Eddie Jordan's consuming passion
The people wanted a white knight, an above-the-marquee name, a coach for the 76ers who'd ride into town on a fat paycheck, sparking interest among the uninterested. Instead, the people got Eddie Jordan.
The people wanted a white knight, an above-the-marquee name, a coach for the 76ers who'd ride into town on a fat paycheck, sparking interest among the uninterested - of which, unfortunately, there are many.
Instead, the people got Eddie Jordan.
Many seemed disheartened, skeptical. Some sounded downright angry.
This Jordan guy, what has he done, anyway? Get fired, twice? Accumulate more losses than wins? This is the coach who will take the Sixers from mediocre to contending?
Yes . . . No . . . Maybe . . .
We're months away from knowing, from watching the Jordan-coached Sixers, with his high-IQ motion offense, either dance or stumble down the Wachovia Center floor.
What we do know, what has been distributed ad nauseam, are the numbers - a 230-288 career record, five-plus seasons with the Washington Wizards, a four-year overlap with Sixers general manager Ed Stefanski with the New Jersey Nets. And the subsequent assessment of those numbers - Jordan is a career losing coach fired by the Sacramento Kings and Wizards, whom Stefanski hired because they're buddy-buddy from those Jersey days.
How easy it would be to tell the story of Jordan's inadequacies, of how he hasn't quite made it work - on either coast.
But that's not what those who know him said.
They all seem convinced Jordan is the guy. They sounded passionate, like they're defending their own ability to coach the 76ers, or like Jordan is the favored son, a guy who is watching film when he should be sleeping, then falling asleep mid-conversation, a player who, 30 years ago, played defense like today's players contemplate their next contract - constantly.
They also said Jordan is addicted to basketball. A few even sounded slightly worried, as if Jordan suffers from an affliction they narrowly escaped.
Fast Eddie, Steady Eddie
If we're to chart Jordan's basketball life, it would show Jordan creeping, one seat at a time, sometimes sliding back a seat - as we all do - from one end of the bench to the seat closest to the scorer's table, the one in which you wear a suit and tie and constantly spring to your feet, arguing, imploring, and pointing direction.
Jordan was born in 1955 in Washington. He played at Archbishop Carroll in the nation's capital, earning the nickname "Fast Eddie" because of his quickness as a point guard. He traveled north, to New Jersey, playing from 1973 to '77 for the best basketball teams in Rutgers University history, earning the nicknames "Steady Eddie," because you could always count on him, and "Monty," a shortening of his middle name, Montgomery.
A guy with so many nicknames is usually well-loved.
This seems to be the case.
Jordan played seven seasons in the NBA, won the 1982 NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers, and began his coaching career less than 24 hours - and one cross-country, red-eye flight - after playing his final NBA game. He was a voluntary assistant at his alma mater, a part-time assistant at Old Dominion, a full-time assistant at both Boston College and Rutgers.
In 1992, he moved to the NBA, signing as an assistant with the Kings under head coach Garry St. Jean. Midway through his fifth season with Sacramento, St. Jean was removed, Jordan inserted. A little more than one season, and a lot of losses, later, the Kings fired Jordan.
In March 1999, Jordan joined the Nets, where he served as lead assistant for a team that made back-to-back NBA Finals appearances. In the summer of '03, he became head coach in Washington, where he stayed five full seasons and made four playoff appearances before being fired 11 games - and 10 losses - into the 2008-09 season.
Those are the details, the line-by-line resume.
Jordan first thought about coaching when he was 13.
Southeast Washington, like most inner cities, was a hardscrabble environment. He went to school in its heart. In the ninth grade, which was still junior high in D.C., Jordan watched his basketball coach, John David, offer kids a team, a structure, an alternative, something other than the streets, which most of them knew too well.
"I saw the way they listened to him," Jordan said. "When I saw that, I said, 'This is more than basketball, this is changing peoples' lives.' He certainly saved a few of them. He certainly saved me."
While talking about those days, Jordan paused to answer what must have been his home phone. It was Stefanski, whom he calls 'Ski. Jordan promised to call 'Ski right back. "At that level," Jordan continued. "You could save kids' lives."
