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Post story continued

All the Kings men (continued)

For his part, Brown said the right things: "Anyone can learn from Michael" if 
that "player listens." But, privately, Brown reeled under Jordan's and 
Collins's criticism off and on for two seasons now, desperate to receive a slice of 
the encouragement Jordan had lavished on him during Brown's golden days. On 
many nights, he had gone from wunderkind to waste. Despairing, Brown began to 
seek counsel from other teammates, notably Stackhouse, who could provide solace 
but little else, suffering beneath the weight of his own disappointments and, 
like Brown, having nowhere to turn.

Lakers assistant coach Tex Winter, who had been an assistant for the Bulls 
under first Collins and later Phil Jackson, had seen it before. The creator of 
Chicago's famed triangle offense, which he and Jackson had sold to a reluctant 
Jordan, Winter is the rare figure from Jordan's past who speaks openly about 
the idol. "I think the [Wizards] are better for having had him; he sets a great 
example [in his play on the court] and still has the ability to make big 
plays for them," Winter said toward the end of season. "But I think he expects too 
much from teammates because they're not Michael Jordan . . . No doubt, an 
awful lot of the players that he's played with [in Chicago], at least in their 
own minds, believe he alienated them. They've resented the treatment they've 
received" from him.

Winter wondered. He sat there, on an empty practice court in Los Angeles, 
mulling over why Jordan routinely berated others. He viewed the questions he was 
being asked as comprising the great unknown about Jordan: Did he make the 
humiliated better? How many? At what cost?

Winter's 13 years with Jordan meant that he had coached him longer than 
anyone else -- including Smith, Jackson and Collins. But Winter never understood 
him, saying he was mystified why a man so beloved was an antagonist to so many 
people in his job. "For some reason Michael gets a satisfaction out of 
humiliating people," he said, wincing a little. "I think he competes even there . . . 
[in] personal relationships."

But Winter thought he could point to some players Jordan liked, and probably 
had made better, too -- someone like Tyronn Lue, for whom Jordan demonstrated 
in public an avuncular affection he seldom displayed around the other 
youngsters. He'd drape an arm around Lue's shoulder after a good hustle play, reach 
down, with his six-inch height advantage, and rub the top of Lue's head, his 
hand lingering there. "I listened; I learned more about how to play with Michael 
this year, because sometimes before it was hard," said Lue, who had struggled 
last season to understand where Jordan wanted him positioned on the floor, 
what he wanted him to do, the uncertainty undermining his confidence.

Lue had fought back, a quality that Jordan long had admired in two other 
guards he'd played with, Bulls John Paxson and Steve Kerr, the latter of whom had 
dared to fight him once during a heated practice scrimmage. Lue backed down 
from no one. When he missed several games because of a separated shoulder 
suffered while diving for a loose ball, Jordan uncharacteristically talked at length 
about how much his absence meant, concluding, "That T-Lue injury really hurt 
us." No play by a teammate all season seemed to excite him more than when Lue 
dived to the floor and secured another loose ball late during a one-point 
overtime win at Boston in April, Jordan clapping right there on the court.

His rants of March had become his ripostes of April. He likened himself to a 
parent whose children didn't listen. When, for instance, an old friend, Matt 
Doherty, was fired as coach of North Carolina after several Tar Heel players 
complained of Doherty's treatment of them, Jordan disapproved of the firing, 
saying: "You know, kids are going to get yelled at. I got yelled at my first 

Within three weeks, unknown to the star or his coach, Abe Pollin would talk 
to some of the younger players about team morale. That alone did not bode well 
for Jordan or Collins. Back in Los Angeles, a sympathetic Tex Winter thought 
that his old player had been adored for so long -- by owners, by teammates, by 
the media -- that he found criticism difficult to grasp now, even 

As the season wound down, and the world exalted him at every stop, Jordan 
could not see what was coming.

