PITTSBURGH–We’ve seen that look from Eddie Jordan before.
On an in-bound play, his team turns the ball over, which leads to two easy points in transition for the opposition. Jordan runs his fingers through his hair and looks away in displeasure, signaling to the referee for a timeout.
The game may appear to be the same, but the location isn’t. This isn’t an arena crowded with 20,000 spectators, something that Jordan would be used to after nine seasons as an NBA head coach.
Instead, he is in a middle school gym in suburban Pittsburgh, coaching in front of about twenty college coaches and, by a rough estimate, 100 parents and evaluators.
Jordan is now the coach of the D.C. Assault 17U team, a prominent AAU program from Washington D.C., that has churned out talent like Michael Beasley of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Nolan Smith of the Portland Trailblazers.
He called that timeout to settle his team down. It worked. They regrouped and went on to win, 62-37, in the first round of the Hoop Group Pitt Jam Fest.
But this story isn’t about Eddie Jordan hitting some sort of metaphorical “bottom.” If it were, there would be no story to tell, because this is not the bottom. This, for Jordan, is the top.
“It took me this long to get me where I really wanted to be,” he told NBCSports.com. “Frankly, I wanted to coach middle school and high school kids. I was raised in southeast Washington D.C. It was a tough environment.
“I saw what my high school and middle school coach did and said, ‘This is what you can do to affect kids and make a difference and change kids’ lives.’”
Jordan, 57, was the head coach of three NBA teams in his nine-year career, and was also an assistant on the New Jersey Nets teams that reached the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003.
He was fired from the Philadelphia 76ers in 2010 after just one season, finishing with a record of 27-55. But that is where the path, unconventional as it may seem, led back to his roots in Washington D.C.
He took a position as the freshman basketball coach at his alma mater, Archbishop Carroll High School (D.C.), after leaving the 76ers, where he was approached by Curtis Malone, an acquaintance who helps to run the D.C. Assault program.
Malone invited Jordan to work out with the team this past fall, and which led to Jordan taking over as coach this spring.
“There’s no one second-guessing you here. It’s pure basketball,” says Jordan with a genuine sense of sincerity. “I’m not getting paid. You want to enjoy what you’re doing. It was just basketball, working with kids. Most of them are Division I recruits, so it’s terrific.”
At the center of his program is point guard Nate Britt, a 2013 prospect committed to play for coach Roy Williams at North Carolina.
Britt is an intelligent basketball player who, when not playing for D.C. Assault, is the point man at Gonzaga (D.C.), one of the strongest programs in the D.C.-area conference, the WCAC.
As an elite-level guard, Britt says he is focused on what Jordan brings to the floor.
“He’s teaching me a lot about how to play, how to bring intensity all the time,” he says. “Just from him being an NBA coach, I’m learning a lot from him because he shows us how the NBA guys carry themselves and have that killer instinct every night.
“He’s a really nice guy. For him to come down from the NBA and teach kids at this level, I think it’s great.”
Britt’s father, Nate Sr., has coached D.C. Assault previously and Jordan credits the younger Britt’s development to his father’s guidance.
As Jordan returns to this grassroots level, it allows him to get involved as players emerge into the national spotlight for the first time.
Part of that spotlight is dealing with the media, with which Jordan has extensive experience from his time in the NBA. But instead of emphasizing it, Jordan prefers to focus on the court.
“I didn’t really talk about media. I talk about how to be a good teammate,” Jordan recounts. “How to respond to coaching. They’re so innocent and willing to listen, it’s a pleasure to coach them.”
Away from the national media spotlight, as he is in a middle school gym outside Pittsburgh, Jordan speaks in a way that projects contentment and a sense of pleasure with what he is doing.
D.C. Assault was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 2012 Pitt Jam Fest, but not before a strong performance from Britt and 2013 forward Kris Jenkins.
The 6-5, 230-pound Jenkins is currently drawing interest from schools that include Rutgers, Virginia Tech, Miami, and Villanova. He, too, is drawing off of Jordan’s presence with the Assault program.
“To have somebody who played and coached at that level is great,” says Jenkins. “He has knowledge and is a great teacher.”
But where will Jordan go from here, no that he has reached the job that he initially set out for?
“I’ve made a great living at the college level and in the NBA and I don’t want to retire,” he says. “I think I could coach another 8 to 10 years in the big leagues, but if it comes it comes.
“At this level, they’re talented, they’re respectful. There’s not the other drama you have to deal with. That’s how basketball was years ago.”
It might sound overly idyllic at first, but that’s not how it comes off when Jordan says it. Instead, it is decidedly humanizing, something that i at times lost or unseen at the professional level.
After more than a decade at the highest level, he recounted the one moment that sticks out most in his mind.
“My players invited me to their basketball banquet at Archbishop Carroll,” he says. “They gave me a book and essays they wrote about me. This is the most they could give and it was from their heart. It’s better than any ring or trophy.”
A chance could arise, hypothetically, for Jordan to return to the NBA, but don’t be so sure that he’d jump at just any offer. It might be too difficult to pull him away from grassroots.
“I didn’t want to sit around and wait for someone to hire me. I love basketball. I love teaching it,” he says. “And, here, I’m having a ball.”
Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_