6 Highlights of Michael Jordan’s Time with the Wizards
Twenty years ago, this month, I saw something that I had hoped I would never see in my lifetime – Michael Jordan playing at the United Center while wearing the opponents’ uniform.
Jordan returned to Chicago as a member of the Washington Wizards on January 19, 2002. The last time that he had played in the United Center was nearly 4 years earlier as a member of the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls were playing the Utah Jazz in Game 5 of the 1998 Finals back then. The 2002 Bulls couldn’t beat a punching bag. The Wizards themselves were a middle-of-the-pack team fighting for a playoff berth. The 22,000+ fans at the United Center didn’t care. They got to see MJ one more time and gave him a lengthy standing ovation once he was announced during the player introductions.
Jordan had officially retired from the NBA for the second time in January 1999 and had not played since that previous June, leading the Chicago Bulls to their 6th NBA Championship. At the time he claimed that he was 99.9% certain that he would never play again. Jordan then became minority owner and President of Basketball Operations for the Washington Wizards the following year. It seemed as if MJ was fully transitioning to an NBA front-office and ownership role, just like he planned.
Things don’t always go to plan though. Pittsburgh Penguins and NHL legend Mario Lemieux decided to make a comeback with the Penguins for the 2000-01 season at age 35. “Super Mario” didn’t disappoint that year putting up 35 goals, 41 assists, and totaling 76 points in just 43 games. The Wizards were a different story under their new president, going 19-63 in the 2000-01 NBA season. That’s one less win than the previous season. Ruh-roh rastro! Could MJ be thinking about another comeback after seeing Lemieux have success? Nah.
Michael Jordan’s competitive drive has been well documented. It lies somewhere between legendary and psychotic. To say Michael Jordan hates losing would be an understatement. A HUGE understatement. I’m sure that he started getting the competitive itch again while watching the Wizards lose. MJ probably thought if Lemieux could do it so could he. Jordan ultimately decided that the best off-season acquisition the Wizards could make that off-season would be signing himself. He thought that he could teach the young Wizards what it takes to win. I guess 0.1% carries more weight than I thought.
Jordan shocked the worked and returned to the NBA for the second time ahead of the 2001-02 season as a 38-year-old small forward for the Washington Wizards. There were mixed reactions. Some were excited. Others were questioning why Jordan would risk tarnishing his legacy by coming back WELL past his prime. Was this simply a publicity stunt? Would Jordan be able to keep up with this next generation of NBA talent or would he embarrass himself?
Most people think that Jordan’s two seasons with the Wizards were a complete failure. They think that he completely stunk up the joint and should have stayed retired. In fact, many basketball fans simply choose to forget about MJ as a Wizard and would rather remember the legendary player for the Chicago Bulls. I didn’t forget about Jordan as a Wizard. It’s engrained in my head. In fact, when I hear people say that Jordan SUCKED when he played for the Wizards I simply shake my head. We got to the point where we expected perfection and the absolute best out of Michael Jordan. He was supposed to be the GOAT every time he laced up his sneakers in people’s minds.
Was Washington getting the same “Air” Jordan that dominated the NBA and won six championships with the Chicago Bulls?
Was Michael Jordan fully healthy and essentially “bullet-proof” going into the 2001-02 season?
While playing for the Wizards, was Jordan playing in his athletic price and at a level that was G.O.A.T.-esque?
Still, Michael Jordan did NOT suck in a Wizards uniform. In fact, I believe what he accomplished in two seasons with the Washington Wizards was incredible. I’m going to tell you why I feel that way.
In honor of Michael Jordan winning six championships with the Chicago Bulls, here are SIX reasons why Michael Jordan’s years with the Washington Wizards were truly remarkable:
#1 – Jordan played despite never being fully healthy during the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons.
Before announcing his retirement for the second time, Jordan managed to cut his finger on a cigar cutter. His finger had healed by the time he suited up for the Wizards, but then Ron Artest managed to accidentally break two of MJ’s ribs during a preseason pickup game. Then in February 2002, Jordan injured his knee in a collision with teammate Etan Thomas. He tried to play through the injury but was shut down eight games later to have surgery for a torn meniscus in his knee, ending his season.
The former Bulls legend constantly dealt with tendinitis in both his shooting wrist and both knees during both of his seasons in Washington. It got so bad at times that his former teammates claimed that Jordan’s knees would swell up “like the Elephant Man.” No problem for Jordan. He would just get his knee drained every so often and get back on the court as if nothing was wrong.
