Without His Airness, Wizards proving anything but deflated


WIZARDS FANS are leaving their No. 23 jerseys home in the closet this season. They're asking a simple question: Michael Who?

Eighteen months A.J. (After Jordan), the Wizards are one of the surprises in an NBA where the Lakers are no longer a dynasty, the Timberwolves have fallen off as Western Conference powers, where the Nets are light-years away from their twin Eastern Conference titles.

A lot can change in 18 months, including the future of a franchise that traded Michael Jordan for coach Eddie Jordan, then brought in Ernie Grunfeld to the front office to do for Washington what he did in New York and Milwaukee: win, but more than just win.

"I don't know what happened before I got here. We're just focused on the present and the future. Internally, we have established a hard-working, professional environment within the team. We tell the players we will treat them with respect," Grunfeld said.

Grunfeld's first coup was to lure Gilbert Arenas to D.C. last season. His follow-up act is being called the NBA heist of the century:

Grunfeld traded Jerry Stackhouse for Antawn Jamison, the 2003-04 Sixth Man of the Year who has become nothing less than "the glue" for a franchise that has one of the best nuclei of talent and a winning record to boot. The Wizards are on pace to win 50 games and are a playoff contender.

"I don't want to get ahead of ourselves. It's still early in the year, but the East is wide-open. I've got a lot of respect for Detroit, Miami with Shaq, Indianapolis is solid. All those teams have playoff experience, but after that, it's wide-open," Grunfeld said.

Asked if he'd like to have Richard Hamilton back, whom Michael Jordan traded to the Pistons and who has emerged as one of the league's young stars, Grunfeld showed the kind of resiliency that will only lead to more smart moves.

"Richard Hamilton has turned into Antawn Jamison," Grunfeld said.

"We still have room to improve, especially on the defensive end. But we're an exciting team, athletic. We play a fun brand of basketball. These guys have a lot of room to grow."

The world is noticing. The Wizards picked up their first national TV game since April 2003 against Seattle on Jan. 6. Tonight against the NBA-best Suns represents another hot game for the midwinter schedule. The Wizards matter.

That means the sound you hear from MCI Center is the sound of owner Abe Pollin having the last laugh, if only to himself.

It's been 18 months since Pollin fired Michael Jordan, igniting a maelstrom that said the Wizards had just committed franchise suicide. "People thought I was nuts," Pollin said - or worse.

There were those of us who agreed that Pollin did the right thing, lacing up his Air Abes and giving Jordan a pink-slip facial in a 10-minute meeting that set the sporting world aflutter.

For all the hoopla surrounding his arrival in Washington, Jordan had done as much to plummet the NBA franchise into further disarray, like president Jordan's 180-degree change in plan from building a contender through the draft (Kwame Brown) and developing players (Hamilton) to his decision to un-retire again (comeback No. 2) in order to "teach" the kids how to win.

That led to Jordan's single-minded pursuit of getting the Wizards (but mostly himself) back in the playoffs, which is why he traded Hamilton to Detroit for Jerry Stackhouse, then signed oldsters like Bryon Russell and Charles Oakley. The Jordanaires, Part II.

All this while using "coach" Doug Collins (extension of Jordan) to ride Brown (for being a 19-year-old who never played a minute of college ball) and insinuating that the Wizards front office was stuck in old-school mode, unwilling to do what it really takes to win.

Hey, but at least the Wizards were selling out MCI Center.

Pollin smelled a rat, even if it meant dismissing the greatest thing to ever happen to the NBA. Off Jordan went in that Mercedes, his Illinois license plates telling his destination.

"I told Michael at the time he's the best player that ever played the game, but we're going to go in a different direction in terms of management," Pollin said this week.

"The decision I made was mine alone. It was a tough decision, but in 40 years I've had to make tough decisions. If a time comes when I can't make those kinds of decisions, I'll have to give up my chair," Pollin said.

The day Pollin did a Donald Trump on Jordan, telling The Greatest Player in the Galaxy, "You're fired," was one of the most amazing days in the history of the Wizards.

Pollin was, mostly, eviscerated on sports pages and talk radio. By uttering two pithy little words and banishing Sir Air back to Chicago, Pollin was D.C. Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp saying "No" to a baseball stadium paid for by taxpayers two years before Cropp became sporting enemy No. 1 in the nation's capital.

Post-Jordan attacks on Pollin went like this:

"Who does this guy think he is?"

"The Wizards need Michael Jordan a lot more than Michael Jordan needs the Wizards."

"The Wizards are about to slide from franchise of international interest [courtesy of Jordan] into the murky depths of the Potomac."

"It will be years, if ever, before the Wizards dig their way out of this dark hole."

Well, forever is over.

"It's been a major turnaround," Pollin said.

"I do some things that people think I'm nuts to do, but I believe in this franchise."

Eighteen months later, Pollin is not alone.

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