The exalting took on odd forms. After games, the media assembled in a sweaty 
rugby-like scrum on the blue carpet of the Wizards' locker room, positioned 
around a gold star on the carpet. It was part of the Wizards logo but looked 
like a stage mark for a talk-show host. Next came the wait, 20, 30 minutes 
sometimes. "Thought I was gonna wait you out," he liked to joke on the way over, the 
scrum swallowing him up, two or three dozen people jostling for position.

He'd done this for different parts of three decades, done it 2,000 times at 

The questions or quasi-questions, as they were, would fly then.

"Big win tonight, Michael. Did you want to set the tone early?"

"Michael, are you guys playing with a sense of urgency?"

"Now you got the Pistons coming up. A pivotal game?"

It was not exactly "Meet the Press."

Many reporters in the scrum -- out-of-towners and television people 
particularly -- just came for a sound bite, any sound bite, as Jordan's presence alone 
carried value -- his actual words almost incidental to them.

He courted the media from his early college days -- excitedly pushing to be 
on the cover of Sports Illustrated, generally talking to reporters and TV 
people when Dean Smith permitted.

It was an inclination that he brought to the NBA, where in his early years he 
made himself available to the media before games and lingered in locker rooms 
with reporters long afterward, a charming, quotable young man selling image 
-- and shoes. On the road, he regularly invited writers to his hotel rooms to 
play cards with him, and on planes that the media and Bulls players rode 
together, he gave them time when they needed it, between hands, after happily taking 
their money. So close were the star and a corps of Chicago reporters that, 
after the birth of his first child, Jordan persuaded them not to print the news, 
because it was a delicate matter: He and Juanita Vanoy had yet to marry, and 
Jordan thought that news of the birth could damage his image.

There were limits to what could be kept from the public, however. In the 
early '90s, when news broke of his gambling forays on golf courses, where he had 
been the easy mark of slick hustlers, hard-news reporters surrounded him to 
demand figures and names of the disreputable. He retreated, told his old friends 
there would be no more pregame interviews or invitations to his hotel room, 
and his rules for dealing with the media changed forever.

He retired from basketball for the first time at the end of the 1992-93 
season, and went off to hit about .200 for the Chicago White Sox' Class AA minor 
league team, but before he was done, Sports Illustrated would run an article 
saying that he and the White Sox were embarrassing baseball. It would be just one 
of 52 cover stories that Sports Illustrated has run on Jordan, the vast 
majority of which were flattering, a few even worshipful. But anybody wanting to 
know what Michael Jordan expects from the media needed only to watch much 
respected Sports Illustrated writer Jack McCallum approach Jordan last February.

McCallum, whom Jordan liked, hoped for a personal interview for a story about 
Jordan's 40th birthday that month. He broached the idea to Jordan alongside a 
wall leading out of the locker room.

"Yeah, my girl told me about it," Jordan said, glancing up at the ceiling. "I 
don't think it's gonna happen . . ."

You're not going to talk to me, McCallum said.

"I talked to you," Jordan said, reaching down and rubbing the top of 
McCallum's head. What clasping elbows and shoulders was for Bill Clinton, rubbing 
heads was for Jordan. "I talked to you. I still love you. I just don't love your 
magazine." McCallum, who wasn't even the author of the baseball piece, 
suggested that the feud had been going on for too long.

Jordan smiled tightly. He looked at McCallum and then down the wall at a 
writer whose presence had come to irk him, raising his voice slightly. "I carry 

During his two comeback seasons with the Wizards, that reality left much of 
the media, who tend to grovel for access anyway, reluctant to chronicle 
incidents unflattering to Jordan. It was a virtual guarantee that almost all 
high-profile coverage would be slavishly favorable, on Jordan's terms.

Sports reporters who had established close personal relationships with Jordan 
enjoyed special status, a kind of currency that flowed from a symbiotic 
arrangement in which coverage was flattering and absolutely devoid of controversy. 
"He's Jordan's guy," people would say of the favored circle, whose ranks 
included Ahmad Rashad, a television commentator who has famously carved out a niche 
doing chummy banter with Jordan. Even when he granted an interview to others, 
Jordan guided the discussion. Talking on the record to a visiting reporter 
about Boston's Antoine Walker, a laughing Jordan boasted: "I told [Walker] we 
were going to beat them [the Celtics] every time we played them." Jordan paused, 
thought about his words. "Don't write that. It might give him too much 

The reporter didn't write it.

