Yawning generation gap left Jordan disillusioned

Longevity did not bring Jordan closure, it opened him up for failure as he undressed his teammates through humiliation, but could not uncover a basketball soul like his own.

SELENA ROBERTSNew York Times News Service

Age did not mellow Michael Jordan; it disillusioned him as he scoured every boyish face on the Washington Wizards' roster, but failed to see himself in any of their eyes.

Michael Jordan of Washington Wizards before his match against the Philadelphia 76ers, in Philadelphia on April 16, 2003. This was the last game of Jordan's career. Facing page: Jordan in action. — Pics. REUTERS-

Longevity did not bring Jordan closure, it opened him up for failure as he undressed his teammates through humiliation, but could not uncover a basketball soul like his own.

How frustrating not to rear a team in your own image after having handpicked the DNA as the general manager. How difficult to keep playing as if lions awaited the loser while your teammates longed for the buzzer. How disheartening to be the architect of the league's superstructure only to grow intolerant of its disrespectful inhabitants.

For every time Jordan grumbled a "not under my roof'' declaration, there was a 20-year-old Kwame Brown, his Washington teammate, to turn up the volume on his stereo. For each time Jordan used his age to shame the Wizards — "It's very disappointing when a 40-year-old man has more desire than 23-year-old people,'' he once said — there were eyes rolling like dice.

"It's deeper than what you see,'' Jerry Stackhouse, the Wizards' swingman, has said. "I'll leave it at that.''

The misery that has marked this final lap of Jordan's indelible career — an amazing journey through the NBA that ended with 15 points in an inglorious 107-87 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in Philadelphia on that Wednesday night — went deeper than a simple generation gap.

It was the gap between winning and losing. The ruthless character traits that defined Jordan's greatness with the Chicago Bulls turned him into an insufferable loser as a Wizard.

"You had a maturity that was totally different in Chicago,'' said Jordan, sitting on a dais in a pale green suit after the game. "Everyone understood the dedication it took to give up parts of yourself. I am trying to get these kids to understand that.''

In his two seasons as a player in Washington, Jordan was surrounded by thin skins, not Scottie Pippens. In his third incarnation, he was encircled by star seekers, not submissive Steve Kerrs. In a last curtain call, he was stared at as a dictator, not as an inspiration.

"We couldn't be patient for six or seven years, because Michael was running out of time,'' Washington's Bryon Russell said. "He wanted to make the playoffs now. Being patient wasn't going to make that happen.''

The yelling and infighting, the blame games and the team dysfunction, didn't breed success, either. "If I'd known it was going to be like this,'' said Charles Oakley, who came to the Wizards for one last season, "I wouldn't have come back.'' This endgame of bickering diluted the celebration punch on Jordan's as a player. It's not fair, of course. The final match should have been an emotional montage of a legend's life, of a man turned myth, of a player who transcended social lines and continental divides, but it is never a clean break with Jordan.

In 1993, Jordan exited Chicago with the ghost of gambling in the air. In 1998, with the paint on his title-winning jumper still wet to the touch, the Bulls' organisation arranged a chilly sendoff to signal their readiness for life without Mike. On that Wednesday night, the same feelings of detachment permeated the Wizards' locker room.

"The tour has come to an end tonight,'' Stackhouse said. "I think everybody is looking forward to a new era.''

Sometimes, greatness can be grating, even for the object of the ire. As the season ended with the speed of a slow drip, Jordan looked visibly drained by the burden. Beneath his eyes there were tree rings of circles. But as fatigued as he was, Jordan never stopped trying, refusing to quit, giving until the end.

If nothing else, at least his body found closure. With a back as brittle as an uncooked noodle, with knees in the crumpled shape of paper wads, he squeezed his body dry of miracles. For that, there should be fulfillment. For that, his icon status should remain unblemished.

There will be no more switches from the right hand to the left on a zero-gravity drive to the hoop, no more dunks from the free-throw line a la Dr. J, no more devastating shots over Cleveland's dumbstruck Craig Ehlo.

Jordan emptied the bag. Here was a player who competed out of a raw passion for the game and received money as back pay for his desire. It's no wonder he is so out of touch with some of today's players, particularly the ones who prefer up-front cash before putting in a hard night's work.

Not everyone in the game is beneath Jordan. There are reasonable facsimiles of Jordan's spirit — see Kobe Bryant's impersonation of M.J.'s tongue-wagging hunger in the big moment — but none can reflect his dark psychology.

Tim Duncan does not bait an opponent into a trash-talk dialogue as motivation to crush another player's psyche on the court. Shaquille O'Neal doesn't scold his teammates into tears in an attempt to push the envelope on their will.

Time did not soften Jordan's edge. Maybe one day he'll learn. Wherever he goes next — whether he returns to the Wizards' executive box or departs for a position with Charlotte's new franchise — Jordan will either have to adjust his perfectionism or be miserable by the lapses of others. On that night, he took the first step to moving on. But you had to wonder about his future happiness. Jordan never predicted this ending for himself.

Where was the magical playoff run, the Champagne or at least the sappy sentiment of his teammates? In the end, there was only a Wizards team relieved that the old man was moving out of the house. This wasn't the send-off of an icon, but a push-off on a disillusioned god.