Al Harrington wanted to make one thing clear after completing his first practice as a volunteer assistant coach for the Wizards’ summer league team.
“I’m still a player,” Harrington said.
Harrington is also a player who turned 34 last March, is coming off a second consecutive injury-riddled season and understands that his best basketball is behind him.
With that in mind, Harrington has spent this offseason pondering his future and peering into what a life without playing basketball will look like. He spent a few days in June with Wizards teammates Drew Gooden and Garrett Temple attending Sportscaster U at Syracuse University to receive training in broadcasting. And now, he exploring what being a coach is all about.
“My whole thing is, I just want to get some experience,” Harrington said. “Knowing I am toward the end of my career and don’t know exactly what I want to do, so I‘ll just try to dibble and dabble in everything and find what’s my niche.”
As he sat out 47 games last season while recovering from a troublesome right knee that required surgery in December, Harrington joked that he was serving the role as a player-assistant for Coach Randy Wittman. Late in the year, Harrington asked President Ernie Grunfeld if he could try out coaching with the summer league team. Grunfeld told him that it was okay with him, so long as he got approval from Wittman.
“Witt was like, ‘Of course,’ ” Harrington said. “The NBA has programs where guys teach high schoolers and get them into the coaching mode and for me, this is even a better experience because I get a chance to work with pros, so it’s going to give me a real glimpse of what it takes. The meetings, the film. I’m just excited to get this experience.”
Wittman has an open assistant spot with Ryan Saunders left to join the staff of his father, Flip, in Minnesota. But Harrington said his first objective is to continue playing and his preference is to be back with the Wizards. He is feeling fine after having surgery to repair his left shoulder and has even lost 10 pounds by adopting a vegan diet and committing to a rigorous training program.
“I’m just trying to preserve my joints. My new thing is to try to get as light as I can and see what happens,” Harrington said. “Toward the end of the season was the healthiest I felt. With that, resting this whole time, I haven’t been on the court at all. I’ve just been lifting weights, doing pilates and running the canyons every day out in L.A. So just doing that has my body feeling so much better. I don’t if it’s just with the diet and what I’m doing, but I feel so much better.”
Harrington maintains an offseason home in Los Angeles and has spent some time this summer with fellow free agent Trevor Ariza, whom the Wizards want to take back but at the right price. Ariza has drawn interest from a handful of teams and is reportedly seeking a salary in the $9 million to $11 million range. Harrington was with Ariza for his low key 29th birthday celebration on June 30 and again on the first day of the free agent negotiating period.
“He got to take care of himself and take care of his family at the end of the day,” Harrington said. “This is his last big deal, essentially, so that’s how he has to look at it. He has to get as much security as he can. We don’t talk details but he wants to be here. I think that’s the one thing Washington has over other people is he’s comfortable here. He like what he’s building here. Now it’s just a matter of him coming to terms.”
The league appears to be on hold while awaiting decisions from LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh and Ariza likely won’t reach a deal until the dominoes begin to fall. Harrington said Ariza doesn’t appear to be overly stressed about his situation.
“He knew it was part of the process. He knew it was part of the process,” Harrington said. “He knew had to wait for Carmelo and Bron to sign before him and Deng, and all those guys, that second tier. So he’s patient. He’s not worried about it. Everybody can’t sign until Thursday anyway. Once everybody gets into the camp, he’ll be one of those top guys after that.”
Harrington also realizes that he probably won’t sign until later in the summer but he would like to be back in Washington. “I love the situation. Love this team. I love John [Wall], Brad [Beal], those are my little brothers. I just hope we bring the whole team back, meaning Trev. I think that’d make everybody feel a lot better if we can add him back to the puzzle, because he’s a big part of the success we had last year.”
The Wizards have taken several steps toward maintaining continuity by retaining Wittman and agreeing to a five-year, $60 million deal with Marcin Gortat, the best center on the open market this summer. Harrington said he would’ve been shocked if Gortat went somewhere else.
“I just automatically thought he was going to be here. I didn’t see any scenario with him leaving,” Harrington said with a chuckle. “I really just envision this team coming back the same team. They kind of been saying that. They stood pat to that. They didn’t draft nobody. I really think that they want to give this same team another crack at it. Trev is the last piece and then you got to figure out [Trevor Booker] and [Kevin Seraphin].”
In his lone season in Washington — and 16th overall in the NBA — Harrington worked hard to keep the locker room from splintering by teaming with Ariza to organize a players’ only meeting and other social gatherings. He also provided encouraging words to his teammates from the bench and in private moments to keep them confident. His new role isn’t much different.
After Tuesday’s morning minicamp practice, Otto Porter Jr. got some extra instruction from Sam Cassell while Glen Rice Jr. spoke with Harrington. “I wouldn’t say it was odd,” Rice said when asked about Harrington serving as an assistant, “because he was so vocal last year, he was almost like a coach anyway. He’s a veteran. You almost look at veterans as a coach anyway, because they the ones that show you the way. He knows what it takes. He was out there giving good takes. It’s just things you can take from his game.”
But again, Harrington stressed, he’s not done playing yet.