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How Michael Jordan Revived DC & the NBA with Wizards Comeback

Last Updated: February 1, 2024
In the second chapter of our three-part oral history on MJ’s rise from MVP to owner, Boardroom dives deep into Jordan’s economically explosive first season playing for the Wizards.

In the summer of 2001, all eyes were on Kwame Brown, the first high school prospect ever to be selected first overall in the NBA Draft.

Across the Association and around DC, fans had high hopes for the teen talent taken by the struggling Washington Wizards.

While the world knew Kwame would be playing for Michael Jordan, only a handful of insiders knew he’d be playing with Michael Jordan.

“The hope around the team was so palpable,” Rachel Nichols told Boardroom. “DC is a city that is just waiting for basketball success.”

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Playing private pickup games with Jamal Crawford and Antoine Walker in front of Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Michael Jordan’s covert comeback to the NBA was taking place behind the scenes at Hoops Chicago.

Ahead of the 2001-02 NBA season, the newly-named Wizards president of basketball operations and part owner was about to take on another title: starting shooting guard.

Over the last three years, Boardroom has spoken to teammates, peers, and analysts who were in the mix during Jordan’s DC days.

In Part 2 of Boardroom’s three-part oral history of MJ’s rise from MVP to owner, we dive deep into the two seasons Jordan suited up in a jersey for the Wizards.

While the Iron Man endurance and SportsCenter highlights are well known, the backstory behind the announcement and the civic explosion in downtown DC are lesser known.

Editor’s note: Interviews may have been edited for length or clarity.

I’m Back — Again

Silently, in the summer of 2001, Michael Jordan was working daily with basketball’s best to turn back the clock.

38 years of age and already out of the NBA for three whole seasons, MJ hit the gym hard with famed trainer Tim Grover and an incredibly competitive cast of All-Star starters, rising rookies, and revered veterans.

Michael Jordan Wizards
Luke Frazza / AFP via Getty Images

While word traveled fast, even in the era before social media, no one truly knew his Washington Wizards comeback would be official until it came out of the GOAT’s mouth.

The table was set to address the press until disaster struck.

Darren Rovell (Emmy Award-winning analyst, Sports Business Reporter): Jordan was supposed to come back on Sept. 11. I remember the day because I did a piece on the Business of Michael Jordan. I was in New York that day.

Michael Wilbon (Award-winning Journalist, ESPN analyst): It was gonna be 9/11. I wasn’t in town, but I remember him calling me and saying, “Hey, you know I can’t do this now. It’s gotta wait, and we’ve gotta push this back. We’ve gotta wait until it’s the appropriate time.”

Pivoting in respect to the tragedy, MJ announced his official comeback on Oct. 1, 2001.

Inspired by Mario Lemieux, Jordan addressed the media at the MCI Center, discussing how his pick-up play during the summer secured his confidence that he could compete at this level.

“I’m gonna have total confidence once I step on the basketball court that I can do all the things that I’m capable of doing,” Jordan told the press.

“Mentally, in terms of playing the game at the highest level? I’m going to be totally confident,” Jordan said.

Famously, Michael Jordan played his last season in Chicago for a then-record-setting single-season salary of $33.1 million.

Respectfully, he took a playing pay cut all the way down to just over $1 million a year to suit up in DC.

All of his playing salary was donated to 9/11 relief.

On the court, MJ was set up to make less money in base playing salary than he had since 1988. Off the court, he was winning regarding endorsements and the value he was building in DC.

The NBA, the nation, and the nation’s capital were all winning and cashing in the same.

Wilbon: There was a delay, not only because of what happened but because he last signed a contract where he did not sign the group licensing agreement.

You couldn’t put him in video games, so they had to figure that out, and that’s why he couldn’t come back immediately.

Rovell: He had partners that could activate him again, like Hanes and Gatorade. Obviously, it’s harder to activate an athlete that’s not active and it allowed him to redo deals.

He signed Gatorade in 1991, so it allowed him to redo long-term deals. He wouldn’t sign a deal that was less than 10 years, so it created long-term deals.

If you wanted him, you had to sign him to a big deal. It extended his endorsement life for sure.

Rachel Nichols (Award-winning Journalist, Host of Headliners): The hope around the team was so palpable. DC is a city that is just waiting for basketball success. This is a city that is so primed to love and support an NBA team culturally.

People were so eager to have a team worthy of their love and affection for the game. Every game was sold out.

As soon as he returned to play they threw Washington on the national television schedule after barely being there.

