Reporting David Elfin
Want to know what should cure the reeling Wizards, who have lost 10 of their last 11 games? Bet on that happening during tonight’s visit to Charlotte and the 7-47 Bobcats, whose incompetence helped new Washington coach Randy Wittman get off on the right foot with victories in two of his first three games after replacing Flip Saunders on Jan. 24.
The Wizards, who are just 10-44 against the rest of the NBA, haven’t faced the Bobcats since. But Charlotte has been the gift that keeps on giving for Washington, which is a depressing 138 games under .500 the last six seasons but is 11-11 against the Bobcats and their majority owner/chairman Michael Jordan.
Mention of Jordan’s name takes us back to 1997, when the-then Bullets ended an eight-year drought by qualifying for the playoffs with a 44-38 record, the same mark that had brought the franchise its lone NBA championship 19 years earlier. However, Chris Webber and Co. couldn’t beat Jordan and the defending champion Chicago Bulls in the first round.
Re-named the Wizards by owner Abe Pollin, Washington won only two fewer games in 1998 but fell one victory shy of returning to postseason. Meanwhile, Jordan was leading the Bulls to their sixth title in eight years before retiring for the second time.
Nineteen months later, Pollin and Jordan came together as the NBA’s greatest player stunned the sports world by assuming control of Washington’s basketball operations. Jordan soon fired coach Gar Heard, but the team only improved slightly under Darrell Walker en route to finishing 29-53. With no first-round pick in the 2000 draft, new coach Leonard Hamilton’s Wizards won 10 games fewer in Jordan’s first full season, a year that was capped by the choice of 7-foot-1 high school center Kwame Brown with the first overall selection in June.
At 38, Jordan came out of retirement in the fall of 2001 to help Brown and to play for his former Bulls coach, Doug Collins. The boss averaged 22.9 points as the Wizards – with just three players remaining from the team that Jordan had inherited — nearly doubled their victory total to 37. Jordan averaged 20 points in 2002-03 as Washington and his draft picks Jared Jefferies and Juan Dixon repeated its record of the previous season. The five-time MVP retired that spring at 40, a little over two months after his 14th All-Star Game appearance.
Despite those decent results, Pollin stunned Jordan by firing him on May 7, the first time the legend had been rejected in basketball since he failed to make the varsity as a sophomore at Laney High in Wilmington, N.C. in the fall of 1978.
Three years and a month after getting canned by the Wizards, Jordan took control of the Bobcats’ basketball operations. During his five-plus seasons in command, Charlotte is 98 games under .500, has employed four coaches and lost in the first round in its only playoff appearance.
That ugly track record is still much better than the mark that Washington has managed during that same span, but if the Wizards win tonight and extend the Bobcats’ losing streak to 12 in a row, they can claim bragging rights in the rivalry between the dregs of the Southeast Division since Jordan’s ascension in Charlotte. At least, that it is, until the teams’ final meeting of the season on April 23 at Verizon Center.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.