Everbody Beats the WIZARDS: A Magic Touch Is Needed to Turn around D.C.'S Chronic NBA Losers and Placate Their Disgusted `Fans.' the Problem Is Wh

By Cohn, Bob | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 19, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Everbody Beats the WIZARDS: A Magic Touch Is Needed to Turn around D.C.'S Chronic NBA Losers and Placate Their Disgusted `Fans.' the Problem Is Wh


Cohn, Bob, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Before his team played the Washington Wizards on Tuesday, Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan stood outside the visitors' dressing room at MCI Center and tried to explain why, other than having future Hall of Famers Karl Malone and John Stockton, his teams have been grindingly, consistently successful through the years.

Malone, perhaps the best power forward ever, and Stockton, the quintessential playmaker, are the obvious reasons. But it's more than that. Rigorously avoiding anything self-serving, Sloan, whose Jazz teams have made the playoffs in each of his 11 seasons, talked mainly about the importance of having players who know how to play basketball; players who are smart, tough and unselfish and who are committed to winning.

For example, Malone, the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player, worked out for two hours on the off day between games after arriving from Toronto. Maybe that's why he's still a force at 36.

"For the most part over the last few years, we've had just about everybody step on the floor and play hard," Sloan said. "I like to win. People sell that game of wanting to win a lot, but I haven't seen a lot of guys willing to pay the price. And that's the difference. It should be explained when guys say, `Hey, I really want to win.' How bad do you want to win?"

How bad, indeed? Just moments after Sloan said this and about 40 minutes before tipoff - during the time players are warming up or watching tape or preparing for their opponent or generally immersing themselves in the basketball environment where they earn their living, Wizards point guard Rod Strickland showed up for the game.

Strickland put up good numbers - he usually does - but the Wizards collapsed in the second half and lost 101-80. The atmosphere inside the 2-year-old arena, such as it was, varied from somnambulistic to surly. The biggest cheer came when two people dressed as Santa and an elf hurled T-shirts into a crowd announced as 13,921.

But the actual attendance was much less in the 20,674-seat building, with many disguised as fans who didn't seem to care very much. The Wizards' attendance ranks 25th in the 29-team league.

As the game slipped away, the boos began. Again. Few teams, if any, are as earnestly booed at home as the Wizards, creating a palpable home court disadvantage. Of course, when you're one of the worst teams in the league, winning is difficult under the most favorable conditions. And this doesn't help.

"It seems like we're a road team when we come home," said Gar Heard, the first-year coach. "We play better on the road than we do at home. We have to find an answer."

As if to prove Heard correct, the Wizards beat New York 95-83 yesterday at Madison Square Garden, ending the Knicks' five-game winning streak.

Guard Mitch Richmond, who played on some bad Sacramento teams before coming here in a trade last year, said he noticed as a visitor that much of the crowd cheered for the Wizards' opponents. Now he sees it from another perspective, and it's somewhat disconcerting.

"I really didn't know how bad it was," he said. "Now I do."

Then there was this from a cheerleader to a colleague after the game: "This job is not easy."

Neither is Heard's. Following the loss against the Jazz, he criticized his team's effort. It was not the first time he had done that. He also essentially questioned the players' collective manhood, using the dreaded S-word - soft. Heard, who survived 11 years as a player mainly because of a tough, defense-minded approach, said the Wizards lacked aggressiveness.

This didn't sit well with the players, notably Strickland and forward Juwan Howard, both of whom showed more fire and emotion reacting to Heard's words than they had during the game.

Howard, who along with Richmond and Strickland forms the foundation upon which this team is built, went three quarters without a rebound and finished with one.

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