Brendan Haywood (NBA champion, UNC All-American, NBA TV analyst): I got drafted by the Cavaliers, traded to Orlando, and went through summer league with the Magic. Grant Hill was on the Magic and let me know if I needed a car or anything, he had me taken care of.

The next thing I know, I get this call: “Yo, you’re traded to DC. You’re gonna get a chance to play with Michael Jordan.”

I had my heart set on Orlando, but I’m about to play with Michael Jordan? That was surreal because, as a kid, I grew up watching him, and now I’m getting a chance to play with the best of all time.

The training camp was in Wilmington.

Wilbon: I remember going, “Oh my God, I gotta be in Wilmington!”

While Washington, DC, was quickly becoming the center of the NBA universe, Wilmington, NC, was the first stop on the comeback tour.

Taking the team partially owned to his hometown of less than 100,000 residents, the city swelled as media from around the country and the world descended on coastal North Carolina.

Michael Jordan Wizards
Tim Sloan / AFP via Getty Images

Whether from Paris or Tokyo, New York or LA, everyone with a mic, camera, or recorder everyone was willing to trek to Wilmington to see what Michael Jordan’s new-look Wizards were all about.

Media vets and NBA rookies soon found out.

Haywood: From Day 1 at training camp, he was ratcheting it up a level. Back then? Training camp was different; you really played.

It was a lot of scrimmaging, and Mike wanted to win everything — and he was talking to you while he was winning everything. You wanted to win because he was talking. “It’s going to be like this all day!”

In Doug Collins’ scrimmages, if you lose, you’ve got to run. So not only is Mike talking to you during scrimmages but while you’re running suicides? “Better get your track shoes on! You’re gonna be running every scrimmage if you’re not on my team.”

That’s just Mike. The competitiveness stood out from Day 1. I’ve never been around anyone that competitive at everything.

Michael Jordan Wizards
Photo via Getty Images

In Wilmington, the teammates and the media were feeling the fire from MJ.

Back in DC and around the NBA, fans and peers felt the same rush.

Nichols: The fact that Michael Jordan, of all people, was going to be a part of it? It was intoxicating.

Kevin Garnett (NBA champion, Hall of Famer, Host of KG Certified): When he came back? I wasn’t shocked, but I knew it would make the league hot. The Mike effect is a real effect.

It was great for the league because I think he wanted to see where he aligned with some of the younger stars. I thought it was great.

Haywood: The thing that stands out most to me is the practices. Seeing his approach to practice every day? I remember calling one of my friends and saying, “I see why he’s the greatest. He puts so much into this that when he gets on the court? He’s made the play a thousand times in practice.”

Nichols: To a fan, Michael Jordan was literal magic appearing on your court. The fact that he was going to do that in Washington, DC, was mind-blowing.

As media members from all over the world applied for training camp credentials, fans from DC and beyond bought tickets at an unruly rate.

Leaks of a possible MJ comeback had fans lining up at the box office in DC a day before tickets went on sale.

Keep in mind: The Wizards won only 19 games the previous season.

Michael Jordan Wizards
Tim Sloan / AFP via Getty Images

Around the NBA, road games against Washington sold out rapidly.

Commissioner David Stern phoned Lakers coach Phil Jackson to let him know he’d be skipping Ring Night at Staples Center to catch MJ’s Wizards debut in Madison Square Garden.

Rovell: I was in Chicago in ’96, ’97, and ’98, so I know how hard it was to get a ticket. The Wizards provided an opportunity that was a little easier.

The cost of the Wizards on the road would be similar to a ticket to see the best team in basketball just to see Jordan alone. And people really believed it’d be the last time they’d see him.

Nichols: It had a huge effect the entire time he played for them. Even when they were losing, even when his knee hurt, even when he was on the bench. People were devoted to being in the same room he was.

Michael Jordan Wizards
Mike Theiler / AFP via Getty Images

Haywood: The expectations were crazy. Even though we were a young team and just had the No. 1 pick … but just because Mike was there, people automatically thought we were going to be a playoff team.

The expectations off the jump were this is going to be a playoff team because we had Michael Jordan.

Every game was a movie. Games sold out. For me, I’m from Carolina, where all our games are sold out! But the guys from last year were like, “Nah, this ain’t how it used to be. You used to be able to walk down and sit courtside.”

Now, we’ve got nationally televised games. The Wizards were never on TV before that. Now, the games are not just sold out at home but on the road. It’s insane.

The Crowned Hero Live From Ground Zero

As alluded to, that first road game was the NBA season opener: Michael Jordan’s Washington Wizards against the New York Knicks in MSG.

