Michael Jordan — exposed to the max

The last in Michael Leahy’s series on Michael Jordan’s season with the Washington Wizards is a humdinger. The series appeared in the Washington Post’s Style section and you can access all the earlier stories from the link provided above.

In this story, Leahy provides pretty strong evidence to show that the Wizards violated NBA rules to keep practices closed so they could cover up Jordan’s injury. He also shows how because he was injured, Jordan rarely practiced and the Wizards, consequently, rarely had a full scrimmage where they could, presumably, learn how to play with Jordan and improve as a team. Further, Leahy provides several examples of how Jordan distanced himself from his young teammates and humiliated them in many of his cutthroat gambling games.

Does that mean that the comeback was a bad idea and actually made the Wizards worse in the long run? I don’t think so, when you consider how much money Jordan made the Wizards and the NBA even in the aborted season he played. Sure, he worsened the Wizards draft spot, but he brought excitement to Washington basketball that hadn’t been seen since the late 1970s. Sure, there will be a dropoff of interest once Jordan retires (that’s assuming he returns next season), and it just may be that the the young punks didn’t learn much or get better playing with Jordan.

But that excitement will carry over into whomever takes over when Jordan’s gone, and that money will come in handy on the free agent market.

The Washington City Paper’s Erik Wemple writes that Leahy’s breaking this story is a perfect example of how the Post’s sportswriters, and sportswriters generally, suck up to big stars. Well, yes and no. It is obviously true that Michael Wilbon, in particular, has long been an uncritical fan of Jordan’s. And there are certain points when it’s in the interest of a sportswriter to be an adoring fan, especially when it comes to possible book deals — as Wilbon almost landed with Jordan. Why do you think the Tribune’s Bob Greene was picked to co-write a book with Jordan, and not Sam Smith?

But there are other factors here. Leahy had the luxury of not having to file stories every day or several times a week, as a beat writer or columnist does. Leahy had the luxury of time. He also didn’t need to stay on anybody’s good side. Jordan was the only story he was covering, and once he was done with this series he’d probably never write about the man or the team again. He could afford to burn bridges in order to expose the truth. You expect a daily stream of information from beat writers, and if they’re lucky they might break a big story, but it’s not a big secret that beat writers have a symbiotic relationship with their sources.

One cannot afford to piss off the other. The source has to give a certain amount of time to the writer and at least humor him, but the beat writer in turn must pick and choose what’s really crucial to write about. Is it worth writing that Jordan can be a prick toward his teammates when it means you won’t get another quote from him all year as the Wizards beat writer?

That’s precisely why you assign people like Leahy the job. That’s why newspapers and TV stations have investigative teams. They are given the resources (time and money) and the protection to expose what doesn’t get reported every day. That doesn’t mean the beat writer or columnist is falling down on the job. It just means that their job is different. Journalists understand that, and so do intelligent news consumers, I think. We don’t expect Peter Jennings to play exactly the same role as Bob Woodward.