all passed quickly, he said.
Now that quiet office back in Washington seemed to be waiting for him again.
There wasn't much else to say, but Jordan found a few things. He praised Larry
Hughes for playing with a bad ankle and casually noted that Stackhouse had
sat out the game. ("Yeah, Stack not playing -- that hurt.") And still he
for a goal, intent on demonstrating improvement: He wanted to end this season,
he said softly, with more victories than the Wizards' 37 wins of last season.
That would require one win in the team's remaining three games, a reasonable
expectation given that two of them were at home.
But that wouldn't happen, either. And Doug Collins's anger was about to spill
over. And back in Washington, Abe Pollin began compiling stories of trouble
between players and Collins, who had landed in Washington, two years earlier,
only because Michael Jordan had chosen him.
Power relationships between superstar athletes and uncelebrated coaches do
not need to be one-sided from the beginning. Someone must give in to create
imbalance, someone must cave. And, under pressure, Doug Collins had yielded to
Michael Jordan more than a decade earlier, during the coach's three turbulent
seasons at the helm of the Chicago Bulls. This explained most of their
dealings and mutual decisions since -- on subjects ranging from Jordan's
time as a Wizard to the team's deliberate-paced style of offense. Deference
become habit. It was difficult to point to a single event in Chicago that
triggered Collins's subservience, but several people in the Bulls organization
remembered a closed-doors intrasquad scrimmage during the 1987-88 season when
Jordan began complaining that Collins, the scorekeeper, had deprived his team
points. No, the score's right, said Collins. Like hell it is, the young star
Jordan stormed out of the practice and did not return, an enfant terrible
moment rivaling anything Kwame Brown has ever done. That evening, aboard a
ready to take them to Indianapolis, the Bulls sat shocked, aware that Jordan
had not shown up. About a minute before the plane departed, Jordan appeared
coolly walked past Collins without even acknowledging him. "Nothing was the
same after that," Brad Sellers, then a Bull, said years later. "The guys knew
who had control."
The relationship between coach and star changed forever. Careful not to
offend, Collins turned to others to confront Jordan about sensitive matters,
day dispatching an assistant coach, Phil Jackson, to press Jordan about
Jackson's conviction that a star became great only when he thought less of
accolades and made his teammates better.
But nothing could save Collins, whose intensity and volatility alienated
several players and key Bulls officials. At the end of the 1989 season, Bulls
managing owner Jerry Reinsdorf fired him, replacing him with Jackson, a
practitioner of Zen, not long from professional basketball's minor leagues.
Shortly before Jackson finished guiding the Bulls to six titles, Collins lost
another coaching job, this time midway into his third season in Detroit,
where club officials thought his emotional style -- great highs followed by
ranting lows -- had again cost him the support of several players.
Collins went into coach's exile, doing basketball commentary for a television
network. Jordan moved into the Wizards' executive suite. In 2001, when it
came time to hire a new coach in Washington, Jordan -- already toying with the
idea of his own comeback as a player -- decided to opt for a known commodity
could manage over a wild card who might exert an unwanted authority. Not
having worked in the NBA for three years, Collins now owed his basketball life
His gratitude made him both an ideal and dangerous choice to look after
Jordan's comeback. The shadow boss told Collins when he wanted to be in a game
when he wanted to come out, an arrangement that resulted in his playing so
many minutes on tendinitis-plagued knees that he broke down and needed knee
surgery in his first season back.
The coach even referred to Jordan as the "boss," which irked Wizards brass,
prompting an organization official to send down word to Collins that Jordan,
having relinquished the club presidency, was no longer an executive in the
organization, simply a player; that Collins's true boss was, and would always
owner Abe Pollin.
Collins began the past season trying to project a new authority. At training
camp, he insisted that it wouldn't matter how much Jordan lobbied for more
playing time, that he would hold Jordan's minutes down in the interest of
protecting the questionable knees.
Collins's vow lasted one month, the same period Jordan was content to begin
games on the bench while Jerry Stackhouse led the team. After telling the
during Thanksgiving week that this would be his final season and therefore he
risked nothing if his body broke down, Jordan was a starter again, soon
playing about 40 minutes a game, as he had during crushing stages of the
season. Jordan would win his gamble with his knees, fulfilling his personal
goal of playing in all 82 games, but his return to the lineup presented
with a thorny challenge. How would the coach satisfy the demands of his team's
two stars -- one an aging god, the other a 28-year-old all-star and presumably
in his prime -- each of whom had come to expect having an offense built
around his appetites and style of play?