Appearing at the New York Stock Exchange that morning and bowing for that night’s National Anthem with the American flag in his hands, emotions, and stakes were high for all involved.

Michael Jordan Wizards
Doug Kanter / AFP via Getty Images

The nationally televised outing was taking place just miles from where the World Trade Center was struck only weeks prior, with members of the US military and NYFD on court.

Among those in attendance were Stern, Spike Lee, Chris Rock, and countless other A-list attendees. Mike led the lowly Wizards in scoring, losing by a single basket to the loaded Knicks.

Though the momentum mounted on that emotional opening night, it toured the country for two years straight.

Metta Sandiford-Artest (NBA champion, NBA Defensive Player of the Year): His first year back, he played very well. He gave us 40 one day.

Garnett: He came back like cooked coke.

Sam Cassell (NBA champion, Boston Celtics assistant coach): We were trying to beat him! Michael Jordan beat you so much with the Bulls that if we got any opportunity to beat him? I don’t care who he was playing for. You still tried to beat him because he was so competitive.

Haywood: Competitive, competitive, competitive. The first thing you get is that Mike is so competitive.

Quentin Richardson (NBA veteran, Jordan Brand ambassador, Knuckleheads co-host): For me, when he came back was another dream fulfilled. I had played against him since my freshman year of college and had played against him a million times, but this was my chance to play against him on an NBA court.

Garnett: That motherfucker took that shit personally. He came out one time and shot that motherfucker so high that I jumped and was like, “Man, I can’t even get that.” He was talking crazy.

Paul Pierce (NBA champion, Hall of Famer, co-host of KG Certified): He still was giving buckets to the young kids.

Cassell: He was a bad boy. He was special.

Pierce: He was in his 40s, averaging 23 [points per game]. Mike gave me 32. I had to go back at Mike.

Artest: I was always trying to lock up Mike because I idolized him, which was really hard to do.

Garnett: I had to guard that motherfucker, and he gave us 40. And I got like 38 of that shit! He was two-dribbling, and Flip Saunders was like, “You’re the only one that can guard him.” I wasn’t tripping.

But Mike? He was like, “Too slow, ho!” They weren’t even in the triangle, and he was making it up as he was doing it.

Richardson: It was just another confirmation that he’s still a killer. He gave you glimpses all year, whether it was 50 or a game-winner.

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As alluded to, 50 points — or rather 51 — happened that first year back.

In December 2001, the Wizards were in the midst of a nine-game winning streak — the longest stretch of consecutive wins since they won it all as the Bullets back in 1979.

Sure enough, the Charlotte Hornets came into DC to snap it before they could hit ten in a row. The next night, the Indiana Pacers came to town to play spoiler, beating MJ in his own house by 27 points.

To make matters worse? Mike only scored six points — the first time ending in single digits since 1986.

Quickly, the press started to ask if the wheels were falling off.

Even faster, he answered, exploding for a season-high 51 points against the Hornets.

Baron Davis (2x NBA All-Star, Tech & Media Entrepreneur): It happened so fast. He had like 14 points in the first two minutes. He had like 25 in the first quarter.

You just fall in the trance of watching your teammate in a one-on-one battle with Michael Jordan. It’s like, “Damn, dude, that’s what it looks like!”

The coach calls a timeout and asks why you’re not helping, and it’s like, “Damn, dog that’s Michael Jordan!” I’m just sitting here watching! And then the same thing happened to me.

I finally got to see it and really get it. He was older then, but he just had a crazy ass motor. He knew how to score and get to his money.

The next month, the old man started the new year with the same game.

Playing his old franchise, the Chicago Bulls, for the first time as an opponent, Michael Jordan made history not once but twice.

Michael Jordan Wizards
Paul J. Richards / AFP via Getty Images

Artest: He hit his 30,000th point against me. I’m really prideful on defense, and I’m like, “Damn, I’m about to be on a photo for the rest of my life with MJ getting 30,000 points on me.”

So I fouled him, and before he even shot the free throw, I punched the scorer’s table.

I was pissed, and it made a loud sound. I see MJ look at me because the sound was loud, and I’m like, “Oh shit, you just embarrassed yourself.”

The accolade was important, but a win mattered more.

Still fighting for seeding, the Wizards needed a W, and the Bulls were bottom of the barrel.

With 24 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a tight game, MJ went to his bread-and-butter midrange fadeaway.