Some journalists accorded Jordan this favor out of genuine respect and 
affection -- they looked upon him the way one might look upon a comet. But a group 
at least as large knew that the disclosure of anything discomfiting would be 
regarded as heresy, that the god and his publicity machinery had the power to 
smite them. At its best, a moment with Jordan was akin to a struggling gold 
miner being allowed to take a small pan and sift in the overlord's stream for a 
few minutes so long as he did not cross him. Few did.

But once or twice a year, the script was violated. This past season, it 
happened in November, after a 39-year-old Indiana woman named Karla Knafel, already 
accused by Jordan in a lawsuit of trying to extort money from him, filed a 
counterclaim in Chicago, alleging that he had orally promised to pay her $5 
million, in exchange for her silence about their two-year affair in the early 
'90s, and her agreement not to file a paternity suit. (She was pregnant back then 
with a child who turned out not to be Jordan's.) She alleged that the affair 
had been set in motion by a chance encounter with NBA referee Eddie F. Rush, 
who saw her singing in an Indianapolis club, she said, and who, shortly later, 
called Jordan, saying that he had someone with him whom Jordan should meet.

Jordan acknowledged in court documents that he paid Knafel $250,000 in hush 
money. A famous man, with an image to protect, had worried about a secret 

The past season included the usual stories about athletes and courtrooms. 
Most notable was the ongoing saga of Sacramento Kings star forward Chris Webber, 
accused, along with former University of Michigan teammates from the early 
'90s, of accepting gifts from a university booster in violation of NCAA rules and 
then, in Webber's case, of lying about it before a grand jury. The Webber 
matter generated intense coverage: A notable athlete's image had been called into 
question, just as in Jordan v. Knafel. But scrutiny of the Jordan 
proceedings, in newspapers and on television outside Chicago, paled against that of 
Webber's case.

As his nights on the stage dwindled, the media kept some questions about him 
tucked away in lockboxes. It wasn't the first time an American sports idol had 
been accorded protection in the winter of his playing days. America had done 
it for DiMaggio half a century before Michael Jordan, and for Ruth before 
that, and for Mantle and Marciano, too. Now as then, the media did it because some 
truths are just too discordant when a culture is feverishly engaged in an 
homage fest. Truth comes later. The lockboxes open only when hagiography gives 
way to a hunger for knowing who the idol was, what he really meant.

Still, on a foggy March morning, a legal proceeding went forward in a small 
Chicago courtroom. A clerk wearing a golf-ball tie called for Jordan v. Knafel. 
The former didn't attend; the latter, now an Indiana hairstylist sporting 
streaked blond hair, arrived in horn-rimmed glasses, a black maxi-sweater over 
black hip-huggers and a white blouse unbuttoned at the midriff.

Jordan's attorney Frederick Sperling argued that what Knafel had done 
constituted extortion. Knafel's attorney, Michael Hannafan, responded that Jordan had 
viewed his alleged promise of $5 million as a "bargain" meant to protect him 
against the "tarnishing of his public image" -- and that Jordan's former 
attorneys certainly believed they'd entered into an agreement when their client 
began paying Knafel.

The Jordan side wanted to walk out of the courtroom with a dismissal of 
Knafel's claims, but the judge said there would be no decision that day. There was 
much weirdness to that morning, none greater than the sensation that Michael 
Jordan seemed to have nothing to do with this courtroom or event, so deftly had 
he distanced himself from the controversy. It was exactly the effect the 
Jordan team had hoped for.

On the morning that case was being heard, Jordan was headed west on his 
career's final big road swing, six games that would include a last dance with the 
Lakers and Kobe Bryant, an heir apparent as the game's best player. Jordan 
seemed to have difficulty with the notion, so much so that it raised the question 
as to whether he thought there could ever be a worthy successor.

