The main topic of conversation in Washington today was the ouster of Michael Jordan by the Washington Wizards. In my opinion, Jordan’s performance as an executive was bad enough to justify his ouster, though not bad enough to compel it. His one big trade (getting Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton) looks roughly break-even so far, though I think I’d rather have the younger Hamilton. The two head coaches he hired both were poor choices (more on this below). His use of the first pick in the NBA draft on Kwame Brown looks like a big mistake but the kid is only 21, so it’s too early to be certain.
But Jordan’s ouster does not appear to have been a basketball decision; rather it looks like the result of a personality clash/power struggle. Owners have the right to fire people in these circumstances, but I fear that this is the work of Susan O’Malley, owner Abe Pollin’s right hand. O”Malley, the daughter of a Maryland politician, is basically a marketer. Though willing to make key decisions about the direction of the basketball team, there is no evidence that she is qualified to do so. Years ago, she forced out John Nash, an excellent basketball man, and the Wizards have been floundering ever since. Jordan is no John Nash, but I doubt that his replacement will be either.
One footnote to this story is the poor performance of the Washington Post. The paper’s two leading opinion-shapers on basketball are Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, co-hosts of what to me is an unwatchable sports talk show on ESPN. These two have had the wrong line on virtually every personnel move the team has made in the past 15 plus years (from Moses Malone and Gus Williams, through Kevin Duckworth, Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland, and Jordan the executive). Kornheiser knows nothing about basketball or any other sport. Wilbon knows plenty, but has too many prejudices, the worst one being a blind spot when it comes to his hero, Michael Jordan. The only time Wilbon wrote anything negative about Jordan was when Jordan’s father was murdered. Before the facts were known, Wilbon speculated, erroneously, that the murder had to do with Jordan’s gambling debts. Since then, a chastened Wilbon has been even more of a cheerleader for Jordan than he was before.
This year, the Post basically failed to cover the intrigue that was swirling around the local professional basketball team. The players apparently hated Jordan to the point that they voted not to buy him a retirement gift. Folks in the front office were on such bad terms that they were barely speaking to each other. But until almost the very end, the Post reported none of this. It was the New York Times sports page that finally broke the story. Of course, the Post can’t force people to leak material to it, instead of some other paper. But with this much discord in the air throughout much of the season, Washington sports fans have the right to feel that the Post, for whatever reason, kept them in the dark.
Moreover, and inexcusably, the Post failed to pick up what was happening on the court, before everyone’s eyes. The team was an eyesore. For example, its offense was perhaps the hardest to watch of any I’ve seen in almost 40 years of following the team. It consisted mostly of Jordan or Stackhouse driving headlong into a a double or triple team and either forcing up a bad shot or passing to a reluctant jump shooter with the shot clock about to expire. Yet the Post, led by cheerleader Wilbon, never suggested until the end of the season that there was anything wrong with the team other than a lack of effort by everyone other than Jordan; nor did if suggest that any blame should attach to Jordan’s hand-picked coach, Doug Collins. (Incidentally, the Post had little negative to say about Redskins’ football coach Steve Spurrier’s borderline incompetent first season. If the Post were as gentle with political leaders as it is with sports coaches, Richard Nixon would have completed his second term).
Those of us who criticize the Post’s coverage of the news tend to blame any shortcomings on ideological bias. But the Post’s sports page proves that a reputable newspaper can do a very poor job for reasons having nothing to do with ideology.
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