All the sessions at Hoops Chicago paid off for a young Ron Artest as he blocked what would’ve been a big bucket.

In the blink of an eye, a bigger block happened.

Haywood: That Ron Mercer play always sticks with me. You’re almost 40 years old, and you hustle like that? Mike had got a shot blocked, and it had him ticked.

He catches Ron Mercer’s shot against the glass with two hands.

Most people would be over the moon over that type of play, but he expected to do that.

If you pan to the bench, we’re all over there going crazy. But that’s just Mike being Mike.

Artest: Mike was a great defender. Mike might be [one of the] top two wing defenders of all time.

That’s what really inspired me. I watched Mike’s defense more than his offense. I’d watch Mike’s feet and how he denied the post. Mike locked a lot of people up.

The Wizards won, with MJ’s two-handed snatch block making the rounds on SportsCenter even more than his 30,000th point.

He defeated his old team and put the league on notice. The MCI Center was the new home of Michael Jordan, no longer just selling out but having fans on the edge of their seat.

Richardson: I remember seeing it, then I would just laugh. It was ridiculous, and he even looked at him. This was just another instance of showing it.

It was Mike, that’s the GOAT and that’s just what he does. It was sick.

Haywood: This is when I knew Michael Jordan was a next-level superstar. After the games, I’d see the stars I just played against lined up outside the locker room with gear to get signed like fans.

That’s crazy to me because you weren’t used to seeing that aspect of the game.

You were just competing, and now you’re waiting outside to get some shoes signed? This was before the jersey swap stuff; this was not done in 2001.

Doing Numbers

Michael Jordan Wizards
G Fiume / Getty Images

From 2001 to 2003, fans across the nation were swapping cold, hard cash for Michael Jordan jerseys.

In MJ’s second season in DC, his No. 23 Wizards jersey was the fourth highest-selling tank top across the Association, bested by only Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and Tracy McGrady.

Around Washington, DC, No. 23 was still No. 1.

Nyrik Lee (Former Wizards intern, Marketing Director at The Museum DC): It was booming. At the time, I worked at Head to Head Sports. There were about eight or nine of them in the area, and I worked with a guy named Kyle Kemp, who was the owner, and I was his manager at the busiest location.

I saw firsthand the amount of jerseys sold. When they did that Bullets one? We sold so much Wizards apparel — period.

When MJ previously retired in 1999, it was said that the NBA made 20% of its revenue from licensing fees.

Ahead of his 1984 NBA arrival, the league made roughly $44 million off of merchandise. By the time MJ won his first ring, that number hit $1.56 billion.

By the time Mike won his fourth, fifth, and sixth rings, that number eclipsed $3 billion annually.

Make no mistake, the 2002 Wizards were not the 1996 Bulls.

However, for two straight seasons, the Michael Jordan effect made NBA merchandise sales go crazy, helping the league revenue from apparel come closer to the days of Jordan’s dominance.

The league won with more exposure and sales worldwide. Locally, it made the Wizards bankable back at home base.

Lee: Jordan made the merchandise an easy sale to the point where if we didn’t have Mike, they’d buy anybody on the team. I remember selling a Laron Profit jersey. Whoever was on the mob that we had? They were buying it.

The Bullets and Wizards Mike jersey was damn near impossible to keep on the shelves. We sold a lot of Wizards products around that time.

That Bullets authentic Michael Jordan jersey was one of the hottest and hardest things to get your hands on. People started bootlegging it because they only did it for one year, and everybody couldn’t get it.

The swingmans were selling out, the authentics were selling out, and the replicas were selling out.

Capital Investment

If you are judging by the final standings, the 2001-02 Washington Wizards were not a success.

Despite All-Star play from Jordan, the team finished below .500 and missed the playoffs.

Michael Jordan Wizards
Downtown DC Exteriors of the new MCI Center in 1997. (Gerald Martineau / The The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Inside the MCI Center, the team still sold out all 41 home games.

Just outside of the MCI Center, the Jordan effect proved even stronger than tickets, jerseys, and popcorn sales.

Cassell: That arena was packed every night. Downtown DC? The businesses, the restaurants, and the nightlife were better because Jordan was there.

Wilbon: I was writing for the Washington Post then and had broken the story that he was coming to DC. The MCI Arena was only a few years old, and it was the centerpiece of downtown DC’s civic renovation.

Lee: It developed everything around there. They had just got into the MCI Center in 1998. I was at the first game, but when Mike comes some years later? His presence had all types of restaurants opening out there.

Wilbon: It was a scene and largely because the Wizards mattered. That whole 7th Street area changed dramatically overnight.

