Ive always thought if I could coach at Rutgers, that would be my dream job… (Mel Evans/AP )
Eddie Jordan opened the blinds in his office on the second floor at Louis Brown Athletic Center, letting in some sunshine and giving him a view of the Rutgers campus he fell in love with 40 years ago.
He leaned back in his seat and told a joke he shared recently with some of his college friends: “I said, ‘I’m back at work. I was on vacation the last 20 years.’ ”
The past two decades, which Jordan spent in the NBA as a coach for the Washington Wizards, Sacramento Kings and Philadelphia 76ers and as an assistant for Sacramento, the New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, were far from an easy stroll. But his latest challenge — to restore respectability at scandal-marred Rutgers — is arguably the greatest and most personal of his coaching career.
Jordan first arrived at Rutgers as a player in 1973. He is now back after replacing Mike Rice, who was fired last month when video was released of him taunting, kicking and throwing basketballs at players during practice.
“It was embarrassing. It was horrible. It was shameful. Times a hundred,” Jordan said of his immediate reaction to seeing the video early last month, when he was still an assistant with the Lakers. “It was sort of like the basketball program was the centerpiece of shame for the entire school. The entire Rutgers community was shamed, and now it’s going to be the centerpiece going forward to regain the pride factor back, regain some national respect, and I’m glad to be the caretaker of that centerpiece. I’ve been in coaching all my life, and this is a challenge that you thrive for.”
Less than a month into his return, however, Jordan already has encountered his first minor controversy after Deadspin reported he never received his degree from Rutgers despite the school’s initial claims at his hiring. In a statement, Rutgers admitted it was “in error” when it said Jordan had graduated but explained that a baccalaureate degree is not required to be a head coach at the university or within the NCAA and that Jordan was hired because of his “remarkable public career.”
“His athletic skills and leadership and his professional accomplishments have been a source of pride for Rutgers for more than three decades,” the statement read, adding “we look forward to many winning seasons.”
‘My piece of heaven’
Jordan, a graduate of Carroll High in the District, earned the nickname “Fast Eddie” while playing at Rutgers, leading the Scarlet Knights to an undefeated regular season and their only Final Four appearance in 1976. He was so popular that when Edward Bloustein, then the president of the university, was introduced during a pep rally, fans chanted, “We want the other Eddie.”
“The president was a good guy, but basketball ruled at that time,” said Tom Young, who was Jordan’s coach at Rutgers and later was an assistant to Jordan with the Wizards.
The program, however, had fallen on hard times long before Rice’s dismissal. The Scarlet Knights haven’t been to the NCAA tournament since 1991, when Jordan was an assistant under Bob Wenzel. But Jordan didn’t hesitate when school leaders approached him about the job.
“My first words were: ‘Absolutely. I would like to come back. I’m ready to come back. I’m the right man for the job.’ And it went from there,” he said.
Jordan has maintained a residence in Princeton, N.J., since his time as an assistant with the Nets and lived there during offseasons, hosting family gatherings and barbecues.
“I always said, ‘This is my piece of heaven,’ ” Jordan said of New Jersey. “I love D.C. I don’t want people to get that wrong. But for the most part, I’ve always thought if I could coach at Rutgers, that would be my dream job and that would be the only college I would coach at.”
Jordan left Rutgers after four years on Wenzel’s staff to become an assistant in the NBA with Sacramento in 1992. He was promoted to coach five years later. The former football and basketball standout at Carroll later took over his hometown Wizards in 2003 and guided them to four consecutive playoff appearances, including their only series victory in the past 31 years, before being dismissed after a 1-10 start in 2008. The Wizards haven’t made the postseason since firing Jordan.
Between 2010, when Jordan was fired after one forgettable season as coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, and last fall, when he accepted a job as an assistant with the Lakers, Jordan said he “went underground.” He coached the eighth-grade team of his youngest son, Jackson, and the freshman team at Carroll. He also led the 17-and-under team of prominent AAU program D.C. Assault to a national title.
“I had so much fun. Probably the best year and a half of basketball in my life. It really was. Not probably, it was,” Jordan said. “Those three or four experiences were some of the greatest in my life basketball-wise.”