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Thursday, May 8, 2003
Updated: May 9, 3:52 PM ET
Will history repeat itself for MJ?

By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

Michael Jordan is often called the Babe Ruth of basketball.

Once that was a compliment. Now, it's a warning sign. Big-time.

Babe Ruth
The Babe dominated the game in his day, winning several titles ...
Michael Jordan has to sit on his ego and make a shrewd play, not tomorrow, but right now. He can't make a power play, because he's no longer in a position of power. One has-been athlete is like any other. He can't intimidate, point a finger at teammates, frown and shoot a game-winning fade. No announcer will say, "He did it again! He did it again! He did it again!" about Jordan's next front-office experience -- if he has a next front-office experience -- and if some announcer does say it, it'll mean more trouble in Mudville.

Babe Ruth was once the Home Run King Who Saved Baseball.

And yet, when his playing days were done, nobody wanted any part of him ... as a manager, executive or anything else. There was closet resentment among those who were not in his sphere of influence with the Yankees, and resentment about the way he had dominated baseball. His brusque manner hadn't worn well on opposing teams and Yankee management.

After being released by the Yankees, the team whose image he had created, in the sense of their homerun-hitting, world championship-winning swagger (much as Jordan had created the Chicago Bulls), Ruth came in with the Boston Braves, his own version of the Washington Wizards, on what looked like (to a simple ballplayer) a sweetheart deal, much as Jordan looked to have one with the Wiz. Jordan was off somewhere minding his own considerable ego when AOL magnate Ted Leonsis bought a piece of the Wiz off Abe Pollin, who apparently isn't as senile as he looks.

Leonsis owns the majority of the Washington Capitals, a hockey team in a town that ices over for five days each year. He overpaid for a talented but non-competitive chump named Jaromir Jagr, just to bask in Jagr's past Stanley Cup glory. He also offered to bring Jordan into the fold of the Wizards, to run it, and for a piece of his piece of the action. Pollin acquiesced quietly. Jordan jumped at it, as he should have. But then, incredibly, he gave up his piece -- he didn't appreciate its value, or thought he could get it back just for the asking -- just to come back and play (!?), after some of his management moves were not immediately productive.

Quickly reverting to jock type, he snatched off his business suit to reveal his Superman cape, tattered by wear-and-tear though it was.

Michael Jordan
... very much like our friend Michael Jordan.
Abe Pollin just sat back. He saw his building, the MCI Center, sell out for two seasons, just as Leonsis' net worth dwindled like Ted Turner's, as AOL took a swirly in the toilet of the stock market.

Abe had the hole card. He still had 51 percent of the Wizards.

In 1935, Judge Emil Fuchs owned the majority share of the Boston Braves, and had been struggling along with them for the better part of two decades, just as Abe Pollin did before Jordan came in. The Braves were mired in the American League second division in the 1920s and '30s, as the cocky Ruth's Yankees were winning fistfuls of world titles and Ruth set home run and marketing records and became a national icon.

The Bullets/Wizards were mired in the NBA Eastern Conference second division in the '80s and '90s, as the cocky Jordan's Bulls were winning fistfuls of world titles and Jordan won scoring titles and set marketing records and became a national icon.

Fuchs, like Pollin, had been losing cash. Somebody told Fuchs it would be a coup to get Ruth on board in 1935, once he had had "retired" from the Yankees. Fuchs said, of course he'd want Ruth to have an "official position" with the club (uh-huh) and added this: "He can play as often as he wants." Author Robert W. Creamer put it this way, in his superb book on Ruth: "Words like executive position, manager, next year, stock options, profits, ownership of the club caressed Ruth's ear ..." The Braves offered Ruth a salary, executive position as an officer of the corporation, assistant manager title, a share of the profits during the term of the contract, and an option to purchase some of the stock of the club.

Ruth jumped at it. Way too fast.

He jumped as a player jumps. He never saw the fine print coming.

Ruth joined the Braves. They drew big crowds. For a while. He had his last hurrah. For a while. Then the Braves settled back into the second division, and Ruth found that he and Fuchs did not get along at all. Once, he yelled at Fuchs, "You attend to your end of the business and I'll attend to mine! Mine is on the field!" Fuchs, knowing all along what he was going to do, persuaded Ruth to stay on as an active player through the western road trip in 1935. Teams had Babe Ruth Days planned. "You can't quit now," Fuchs said.