Downtown Washington is now terrific. But anybody who thinks that didn’t start with Michael coming there doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Lee: It made Chinatown in DC a thing. It made the local economy jump. Ticket sales? Every night was a sellout because everybody was trying to see Mike. It boomed everything.

Michael Jordan Wizards
Lunchtime in Chinatown circa 2002. (Photo via Getty Images)

When Michael Jordan officially arrived in DC as a part owner in 2000, the city had just begun its $300 million economic development plan, the 2000 DC Downtown Action Agenda.

By the time MJ was in DC as a player, the locale was on the up-and-up regarding resources but still without a main attraction.

For 82 nights in two years, every restaurant ate off the Jordan and the Wizards selling out games.

Wilbon: Downtown DC was nothing, and it couldn’t have been planned that way when they built the arena because nobody knew he was coming. Downtown DC was sleepy.

There was no retail, there was no shopping, it wasn’t happening. That kicked it off.

People came to downtown DC because of Michael Freaking Jordan.

For every off night in that two-year window, various bars, nightclubs, and restaurants earned traffic just off the off chance of seeing Michael Jordan.

Lee: Any place that he frequented in his personal time? Their business quadrupled. There was no social media, but when word got out that Mike went somewhere, those businesses popped off crazy. It did really well for the economy here.

Wilbon: Zola’s was one of his spots, and I certainly had a few dinners there with him after games.

The restaurant scene was very provincial before then. It was driven by Howard, Georgetown, and the federal government. But people didn’t stay who worked in the federal government and go to dinner. That wasn’t the social way of Washington.

But Michael’s presence 41 times a year changed that. Instantly.

Michael Jordan Wizards
7th Street in Downtown DC (Bill O’Leary / The The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Haywood: I was a big video game guy. Mike was 40 years old; he wasn’t playing video games. A lot of times at the hotels, they were gambling, but I stayed away because my money wasn’t long enough. So, I didn’t really hang with him a lot outside of practice.

But me and Jared Jeffries? One time, we all went out, and Mike was with us. The music was playing at this club, and all the Wizards were there. Jared’s my guy, and we’re beside Jordan. The music’s playing, it’s popping, but the whole club is staring at Michael Jordan.

I see why this dude doesn’t go out like that. Everything’s popping, everybody’s dressed up, but everybody’s just staring at this guy.

After a while, he didn’t feel comfortable, so he ended up leaving. The pressure of being Michael Jordan must be crazy. I couldn’t imagine going up and the whole room just staring at me.

The wildest part was when he left, he didn’t pay his bill, so they thought me and Jared were going to pay it. [Laughs] I was like, “Y’all are crazy, we can’t afford that! You better call Mike and get him back here ’cause I ain’t paying that!”

Lee: He definitely was a sing-along type, not much dancing. When The Last Dance came out, and you see him pregaming to Kenny Lattimore, I knew firsthand that he was an R&B guy.

Me and my guy Greg used to do these R&B events called R&B Live DC. What I didn’t know was that MJ and Bob Johnson owned the venue we used to do them at. At one of our events, Mike, Bob, and Charles Oakley came to our event.

We didn’t know they were the landlords of the venue. We were promoting the event, so for us to have that on our resume? It was crazy.

Howard Hewett was the headliner, and the venue was called Posh. It was a business venture that Mike and Bob had together before the Bobcats. We had been doing the events for a year and got a call that Jordan was coming.

I came out to take a picture with Charles Oakley — because I know Mike doesn’t do pictures — and Charles was giving Mike hell, just joking on him. It was just us outside, and it was amazing.

Michael Jordan Wizards
Downtown Washington DC has undergone dramatic changes over the last 30 years. Chinatown is an example of an area that has exploded with new bars and restaurants because of the MCI Center next door, which was built in the mid-1990s (Image via Getty Images)

Before 2020, Washington DC’s nightlife economy was said to earn over $7 billion in annual revenue.

More than that, it provided nearly 65,000 jobs and spanned over 2,400 businesses.

A study by Jon Stover & Associates places the 20-year turn at the same time Michael Jordan became both a resident and an attraction.

Wilbon: I had lived in DC for 22 years by then. I was downtown every day because I worked there, and I’m from Chicago — I know what downtown ought to be!

Downtown DC was sleepy, but the energy that Michael brought to that? It was organic; the energy was created because he came.


Tune in on Friday for the final piece of Boardrom’s three-part oral history. If you missed Part 1, be sure to catch up here.

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