Michael Jordan’s Performance as a Wizard Was Far Better Than You Remember

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The following is an excerpt from Christopher Pierznik’s new book In Defense Of… Supporting Underappreciated Artists, Athletes, Actors, and Albums, in which the author defends and celebrates individuals, teams, and projects that were unfairly maligned or misunderstood from the world of music, sports, TV & film. It can be purchased in both paperback and Kindle.

It was the perfect ending.

Finding his Chicago Bulls down by three in the final minute of Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals while playing front of a hostile crowd with his superstar teammate Scottie Pippen severely hobbled by a back injury, Michael Jordan realized he had to take over the game and become the hero one last time. He quickly scored a layup, stole the ball on defense, came back down the other end of the court, and drained a twenty-foot jump shot in the waning moments to give his team their sixth championship — and second three-peat — in eight years. It was nearly a foregone conclusion that it would be his final season and he capped it, and his career, in a memorable, cinematic way, his final shot falling through the net as his shooting arm was extended in a statuesque pose, allowing photographers and cameramen an extra second to capture the moment.

It was the way every child dreams of winning a championship. It was the way every athlete imagines their career ending. It was the perfect ending.

And then he ruined it.

After three seasons in retirement, Michael Jordan relinquished his role as President of Basketball Operations for the Washington Wizards, opting to return to the court for two seasons, selling his ownership shares, and trading his suit for a uniform. The result, at least as most remember it, was a lackluster, forgettable era in which an elderly Jordan hobbled up and down the court, failed to score, and was constantly embarrassed by younger players, leaving a permanent blemish on the previously pristine résumé of the greatest player in history. Are those memories accurate? Not at all. “Want to know the biggest myth in sports? Lean in. Ready? Michael Jordan’s years with the Wizards were an embarrassment to his legacy.”[1]

Michael Jordan came out of retirement simply for the love of the game and all that it entails — competition and camaraderie, challenges and celebrations — but when he made his return to the court, the deck was heavily stacked against him for several reasons.

First, he was a 38-year-old shooting guard, a position that is largely predicated upon speed and athleticism. Even by the end of his tenure with the Bulls, his physical gifts were already in decline and he had largely eschewed driving the lane and trying to get to the rim in favor of a killer post-up game and a deadly fadeaway that was nearly impossible to defend. “What I appreciated most about Jordan’s game was his ability to change his game as he got older, evolve as a player and continue getting better. It was no different with Jordan in his twilight, he became a new Jordan.”[2]

And it wasn’t just the aging process that was slowing him down. Following his final season with Chicago, Jordan was on vacation in the Bahamas when he sliced his right index finger with a cigar cutter, severing the tendon and requiring surgery. “The world’s most famous basketball player disclosed he can no longer palm a basketball or pick it up off the dribble as deftly.”[3] His giant hands and control of the basketball were instrumental in all that he could do on the court, including throw down one-handed dunks in traffic.

It wasn’t just his finger. In June of 2001, as Jordan was working out strenuously in an effort to decide if he were going to return to the league, he was playing in a pickup game with NBA players Antoine Walker, Ron Artest, and others, when Artest broke two of Jordan’s ribs while defending him. It slowed his conditioning and foreshadowed what he would endure during his time on the Wizards.

1

In addition to his age and injuries, he was joining one of the least talented teams in the league, one that had posted a ghastly record of 19–63 the previous season and had finished second-to-last in defense. There was no other help on the horizon as the team had wasted the top overall choice in the draft on high school phenom Kwame Brown. (It would not be the last time that Michael Jordan, President of Basketball Operations, made life difficult for Michael Jordan, number 23.) Had he joined a team with a better roster, like the Los Angeles Lakers — rumor had it that Lakers head coach Phil Jackson wanted MJ to play for him in L.A. and serve as a mentor for his young team[4] — there would have been less pressure on him to produce like he was still in his prime and he could have rested more often without the threat of the season being lost.

Most of all, though, His Airness would be battling a foe that was far tougher than any player he faced throughout his career, one that actually became stronger with age: his own legacy. No amount of great leadership, sound defense, and efficient scoring, not to mention forty and fifty point outbursts and game-winning shots, could ever compare to the public’s collected memories of Michael Jordan, both those that were accurate and those that were embellished or even invented.

It was this final reason, far more than the first two combined, that would come to define the narrative surrounding Jordan’s final comeback. This assessment is unfair, because before a torn lateral meniscus ultimately cut his year short, he was having a great season. In fact, he played so well, and had such an impact on a young team as a leader, that multiple outlets, including The New York Times, proclaimed him to be a viable MVP candidate. He was the “talk of the NBA season,”[5] one of only two players in the entire league, along with Kobe Bryant, to average 25 points, five rebounds and five assists during the first half of the season. The Wizards were on track to go from the third-worst record in the league to a legitimate playoff contender before Jordan’s knees betrayed him and sidelined him for the final quarter of the season.

Despite the injuries and the wear and tear on his body, he still produced in the 60 games in which he played, and his numbers were improving over the course of the season as he adjusted to his new team and his role on it. “During Jordan’s first season with the Wizards (at ages 38 and 39), 22.9 points, 5.7 rebounds and 5.2 assists on 41 percent shooting. There’s a player in the league now [the 2012 — ’13 season] averaging 21.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.8 assists on 50 percent shooting for the season. That player’s name is Dwyane Wade.”[6]

He was still a top ten player in the league, but he was no longer superhuman, able to do something extraordinary every game through simple force of will, but there were still moments to behold and records to set.