Despite these injuries Jordan played in a total of 142 of a possible 164 games with the Wizards, including playing ALL 82 games during the 2002-03 season, despite turning 40 years old in February 2003. This was before load-management and guys sitting out games for lesser injuries. Would LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Stephen Curry pay through that type of pain, especially during the regular season? Probably not. Jordan literally played until he absolutely could not play anymore. It wasn’t for the money. Jordan donated his $1 million salary to a relief fund for 9/11 victims. The dude basically played in pain for free! If that’s not loving the game, I don’t know what is.
#2 – The Wizards improved by 18 games with Michael Jordan on the court in 2001-02.
The Wizards were starting to win despite getting off to a slow start. Washington started out 2-10 and were even 5-12 at one point. Washington was the second worst defensive team in the 2000-01 season with Jordan sitting upstairs. They improved to a top-10 NBA defensive with Jordan in uniform going into the 2002 NBA-All Star Weekend. Coincidence? I think not! Best of all, the Wizards were 26-21 and in playoff contention. Michael Jordan was about to lead a team of nobodies to the playoffs. READ THAT AGAIN! Unfortunately, Jordan injured his knee which would sideline him for the rest of the season and crush the Wizards’ playoff hopes.
The Wizards won just 19 games in 2000-01. Their roster remained intact for the most part. The only significant addition was MJ the executive signing MJ the player. They won 37 games the following year with Jordan. This happened despite Washington having the legendary Jahidi White, Popeye Jones, and Chris Whitney as top players in their starting lineup. Unfortunately, they won 37 again the following season and missed the playoffs in both of Jordan’s seasons in Washington, but #23’s presence was felt during both seasons.
#3 – Jordan returned after being retired for THREE seasons and still played at an All-Star level.
Michael Jordan had been retired for 19 months returned to the Bulls in March 1995 following his first retirement. MJ wearing #45 wasn’t fully in synch. He eventually found his legendary form, but it took him time. The last NBA game that Jordan had played in before suiting up for the Wizards in October of 2001 was Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals. It had been three NBA seasons and 3+ years since he last played in an NBA game this time around.
Despite his lengthy layoff, Jordan proved that he could still play at a high level, making the NBA All-Star team in both the 2001-02 and 2002-03 seasons, his 13th and 14th selections. Yes, part of that was driven by both the fan’s vote and Eastern Conference coaches selecting Jordan to play in the 2003 NBA All-Star game out of respect. The numbers don’t lie though. Here are Jordan’s per game averages with the Wizards.
– 2001-02 Season: 22.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.4 steals per game
– 2002-03 Season: 20.0 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and 1.5 steals per game
Those are All-Star caliber numbers. Most guys never put up those type of numbers for a full season. Jordan’s numbers from the 2001-02 season at age 39 were better than the numbers DeMar DeRozan, Paul George, John Wall, and Jimmy Butler put up in their age 27 or age 28 seasons. And they play less defense today! Jordan was also continuing to re-write the NBA record books:
Oldest player to score 50 points in a single game (38 years, 10 months)
Jamal Crawford broke this record 18 years later and still holds it today*
Oldest player to score 40 points (40 years old)
Oldest player to average 20 points per game for an entire season (40 years old)
Scoring 40 points in an NBA is quite a feat, let alone 50 points! And he did is at nearly 39 years old! Take Jordan’s per game averages from the 2001-02 season when turned 39 years old in February of that season. Jordan’s 22.9 points per game were good for 9th in the entire NBA. Sure, the guy won 10 NBA scoring titles in his career. Still, Michael Jordan was STILL a top-ten scorer in the NBA at age 39!
#4 – Michael Jordan was still clutch.(Just ask Cleveland)
Which player in NBA history would you want taking the last-second shot for your team? Michael Jordan’s name should be in that conversation. He had a legendary knack for coming up big when the game was on the line during his days with the Bulls. He had a few of those moments with the Wizards too.
Look away Suns fans!
The New York Knicks were a common victim of Jordan’s heroics.
Cleveland Cavaliers fans have seen this story before. I present to you “The Shot III.”
Jordan’s go-ahead bucket in the 2003 NBA All-Star Game should have been a storybook ending, but Jermaine O’Neal then fouled Kobe Bryant shooting a three-pointer. Bryant made two of three free-throws to send the game into double overtime where the Western Conference prevailed.
#5- Jordan held his own against the league’s best as a 38, 39, and 40-year-old.