Stackhouse wanted to be part of an up-tempo, fast-breaking offense that
enabled him to soar and "attack the rim," as he put it -- banging bodies,
fouls, scoring on drives and dunks. Privately, according to a Wizards
Collins complained he did not have the players, particularly a sterling point
guard, to fast-break often. Besides, he reasoned, Jordan was now scoring in
big numbers again -- and Jordan didn't want to run much, or not nearly enough
to satisfy Stackhouse. Often when the Wizards had a clear opportunity to
fast-break, Collins's booming voice rang out to halt them. Four players would
frequently wait for Jordan to join them.
Meanwhile, Jordan began pushing for changes, wanting the team's point guard
of sorts, Larry Hughes, replaced in the starting lineup by Tyronn Lue. Hughes
knew how to score, Jordan said, but hadn't shown the ability to get him the
ball when and where he wanted it. In time, Hughes would lose his starting
All along, the pressure on Collins grew. Jordan told him privately that he
expected to make the playoffs, and, by late February, shared his presumption
with the media, raising the stakes: "I think we're gonna make the playoffs . .
I've never had doubts we would make the playoffs."
By then, a season and a half in Washington had left its marks on Collins. His
gray crew cut looked sparser; the deep crease under his right eye deeper
still. He openly admitted to not understanding his players, suggesting some
emotional toughness, an observation that ran the risk of stirring a terrible
backlash. Jordan, pushing the theme with impunity, emboldened Collins, who
would vent: "The players have to hurt when they don't win, just like the
do. We have to hurt together."
Saying this, his face shook ever so slightly, like a tuning fork, which
happened when he became greatly moved or angered. "This is one of those wins
really remember with your team," he said, having triumphed over
New Jersey, "because we have had a lot of ups and downs . . . I've never been
more proud of them . . . I was very emotional. I became a grandpa yesterday."
It seemed, for an instant, he was close to tears. His voice trembled. His
baby grandson, he said, "got his first win tonight."
It was Collins, all of him, in about 20 seconds -- his pride, joy, anxieties,
hurt, his demand that others hurt, his emotions naked and spilling, the very
impulses that led associates to worry about him sometimes, just as people had
worried at different times in Chicago and Detroit.
He was mercurial. He could be kind, as when, before a March game, he praised
the job done by Denver Coach Jeff Bzdelik, whose dogged team's losing record
left it near the bottom of the league's standings. But he had a virtually
nonexistent frustration threshold for subjects he didn't want to discuss.
Phil Jackson, whose amusement with sharply edged questions about Jordan had
added to an enamored media's portrait of him as the Zen Master, Collins
bristled, intent on demonstrating his loyalty to Jordan, sometimes by walking
through flames of his own making.
An out-of-town reporter asked Collins if players had become afraid of the
legend. Collins snickered, "How would I know that? You'd have to ask them." He
added, "It doesn't scare me." He looked around and, with a broadening smile,
began laughing loudly, a touch mockingly, looking back at the offending
and then at the rest of the press corps, as if to say, GET A LOAD OF THIS GUY,
WHAT A QUESTION, studying the faces, in the way of a man trying to get a read
on a room.
By then -- with Brown and Stackhouse already having lashed out at Collins --
Jordan told his teammates that he would not tolerate any further disrespect of
their coach. But never did he send a message of unqualified admiration for
Collins. Few scenes so reflected Collins's status in Jordan's eyes as a
on the morning of a late March game against the Lakers, in Los Angeles -- the
last time Jordan would be competing against Phil Jackson.
Wizards players and coaches lingered around a basket, idly chatting and
bouncing balls while Jordan held court with reporters. He was asked about
whom, in the late '90s, Jordan had said he "loved." It seemed, now as then,
such a strong word for a man with no history of lavishing affection on people
the basketball world. Jordan pursed his lips, and took his time answering.
"The thing I remember greatly about Phil," he said, "is that he challenged me.
He was never intimidated by me. When most coaches could easily be intimidated
by me, he came in and if I played bad, he told me I played bad. If he felt I
needed to improve in areas, he told me I needed to improve in those areas. I
respected him for doing that. I wanted a coach who could always tell me what
weaknesses were . . . because it would only help me be a better basketball
player. This is what Coach [Dean] Smith did for me. This is what Phil Jackson
Doug Collins stood a scant 30 feet away, in Jordan's line of sight. The
omission of his name said much, and in the end too much. He had given Jordan
friendship, deference and loyalty for years. But there are limits to what
deference can get you. Maybe men cannot love those who need their love too
Jordan appreciated Collins, who had given him whatever he wanted, whenever he
wanted it -- given Jordan everything except a reason to revere him.
