The reminders were everywhere — the nagging knee injury that eventually required surgery, the sight of his young Washington Wizards teammates John Wall and Bradley Beal zooming up and down the court and the uneven playing time that pitted his desire to be out on the floor versus his need to inject wisdom into his upstart team.
Al Harrington isn’t young anymore. Sixteen seasons have passed since the 34-year-old was picked fresh out of high school by the Indiana Pacers in the first round of the 1998 NBA Draft and his best years — ones that included a trip to the 2000 NBA Finals with the Indiana Pacers, seven different teams and a runner-up finish in the Sixth Man of the Year voting — are behind him.
Like any pro athlete, dealing with mortality is humbling and his first season with the Wizards yielded on-court results well below what both and he and the team had hoped for as a valuable stretch four when he was signed to a one-year deal last summer. But unlike many grizzled veterans, Harrington mostly handled the aging process with grace, serving as an invaluable, savvy voice on a team primed for a breakthrough.
“It was up and down,” Harrington said to describe this past season. “I guess it’s just part of getting older in the league. … having that surgery and not knowing if I was going to be able to get back and contribute. It’s been an up-and-down road but it’s been fun and at the end of the day, I was able to prove that I still could play a high level. Don’t write me off just because I’m hurt. These young guys embraced me and even the veteran guys respected everything I said whenever I said something. That’s the utmost respect.”
After contributing 7.9 points per game off the bench through the first seven games of the season, soreness in Harrington’s right knee that was ultimately diagnosed as loose particles required surgery and sidelined him for 47 games. But that didn’t stop Harrington from impacting the Wizards. He was a main catalyst behind the critical players-only meeting in November and just a week later, played Thanksgiving host at his mom’s house in Indiana for the entire team.
By the time Harrington returned to the court after the all-star break, he had earned the trust and respect of Wall, Beal, Otto Porter and other younger Wizards for his genuine guidance as a volunteer assistant coach of sorts.
With Nene sidelined by his own knee injury, Drew Gooden now in the mix as a 10-day contract player and Andre Miller joining the team after a trade deadline deal from Denver in which Harrington played a role, the veteran forward emerged in March as a member of the “AARP Group.” When the Wizards starters needed a breather or spark off the bench, Wittman sometimes inserted Harrington, Gooden and Miller into the lineup, depending on a group at the end of their rope to rally a team that was just beginning to realize its potential.
Harrington had his moments, putting together six double-digit performances during the Wizards’ late-season push toward their first playoff berth in six years. But his age and the effects of a season spent moreso on the disabled list than the court surfaced at times, as he appeared winded and devoid of the shooting touch that could stretch the floor.
“It’s always good to play with guys like that because it’s almost like, just because you’ve played in the league so long, you understand each other and you kind of know where guys are going to be, so that’s the advantage that we had,” Harrington said. “It felt like we played together forever just because we had that type of experience. It was a lot of fun, AARP group, old geezers, three OGs, some cool nicknames. That was fun.”
Two-thirds of that group in Harrington and Gooden saw their reserve minutes nearly disappear in the first-round playoff series win against Chicago. Harrington played just seven total minutes in five games and also never heard his name called in the first two contests of the second-round series versus Indiana. But Harrington remained professional, cheering on his teammates from the sideline while sometimes riding the exercise bike in the tunnel to limber up and stay ready.
Harrington’s attitude and approach opened the door for his Game 4 performance, scoring 11 points and grabbing six rebounds in 23 minutes to rally the Wizards. Though they ultimately lost the game, his positive energy helped extend the series to six games before Indiana sent the Wizards home and Harrington into an offseason of uncertainty.
Along with strengthening his right knee, Harrington is expected to have minor shoulder surgery before taking time to evaluate his future. After 16 seasons, Harrington admits it could be time to hang up his jersey for good, but he’s also still bubbling with optimism following the Wizards’ postseason surge — one that, had it lasted for one more round, Harrington said could have been worthy of a “30 for 30″ film.
With the salary cap estimated to fall around $63 million and luxury tax expected to rise from $71.7 million to about $77 million this summer, the team could have room to bring back Harrington at the veteran minimum. But the Wizards’ needs and space will hinge largely on how things play out with priority free agents Trevor Ariza and Marcin Gortat.
“(Wizards owner) Ted (Leonsis) got the pockets, so if he want to go in the luxury [tax] and all that, he can bring back every last one of us,” Harrington joked. “I think the core that we have here is great and as many guys as he can keep, I think the better. That’s a great locker room in there. … I’m really going to take some time off and then some time throughout the summer, I’ll start evaluating if I want to play or maybe do something else.”