Steve Hocker, now executive director of D.C.'s Special Olympics, played basketball at Archbishop Carroll, then collegiately at St. Bonaventure. Hocker was a senior when Jordan was a sophomore.
The summer before Hocker left for college, he coached Jordan's summer league team.
"Here I am, a graduating senior coaching these young bucks, and Eddie listened to everything I had to offer," Hocker said. "He was so coachable. I always respected that about him. And he could defend. He wanted to defend. That was the big problem with the Wizards, none of those guys wanted to defend. People down here thought the Wizards were crazy for giving him his walking papers."
Tom Young, who coached Jordan at Rutgers, first saw Jordan play while coaching at American University. While there, Young invited Jordan, still in high school, to American's end-of-season banquet at the Washington D.C. Touchdown Club.
Jordan's invitation was plus-one. He brought his mother.
"In my career, it was the only time a guy brought his mother," Young said. "Guys brought girls. They brought buddies. But guys didn't bring their mothers. That said something about his respect and connection with his family."
When Young moved to Rutgers, he saved a scholarship for Jordan. During the 1975-76 season, which ended with the Scarlet Knights advancing to the Final Four, Rutgers played Penn and its guard Ed Stefanski at Madison Square Garden.
"I don't know how much Eddie even knew Stefanski at that time," Young said.
"It's not hard to tell when you're coaching a guy who understands the game and who immediately picks up on a play or picks up on a play and helps his teammates out running the play," Young said. "He was very capable of doing that from Day One. . . . I knew without a doubt he'd be a coach if he wanted to be."
For three seasons, Mike Dabney starred with Jordan in the Rutgers backcourt.
"I think he was unselfish," Dabney said. "He saw the whole court, and he made good decisions with the basketball. Once it was established that Eddie was going to be the point guard, there was no chance he wouldn't do it."
Years later, when Jordan was an assistant with the Kings, Dabney lived in Portland, Ore. When the Kings played the Trail Blazers, the two would meet up.
"We'd spend an hour together, at most, a quick lunch," Dabney said. "He wanted - needed - to get back to the hotel to watch game film."
Hollis Copeland was a forward on those Rutgers squads.
"In fairness to the players on those teams, we were all players in our own right, but Eddie was the quarterback," Copeland said. "And you don't mind having a player facilitating or distributing the ball when he had that command."
"He didn't get technical fouls," Copeland continued. "Those little things, those characteristics are what you look for in a coach. When to calm down, when to change the flow. I remember I watched him coach recently, and he does the same thing. He manipulates. He negotiates the moment."
Time to change
After seven NBA seasons, in the fall of 1984, in training camp with Portland, Jordan felt a step slow, tired, almost as if he had mononucleosis or some other sickness. The Blazers played back-to-back exhibition games against the Utah Jazz, both at altitude. Jordan was getting beat by Utah's young point guard. (Later, Jordan felt redeemed as that young guard, John Stockton, went on to greatness.)
Jordan called his college coach, Young, and said, "I think I've had enough." Young told him a volunteer position waited at Rutgers.
Jordan wrote a letter of resignation to Portland coach Jack Ramsay because, Jordan explained, when you resigned, teams couldn't call you for a year, and he didn't want the temptation.
"We flew into Portland from Utah. I wrote my letter. I sent it in, took a red-eye out of Portland to Newark, went right from Newark to a Rutgers practice," Jordan said. "This was November, I didn't miss a day. I played in the NBA one night, coached the next day."
"When he called, you're almost going to create a position because he's a good guy, and you want him around," Young said. "You can't get guys with that kind of ability in that position very often. And there he was, 24 hours later, on the floor."
The way Jordan tells it, he got his start in the NBA coaching ranks because St. Jean was looking for a minority assistant. St. Jean was friends with Bob Wenzel, whom Jordan had worked under during his second stint as a full-time assistant at Rutgers.
"Garry St. Jean had just got the Kings' job," Jordan said. "St. Jean called Bob. They were talking, and St. Jean said 'I've got to find a minority assistant to do the video.' The minority owner for the Kings . . . wanted a minority at the time."
Jordan talked with St. Jean two or three times via telephone. Then he moved to Sacramento. Five years later, new Kings general manager Geoff Petrie shocked Jordan.