At this point, not even Jordan's aura could help the coach with several
players. And Jordan's remove from most of the Wizards guaranteed that he would
play peacemaker. The Collins blowup was coming, and Abe Pollin, who was never
consulted on the hiring of Collins, now had a target.
Jordan had teammates, but few intimates. He had basketball discussions with
teammates -- which he considered business -- but little else creeped in. "I
have a small comfort zone with people," he said in a moment of candor last
That comfort zone wasn't penetrated by the team's newest arriving star.
Jordan and Stackhouse had met many years ago, when, as NBA gossip had it,
Stackhouse beat Jordan in a summertime one-on-one contest while still a
76er and then suffered the payback of a Jordan torching the next time their
teams met. Both graduates of the University of North Carolina and raised in
state, the two could scarcely have been more different in their personal
Jordan was privately assertive; Stackhouse quieter, so quiet that some
considered him aloof. While Jordan avoided hands-on involvement in most
causes, Stackhouse had been driven by personal loss to establish a foundation
dedicated to fighting diabetes. Two older sisters had died of the disease, and
both his parents were afflicted by it. Becoming a passionate advocate for more
research funding only heightened his skills with language; he would usually
answer questions thoroughly, insightfully.
But Stackhouse's mien belied a competitive fierceness and an occasional
temper. Disagreements in the past with players had not always ended well: He
punched out two of them over the years, including current Wizard Christian
Laettner when they were teammates in Detroit. After not getting his Pistons
enough into the playoffs, he was traded away for a younger player in Richard
One school of observers believed the Wizards had gotten the worst of the
deal, having essentially traded young for older. But Hamilton's relationship
Jordan had made him expendable. Hamilton had dared to look forward aloud to
the post-Jordan days, when he and his young Wizards teammates -- "the New
Jacks," Hamilton had dubbed them -- could at last reveal the depth of their
out of the idol's shadow. There had been sniping between Jordan and the
upstart, some mutual searing of egos, and Hamilton was gone, on his way to
the Pistons finish at the top of the Eastern Conference.
But, like Hamilton a year earlier, Stackhouse was both a teammate and a rival
of Jordan's. Each had expectations that doomed any chance of that magic
called synergy. "I guess we gave up some things for each other," Stackhouse
diplomat said, late in the year. "But the mix of us, with our contrasting
didn't work out."
In essence, he had decided to wait Jordan out. To complain about him would
have been pointless anyway: Jordan was the Wizards' unmistakable leader, and
January, their most productive player, on his way to becoming the first
40-year-old to score 40 points in a game, and averaging about 20 points a
addition, often, to shutting down a foe's top shooting guard.
In Jordan's mind, his effort and resurgence gave him license to lacerate his
teammates, particularly the young ones. "It's very disappointing," he said
after a March loss in New York, "when a 40-year-old man has more desire than
26-, 23-year-old people. He's diving for loose balls, he's busting his chin
-- and it's not reciprocated by other players on the team." Twelve days later,
fuming after a crushing 26-point loss in Phoenix at the start of a critical
six-game western road trip, he disclosed to the media what he had told his
teammates at halftime -- that, if they just gave him the word, he would go
golf. "If you want to play hard basketball, we'll play hard basketball," he
told them. "If you guys want to take it off, I could be playing golf somewhere
. . . I'm not wasting my breath . . . I can do other things with it. I can
have a nice cigar."
The eruptions contrasted with his long-standing insistence that he had
principally returned to the court to give the younger Wizards the benefit of
knowledge and on-court leadership. Now, in distancing himself from them in the
down times and wistfully talking of abandonment, he looked less like their
mentor than a temperamental rajah. "The truth hurts," Jordan said. "Sometimes
just got to say the things that may hurt."
On another occasion, he mocked his teammates as a group, rhetorically asking
how they could think of being content, given their basketball histories: "Why
should they? It's not like they've done anything." Aside from himself, the
only one in the group who had ever won an NBA championship, he noted, was Lue,
former Los Angeles Laker. Thinking about Lue's title, Jordan added, "And he
was only a reserve." Message: Jordan was the only winner.
As always, he reserved his harshest criticisms for 21-year-old Kwame Brown,
at whom, a year earlier, he had screamed, "Flaming faggot," when Brown
complained as a rookie about being fouled in an intrasquad game. Before the
draft, Jordan and other Wizards brass considered trading the rights to their
top pick for star forward Shareef Abdur-Rahim, now with Atlanta. But Jordan
other Wizards officials were swayed by Georgia high school senior Brown's
abilities after he dominated another highly touted prep player, Tyson
during a private one-on-one competition. But now Jordan was tired of waiting
Brown to get better.