His attitude was wait-and-see: There had been talk of heirs apparent before, 
like Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill, only they had faltered after suffering 

But the most recent heirs, particularly Bryant and Orlando's Tracy McGrady, 
seemed not to be going away, just looming larger. Once, during Thanksgiving 
week, teammates asked Jordan: Who's the man? Who's better -- Bryant or McGrady?

He didn't answer. It seemed he hadn't heard.

A teammate repeated the question. Who's the man? Jordan turned his back, not 
saying anything. An answer, it seemed, might open the door onto the legitimacy 
of a successor, and he showed no inclination to go there.

The last game between Jordan and Bryant wouldn't be forgotten. Nobody wanted 
to see Jordan humiliated. Nobody wanted even a moment that could call to mind 
something like Larry Bird abusing an old Dr. J, or Larry Holmes thrashing 
Muhammad Ali. The Lakers coaches would not have Kobe guarding Michael -- they 
didn't want Kobe preoccupied with beating the king.

Everything about the game, on March 28 in Los Angeles, seemed so exquisitely 
timed. Jordan hit his first four shots and, late in the first quarter, stole a 
pass intended for Bryant and dribbled the length of the floor for a 
two-handed dunk. The crowd was in a frenzy, and Jordan on his way to a hellacious 
13-point quarter.

But soon Old yielded to Young. Bryant, whom Jackson had urged to be 
aggressive before the start of the game, hit a three-pointer, and another, and another. 
He ended the first quarter with 19 points, and the first half with 42. It was 
like watching a mudslide. The Wizards were buried by halftime.

Bryant, who cruised to 55 points, sidestepped suggestions of torches being 
passed. "I want to be like Kobe," he said neatly.

Down a hallway, somebody asked Jordan, whose game had been quiet after the 
first quarter, if he'd handed over his crown.

"Is he better than you?" somebody else shouted.

Subdued, Jordan kept things short: "It's easy for people to say, 'Well, the 
torch is in his hand.' He definitely has a share of the torch. But there are a 
lot of other guys who I think will have to carry that . . . Obviously, it's 
tough for one guy to try to carry that."

Endings in sports are seldom pretty. But Jordan believed in the power of 
home-court advantage, the psychological edge that he thought it gave you, in life 
as well as in basketball. He had come to Abe Pollin's office to get his old 
job back -- a position that he viewed as a steppingstone to running the Wizards 
completely one day. An ex-athlete of just three weeks, he saw it as a benefit, 
he told one associate, that any meeting with Abe Pollin would happen at MCI 
Center. The owner had built the arena, but only he had filled it.

He had sat for other meetings in Pollin's office, none more illustrative of 
their differences than the one that took place shortly before his last season 
as club president, in the autumn of 2000. Pollin had assembled Jordan, Wes 
Unseld, their assistants and Jordan's team of handpicked coaches, led by 
first-year head coach Leonard Hamilton, recently hired away from the University of 
Miami. One participant remembered Pollin launching into a pep talk, swiftly 
training his attention on the new coach. "Leonard, we are giving you three all-star 
players -- Mitch Richmond, Rod Strickland and Juwan Howard," Pollin said, 
before declaring that the team's talent meant it should make the playoffs and 
thrive. "I wondered," the participant recalled, "whether I should tell him that 
Mitch and Rod were old and shot, and that Juwan was grossly overpaid and no 
star. But I worried about getting in trouble if I said anything. I knew Abe didn't 
like dissent . . . just like Michael."

Not long after that meeting, away from Unseld, the talk among some in the 
group turned to the subject of Pollin: Was he deluded? Did he not understand just 
how weak a team he had, relative to the rest of the league? Jordan smirked, 
not rising to Pollin's defense, saying merely that the team better not stand 
pat; he hadn't come to Washington to do nothing.

