Just last month, when Michael Jordan walked off the court forever, Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin paid him the usual greatest-player-ever tribute. But last week he told Jordan he wasn't welcome back as president of basketball operations, the job he'd held before returning to play in 2001. Jordan released a statement saying he was "shocked." Everybody else was shocked that he was shocked.

Jordan had a rocky time with the Wizards. He never helped them to the playoffs, and he openly criticized the very players he'd handpicked. "Most of the real new guys like Kwame [Brown] just melted because of the way Michael raked us out," says one Wizard. "The rest of us just passed him the ball and got out of his way. Him going upstairs wasn't going to make that much difference--he'd have found a way to f--- with us from there."

Jordan's friend Charles Barkley, the NBA star turned announcer, admits Jordan mishandled players, particularly Brown. "He was way too hard on that kid. But M. didn't deserve this." And Lakers coach Phil Jackson, who coached him in Chicago, points out that Jordan turned the team around financially (from $40 million in the red to $30 million in the black). "Obviously, I don't know the entire situation," Jackson says, "but it seems like a raw deal. He put people in the seats at the MCI Center, and that's no small feat."

But it wasn't enough for Pollin, or Wizards president Susan O'Malley. "They butted heads," says a longtime Jordan friend. "And Michael didn't back down. Which might not have been the best way to play the game. Who Michael is or was didn't matter to them." The Jordan camp believes Wizards management leaked information for a damaging story that appeared in The New York Times--reporting, among other things, that his teammates refused to chip in for a going-away gift. Neither the Wizards nor Jordan would comment.

So what now? Jordan might hook up with the new Charlotte expansion team--please, not as a player--owned by his friend Robert Johnson, founder of Black Entertainment Television. But would you hire a guy whose last colleagues wouldn't buy him so much as a set of golf clubs, even after he engineered a $70 million turn-around? Then again, how could you not--if only so you can tell the stories afterward?

The Years of Living Airily

A quick tour of Jordan's brilliant (and bewildering) career

1985: Named Rookie of the Year after averaging 28.2 points per game with the Chicago Bulls

1988: Wins the first of five NBA MVP awards, averaging a career-high 35 points per game

1993-95: Misses most of two seasons playing baseball with Chicago White Sox farm team

1998: Hits winning shot in final seconds of final Bulls game to take home another championship--and retires

2000: Becomes president of basketball operations with the Washington Wizards

2001: Resumes playing with the Wizards; despite injuries, averages 22.9 points per game

2003: Retires for the last time without helping the Wizards to the playoffs--and is dismissed from his executive position