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NBA’s 50-game season: ‘Everything was just so discombobulated’

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Bernie Bickerstaff has tried to erase it from his memory. Tim Legler wishes he could stop thinking about the soreness he felt from those unconscionable three-a-day practices during training camp. Rod Strickland remembers not showing up until two days before the season opener because of a contract dispute. Juwan Howard can’t forget the empty feeling when he scanned the locker room or stepped on the court at MCI Center and his old college buddy was gone.

The Washington Wizards have had their share of disastrous campaigns in the 33 years since the franchise last won an NBA championship, but few were more set up for failure than the lockout-shortened season in 1998-99. And when it was over, the Wizards had to deal with the disappointment of firing a coach, winning just 18 games and the realization that a once-promising team was headed for a few more years of mediocrity.

“Not good,” Bickerstaff said recently, when asked to reflect on the season. “It was all — everything was just so discombobulated.”

Nine months before they played a grueling 50-game schedule that featured back-to-back-to-back games and some stretches of five games in seven days, the Wizards traded away their best young player, Chris Webber, for an aging shooting guard past his all-star prime in Mitch Richmond. They were forced to start over with little time to figure it all out.

“It wasn’t a great season,” Strickland said in a recent telephone interview. “That was the beginning of the end.”

As the NBA prepares for another season delayed by a work stoppage, the current Wizards will enter training camp with considerably less drama. But with a 66-game schedule that will be played at a similar four-games-a-week pace, players and coaches will have to prepare for a serious grind — and possibly some unappealing results on the floor.

“It was some interesting basketball,” said Howard, one of 37 players remaining from the previous lockout-shortened season. “I know a lot of people wasn’t too happy with the 50-game schedule because there were a lot of games rushed into just a matter of a few months. A lot of the younger players, they have to play a lot of catch-up. Some people say it didn’t work in veteran teams’ favor because you play so many games. But also, that means you have less practice time.”

The games weren’t always pretty, but Legler had few complaints about the schedule. He felt that his 45-minute drive from home to the arena had greater purpose when he was going to compete for something, rather than just practicing and watching film.

“Honestly, I loved it,” Legler, now an analyst for ESPN, said in a telephone interview. “As players, you want to play the games. Even though my body may have been a little bit sorer than normal, you want to play. It was almost a baseball schedule, but it’s something you look forward to. The adrenaline of games gets you through it. And the fact that every night was more important than it is during the regular season, because there was more urgency.”

Legler, though, is still smarting over Bickerstaff’s decision to compensate for a condensed training camp by having the players practice three times a day. Bickerstaff explained that they were short sessions, including a morning practice, some light shooting and conditioning, followed by evening scrimmages. But for a team that had five 30-somethings after the additions of Richmond and Otis Thorpe in the Webber deal, Legler believes the early grind set back the veterans.

“To jump into that, I felt like my body . . . it just seemed like I never recovered,” Legler said. “All year long, I had nagging injuries. Mitch Richmond, everybody, all the older guards especially really seemed to really feel it.”

Bickerstaff had the challenge of revamping his schemes after so much of the team was geared around Webber’s considerable talent. He also had to rely on point guards Jeff McInnis and Chris Whitney until Strickland finally signed a four-year, $40 million extension. After clashing with Howard following a close loss to Miami, never getting the team to overcome some fourth-quarter failures and slogging to a 13-19 start, Bickerstaff was fired and replaced by Jim Brovelli.

“I just couldn’t get a rhythm and I don’t know . . . it was not a pleasant memory,” said Bickerstaff, now an assistant with Portland. “We were trying to change an identity. We got off kilter in terms of the cohesiveness of the organization philosophically. I thought that was it more than basketball.”

Strickland hated to see Bickerstaff leave less than two years after the Wizards had staged an intense, first-round sweep with the eventual champion Chicago Bulls that had Michael Jordan proclaiming them a team of the future. “That was tough. I liked Bernie. I thought Bernie was a good coach,” Strickland said. “And with the season shortened there is an expectation to do something right away. Sometimes that can be hard, especially with new faces, new coaches and things like that. Once C-Webb left — I don’t care if it was a lockout season or not — we still was going to have problems, you know what I mean? The 50 games didn’t help it, but the fact that we let go of such a great player. He was a big part of what we did and how we did it.”

“I remember not having Chris there and it felt really weird,” Howard said of his former college teammate at Michigan.

Webber won the rebounding title and led the Kings on a surprising playoff run. As for Richmond, he led the team at 19.7 points per game, but Bickerstaff said, “Mitch wasn’t quite, you know, Mitch.”

And playing 50 games wasn’t quite the same as playing 82.

“It was an unusual season,” Legler said.

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