Make no mistake – there were a few times were Jordan got burned too. He wasn’t the same NBA All-Defensive First Team defender with the Wizards but he sure as hell held his own. This was despite playing at either shooting guard or small forward in a league that ushering in a new era of young stars which included Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Paul Pierce, and Vince Carter – all who were either shooting guards or small forwards. Jordan was going up against these high scoring, high flying (not Pierce, he played that old-man YMCA game) 20-something All-Stars.
Bryant had already been given lessons by MJ having graduated from DON’T PISS OFF MICHAEL JORDAN university. Other young stars were chomping at the bit to go after Jordan, who was 14-15 years older and past his athletic prime. Vince Carter, then of the Toronto Raptors, was one of those guys who pulled on Superman’s cape, although he may not have meant to.
Prior to a matchup against Jordan’s Wizards, Carter told reporters that he wasn’t worried about Jordan because Richard Hamilton was doing more of the scoring for the Wizards. Oops.
Carter got off to a hot start in that game by scoring 23 first-half points and dominating the Wizards. MJ had a quiet first half with 9 points, but then turned up the defensive pressure on Carter. What I mean by turned up I mean completely shut him down. Vince Carter did not score a single point in the second half of that game. Jordan finished with 21 points and led the Wizards to a comeback win. Here’s footage from that game.
Grant Hill wanted one last shot at Jordan. Hill was injured during most of his time while playing for the Orlando Magic but couldn’t pass up the chance to play against Michael Jordan. He probably wished he would have sat that game out instead. Jordan lit up Hill for 20 points in the first quarter. Hill checked himself out of the game after that and went straight to the locker room.
People forget that Jordan was getting better as the 2001-02 season went on before his meniscus injury. Prior to the injury the Wizards were 26-21 with Jordan averaging 25.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 1.5 steals during the first half of the season! Only Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant were putting up similar numbers during that same timeframe. I think that’s some pretty good company.
Michael Jeffery Jordan was in the NBA’s MVP conversation a week prior to his 39th birthday. HIS THIRTY-NINTH effing birthday! After not playing for three years! Are you kidding me??? Who else had done that in NBA History? I’ll wait. (Editor’s note: Bueller…Bueller…)
Unfortunately, Jordan suffered that knee injury which derailed his season. He finished 13thin the NBA MVP voting for the 2001-02 season. He might not have been the best, but one could argue that he was among the league’s top 13 players that season.
#6 – Michael Jordan was still able to “wow” fans.
He may not have been “Air” Jordan anymore, but Michael Jordan was still able to draw “oohs” and “ahhs” from crowds in NBA arenas on occasion. Remember how I mentioned that Jordan was still able to hold his own against the NBA’s best, despite his age? NBA Stars being embarrassed by MJ include Paul Pierce (multiple times), Kobe Bryant, Vince Carter, Kevin Garnett, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki
In fact, Jordan was also able to “wow” this basketball fan. Remember, I grew up as a Bulls fan during the 90s. Seeing Michael Jordan in another team’s uniform was both blasphemous and terrifying to me. The Bulls were in their post-championship rebuilding years when Jordan played against them for the first time in 2002. Jordan was matched up with either Bulls forward Ron Artest or guard Ron Mercer.
Former Bulls General Manager must have had a thing for guys named Ron. Krause had been infatuated with Ron Mercer since Mercer was an All-American at the University of Kentucky. In 1997, he almost traded Scottie Pippen to the Celtics for package of players that included Ron Mercer. Go figure.
Mercer apparently decided that talking a little trash to Michael Jordan was a good idea. Late in the 4thquarter with the game being close, Jordan took a shot that was blocked (or was fouled) by Artest. The Bulls steal and head towards the other end in transition. Mercer gets the ball and then what I believe to be Michael Jordan’s “Pièce de Résistance” with the Wizards unfolds…
Are 39-year-olds even supposed to be able to do that? I jumped off the coach and still to this day to not remember a play from the opposing team wow-ing me as much as that play. Jordan embarrassed Mercer and barked back which led the Wizards to beat my rebuilding, but beloved Bulls. Well played Michael. Well played.
Michael Jordan certainly didn’t play at a legendary level in his two seasons in Washington. However, he did prove that he could still compete at an All-Star level – even at an age where he was long past his prime and against younger, more athletic competition. It may have taken an extra pump fake at times, but Jordan was more than effective. He even occasionally turned back the clock, especially when extra-motivated.
Jordan also reminded everyone that he was the ultimate competitor. He wanted to win so badly that he bet on himself, literally, to lead the Washington Wizards of all teams to competitive heights they hadn’t seen since the late 70s. He wasn’t the best player in the NBA, nor did he lead the Wizards to an NBA Championship…but he was still pretty damn good in my book!