Jordan's disregard for the 79-year-old Pollin exhibited itself in ways big 
and small. He openly viewed Pollin as a transitional figure who would bow out in 
time, allowing Jordan to work chiefly with Pollin's presumed successor, Ted 
Leonsis, the minority Wizards partner responsible for bringing Jordan to 
Washington. Pollin became an afterthought in Jordan conversations. Compounding 
strains between the two men were Jordan's occasional comments about his future 
ambitions, which raised questions about his long-term commitment to Washington. In 
early 2001, dreaming aloud about how he could see himself leaving to buy the 
Chicago franchise someday, he laid out how he would excitedly break the news 
of the prospective deal to his partners, with Pollin at the end of his 
thoughts. "If the [deal] is put on the table," he said, "I would sit down with Ted 
[Leonsis], all my guys . . . and Abe, if he's still part of the situation, and 
say, 'Look, the Chicago team wants to sell, it's a great fit for me . . . ' "

At that moment, however, Pollin remained very much a "part of the situation." 
Jordan's comment was at once gently obvious -- no elderly man endures forever 
in ownership or in life -- and completely tone-deaf to the offense it might 
cause a superior who said he had no plans to leave anytime soon. Jordan had a 
tin ear for office politics, a consequence of having been wealthy men's 
moneymaking machine throughout his playing days, indulged and anointed. People paid 
him fealty, not vice versa. At about the same time, Jordan allies began 
floating rumors of his disenchantment with Pollin's reluctance to cede all 
basketball-related decisions to him.

For a while, early this spring, Jordan's posture was that of a man believing 
he enjoyed leverage in the upcoming negotiations. On April 9, after a home 
loss to Boston, he suggested that, if a deal were not to be struck with the 
Wizards, he could turn elsewhere: "Obviously, my focus here is to go back upstairs, 
and hopefully, the way . . . we thought about and talked about." But if 
things didn't work out with the Wizards, Jordan added, "then, obviously, I have 

This meant, according to conventional wisdom, a position in the NBA's new 
Charlotte franchise, or perhaps even back in Chicago, where an old nemesis, Jerry 
Krause, had just resigned as president. But something changed on April 9, 
irrevocably so. Something was put into motion by his words that he couldn't stop 
thereafter, a sense that he was less than entirely faithful to Abe Pollin's 
franchise, that Jordan saw his longtime dream of returning to Chicago as a 
viable possibility now. It did not help that the Bulls filled their position 
quickly, without so much as discreetly inquiring about his availability. He suddenly 
looked like questionable goods.

Still, if Pollin had any last questions about Jordan's leadership and issues 
of Wizards disunity, his handpicked coach answered them after the final home 
game. It came so abruptly: "I've had guys in that locker room curse at me this 
year, show no respect . . ." Collins's voice shook, and that tuning-fork 
quiver came over him. The media assemblage, huge on this night to hear Jordan after 
his final game in Washington, sat stunned. Collins went on: "Any time a 
player disrespects a coach, everybody thinks it's all right." His public pain said 
nothing so much as this: He had lost the team. And lost it while executing 
Jordan's plan, abiding by his sentiments. Jordan was in no position, and 
apparently had no inclination, to play peacemaker.

Nothing Jordan could say thereafter to Pollin would much matter. Peculiarity 
had characterized their last awkward public minutes together in MCI, as 20,000 
looked on. The public-address announcer spoke virtually as long about Pollin 
and his wife, Irene, as about Jordan, noting in detail the Pollins' 
contribution of computers in Jordan's name, and heralding their "commitment to the 
environment," an unusually prolonged encomium for a couple not leaving any scene.

The man who was departing, but did not know it yet, displayed his famously 
imperious streak, declining to take the microphone and speak to fans screaming 
for him. His distance from them was never clearer. He was the visitant who had 
touched down, and now the one about to walk off with a wave. The smaller man 
next to him smiled, holding a secret between his pursed lips like a sour candy.

Michael Leahy is a Magazine staff writer. He will be fielding questions and 
comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on 

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