"We flew back from L.A. We had lost to the Clippers," Jordan remembered. "We got in late, and as I was getting off the plane, Geoff stopped me and said, 'I want you to follow me to my house.' Maybe it's 2 a.m., and Geoff said, 'I want you to stay here tonight. We're making a change tomorrow.' I stayed in his house overnight, and I stayed up all night writing pages and pages of thoughts, eight, nine, 10 pages of notebook paper, 'What's my philosophy. What do I believe in?' "
While in Sacramento, Jordan worked closely with former Princeton head coach Pete Carril, the master of an intricate motion offense that had been dubbed the Princeton offense despite Carril's repeated attempts to explain he had incorporated much from the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks.
"If you're anywhere near Eddie, the conversation, somewhere along the line, will turn to basketball," Carril said. "He's really into the game. He's almost addicted to the game, really."
"Pete and I had spent a year or more talking about the offense," Jordan said. "I got it from the master himself. Not handed down. We spent hours, breakfasts, dinner, writing on napkins and paper."
Jordan said he loves this offense because it's movement. It's purity. It's not standing around watching one player try to "out-athletic" another.
"Once in a while he calls me," Carril said. "I spent a week with him in Washington last year, working on some stuff. We're good friends. What happened there in Sacramento is we developed a friendship. If he ever asked me to come to Philadelphia, I certainly would."
Despite being an assistant in New Jersey after his firing from Sacramento, the Nets ran Jordan's NBA-tailored Princeton offense. During that time, Stefanski was in New Jersey's front office, working as assistant general manager.
"The best thing for Eddie, I think, is Stefanski was with him in Jersey for two years," Young said. "They went to the NBA Finals. There is nobody in Philadelphia, and very few in the NBA, who know what Jordan can do on the floor like Stefanski does.
"Stefanski saw everything Eddie did. If Eddie was a typical assistant in New Jersey, Stefanski doesn't hire him."
Young spent four seasons as Jordan's assistant coach in Washington. "Eddie will watch film forever and ever," Young said. "I know a lot of coaches watch a lot of film, but very few will watch as much as Eddie. I worried about him like I would with anybody in that position. He would fall asleep watching film. He'd wake up and watch film. Most of the time, he'd wake up in the middle of the night and watch film. He falls asleep talking to more people because of that."
When the Wizards fired Jordan, they also fired his lead assistant, Mike O'Koren. The pair, who will again work together with the 76ers, first met while playing for the Nets in 1980.
O'Koren said last season's Wizards, from which they were fired after starting the season 1-10, were "behind the 8-ball from the beginning" because of injuries, although Wizards management said the team still had winning talent.
"I was interested to see if everyone was right - not everyone -- but the powers that be who were saying, 'We should be better. We have two all-stars. We have savvy veterans. We should be .500, a playoff team.' " Jordan said of those months after the firing. "I said 'Maybe they're right. Did I get stale? Did I lose my edge? Was I coaching the wrong way?' "
The Wizards finished the season 19-63.
"You're going to beat yourself up, and he certainly does," O'Koren said. "That's part of the reason he got this job, because you know he's going to put in his time."
Jordan and O'Koren were fired Nov. 24, a few days before Thanksgiving.
"The holidays were a cushion for me. I was around the kids," Jordan said. "After New Year's, when everyone went back to school, that's when it got bad. I'd take my kids to the bus stop, hang out at home, hang out with them, then watch games at night."
Finally, Jordan said, the weather broke - at least a little. He would set standards for himself, rationalizing that it was OK to go hit the links. "If it's 50 and not windy, I'm allowed to play."
Soon that became, "If it's 45 and not rainy, I can play," which then slipped to, "If it's 40 and it's not snowing, I can play," finally plummeting to "If the course is open, I can play."
"On the East Coast," Jordan said laughing, "winter golf is brutal."
One day during this basketball-less winter, O'Koren and Jordan met for a cup of coffee at a local mall.
They ordered then sat down.
"Right away, Eddie goes, 'Did you watch the Wizards' game?' " O'Koren remembered. "Eddie was going a little crazier than I was. Those head coaches, they're a different breed."