On December 27, 2001, he scored a career-low six points against the Indiana Pacers, which snapped his record 866-game streak of scoring double figures. Two nights later, he responded by scoring 51 points, going 21-for-38 from the field and 9-for-10 from the free throw line, becoming the oldest player in history to score 50 or more in a game and setting the record for most points in a quarter against the Charlotte Hornets (24 in the first). He followed that up with a 45 point, 10 rebound, seven assist, three steal effort against the New Jersey Nets, including scoring 22 points in a row during one stretch. Less than a week later, after enduring Ron Mercer’s trash talk and having his jumper blocked, he responded by pinning Mercer’s layup against the backboard with two hands and, on the way back up the court, repeatedly yelled at Mercer, “Don’t talk no more shit!”[7]

Sadly, instead of further cementing his legacy as they should have, those flashes only forced people to demand it every night. “Those games were magical moments we were meant to cherish, not grow to expect.”[8]

The following year, Jordan the executive went all in for Jordan the player, trading the future of the franchise, Richard Hamilton, in exchange for the present, Jerry Stackhouse, and signing swingman Larry Hughes. In response to the previous year’s injuries, Jordan became a sixth man, coming off the bench to the start the season. However, injuries and a lack of team chemistry doomed the season from the start and, before long, he was in the starting lineup and was the only member of the team to play in all 82 games, averaging 37 minutes per game, an impressive feat for someone that turned 40 years-old during the season.

The lingering knee injury and the rigors of another season had slowed him a bit, yet he was still able to control games and confuse defenses from time to time. He still averaged 20 points per game, putting up 30 or more nine times and 40 or more three times, including becoming the only player to ever score 40 points at the age of 40, dropping 43 on the Nets, including the game-winner. In his final game at Madison Square Garden, where he had put on numerous jaw-dropping performances, he scored 39 points and snagged eight rebounds in a Sunday matinee game that was so electric that the Knicks crowd was loudly rooting for the man that had crushed their championship hopes for years rather than their own team.

Undoubtedly, the highlight of Jordan’s final two years came in Atlanta at the 2003 All-Star Game. Selected by the coaches as a reserve (he had been voted in as a starter by the fans the first thirteen times, including the year before), he ultimately accepted Vince Carter’s offer to take his spot in the starting lineup after declining similar overtures from Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady. At halftime, Mariah Carey performed a special tribute to him, donning dresses of both his rookie year Bulls jersey and his final year Wizards jersey as his career highlights played on giant screens behind her. It was a touching sendoff.

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During the game itself, he struggled with his shot, but still scored 20 points and, most importantly, hit a tough fall-away jumper over Shawn Marion to give the East the lead with less than five seconds to play. It appeared to be the game winner, but a foul on the other end pushed the game into overtime and the West finally prevailed. The storybook ending was not to be, “but the people got what they wanted to see. Jordan still had it against the best players in the world, even if it wasn’t pretty at times. He could score against the most athletic defenders, even when age and history told us it wasn’t really possible for a perimeter player to do this. The East gave him a chance to end the game and add to his legend, which he promptly complied.”[9]

The remainder of the season was not so enjoyable. The team finished with a 37–45 record, the same as the previous year, and although they were always within striking distance of a playoff berth, they were never a real threat. There was a silver lining to the team’s struggles, however.

Once it became clear that there would be no postseason for Jordan, Wizards games took on the feel of a victory lap, a celebration in which fans came out one last time to enjoy watching him play. In his final game in Philadelphia, the Wizards were getting blown out, so Jordan went to the bench in the third quarter and it did not appear that he would return, but the fans chanted “We Want Mike!” relentlessly in an effort to see him on the floor one last time. Ultimately, he obliged and was promptly fouled, making both free throws and taking a curtain call before leaving the game forever.

It was not the perfect ending that hitting the jumper in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals had been, but it did not damage his legacy, either. In a way it actually enhanced it, because he proved that he could still perform at the highest level even if his athleticism diminished and he was playing for a team that was beset by injuries and dysfunction. He was no longer a superhero, but he was still a damn good player, hitting clutch shots, making smart plays, and leading his team with both his play and his experience.

“Yes, MJ in a Wizards jersey was an eyesore. But we made a mistake when we lumped him in with the Dead Man Walking stints of [Hakeem] Olajuwon on the Raptors or [Patrick] Ewing on the Sonics/Magic. Bulls fans were disgusted, but Jordan’s time with Washington was actually quite brilliant.”[10]


[1] D., David. “Michael Jordan’s 10 Greatest Moments with The Washington Wizards.” Uproxx’s The Smoking Section, February 15, 2013.

[2] Hamm, Matt. “A Look Back: Michael Jordan: The Wizard Years.” Keeping It Heel, January 18, 2012.

[3] Perry, Dwight. “Bad News, Good News on Jordan’s Finger.” The Seattle Times, March 24, 2000.

[4] Lazenby, Roland. Michael Jordan: The Life. New York: Little, Brown & Company, 2014. Print.

[5] Dupree, David. “NBA’s Brightest Stars Set to Collide.” USA Today, February 12, 2002.

[6] D., David. “Michael Jordan’s 10 Greatest Moments with The Washington Wizards.” Uproxx’s The Smoking Section, February 15, 2013.

[7] D., David. “Michael Jordan’s 10 Greatest Moments with The Washington Wizards.” Uproxx’s The Smoking Section, February 15, 2013.

[8] Hamm, Matt. “A Look Back: Michael Jordan: The Wizard Years.” Keeping It Heel, January 18, 2012.

[9] Harpter, Zach. “MJ at 50: A look at Michael Jordan’s Final All-Star Game Performance.” CBS Sports, February 17, 2013.

[10] Silverstein, Jack M. “The 40-Year-Old Version: Why Michael Jordan’s Wizards Years Were Wasted.” Chicago Side Sports, February 15, 2013.


Christopher Pierznik is the author of nine books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Hip Hop Golden Age, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.

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