[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
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
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
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