A few weeks later, Ruth, the greatest, most definitive baseball player who ever lived up until then, and even today one of the two or three best, was limping along hitting .155. He had one last day of glory in Pittsburgh, going 4-for-4 with three homers, six RBI. The Braves lost anyway, 11-7. (Jordan, for his part, became the first 40-year-old player to score 40 points in an NBA game; that, and two dollars, gets you on the subway, but not into any owner's box.)

Babe Ruth
When he ended his career, Ruth was more of an attraction than a force ...
The Braves traveling secretary and Ruth's wife Claire told him he should quit on the spot. "Can't do it," he said. "I promised that son of a bitch (Fuchs) I'd play in all the towns on this (May) trip."

The Braves were 10-27 when Ruth quit as a player. Immediately, Fuchs sent out a message: Ruth had been released as player and as assistant manager, and had been fired as vice-president. "I have given Ruth his unconditional release," Fuchs said in a written statement. "He's through with the Braves in every way."

So now it's just déjà vu all Pollin again.

I'm sure Jordan is unaware of this history; those who are unaware of history ... oh hell, this isn't the History Channel, it's an R-Dub Page 2 column. These similarities are fascinating, but Jordan can step out of this "Twilight Zone" episode and stop making like Babe Ruth, and I can stop making like Rod Serling. What Jordan should do now is not pout, which, like Ruth, he is very good at, but act on his own behalf, and not wait for David Falk to tell him what's best, because Falk never saw this coming and he should have. Should've never let his best client give up his piece of a club. Never, as in: not ever. Now Jordan must act decisively, and act like a businessman, not some spoiled, petulant superstar athlete/artist (that "statement" he released, probably through David Falk, accomplished nothing).

"They treated him like a player," said Kenny the Sage on TNT.

Revenge is a dish best served during the NBA Finals. What Jordan should do is find out where Paul Silas will be staying in Sacramento, and call him up. Silas is the best coach not currently employed in the NBA. Don Nelson, the Dallas head coach, in a shrewd preemptive strike, has brought Silas in as an "observer" or as a "consultant" with the Mavs. This came after Paul Silas was inexplicably fired by inexplicable Hornets owner George Shinn. Paul Silas is known to work wonders with teams, particularly with big men, having made the Hornets a threat team, and having turned center Jamal Magliore into one of hidden gems in the NBA. He has the respect of Baron Davis, which is more than, say, Jeff Van Gundy or Tim Floyd can claim at this point. By bringing in Silas, Nelson, by happy coincidence, obviously doesn't have to worry about coaching against him, although it is true Nellie and Silas were once teammates on the Celtics, and Silas won't mind the checks continuing to come in, although decidedly smaller.

Michael Jordan
... very much like our friend Michael Jordan.
Jordan can make a better offer than that. He can say, "Look Paul, I know I screwed up my spot big-time in Washington, but I can get in with Charlotte as team president and director of basketball ops. I also can and will buy a piece. Bob Johnson won't give me a piece, like Ted Leonsis did. It was sort of found money for Ted anyway, with that stupid AOL windfall from Time-Warner. Yes, I should've recognized and appreciated the value of that piece. Live and learn. Bob Johnson has the first nickel he ever made. I'll have to buy my way back in. Cool. I know now what David Falk should've told me. Too much pride. So I turned down a big settlement from Abe, which I could've used to buy a piece of Charlotte. Good for Abe. I'll visit him soon. But I also know Eddie Tapscott well, and he's running the new shop down in Charlotte right now, but Eddie is a devotee of Red Holzman, who believed that, win or lose, you go home, have a tumbler of scotch and forget it. Eddie will be flexible with us. We'll make him an offer he can't refuse. I think ... Know ... Bob Johnson and I can cut a deal. I will do it only if you're part of my package as our coach, with a nice fat five-year contract and my backing and blessing. What do you say?" Silas has got to hear that.

Will Jordan do this? I don't know. Probably not. Michael Jordan doesn't do anything anybody else suggests. That always worked for him on the court. That's what's been killing him off of it.

I hope Michel Jordan won't continue to be the Babe Ruth of basketball. As Ruth could've told him, it ends kind of ugly.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."