The night before the Washington Wizards played the franchise’s first playoff game in six years, before John Wall and Bradley Beal made their postseason debuts, all 15 players gathered in a private dining room of one of Chicago’s best steakhouses and spent several hours trying not to concern themselves with basketball.
Game 1 of the playoff series between the Indiana Pacers and Atlanta Hawks was on the television, but it rarely came up as a topic of discussion during a team dinner that mostly included jokes, sharing gossip and delaying the stress that was to come after the first jump ball was tossed at United Center.
Over expensive rib-eye steaks and lobster mashed potatoes, the Wizards had another of the many team-building exercises that have strengthened the bonds of a unit that has advanced to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2005. This season already ranks among the most successful in the past 35 years of an organization that knows disappointment better than most — and the players point to the tight-knit nature of the team as the primary reason.
“For all the teams that I’ve been on that have been really successful, we always had a brotherhood,” said Al Harrington, in his 16th season. “We knew exactly what each other are like, we go to dinner with each other and we was around each other so much. That was the environment that I tried to bring here.”
To some of the players, the trust that developed during those monthly gatherings contributed to Wall watching, without complaint, as his backup, Andre Miller, led the Wizards back from a 13-point second-half deficit in Game 1. They allowed Beal’s teammates to willingly defer to a 20-year-old during a fourth-quarter scoring spree that forced overtime in Game 2. And they helped them rally around the suspension of Nene to still wallop the Bulls, with Trevor Ariza scoring a playoff career-high 30 points.
“We built up each other as a group and we trust each other,” Wall said. “We do everything as a family and that’s the reason we’re playing good basketball right now.”
Harrington and Ariza — who organized a pivotal players’ only meeting in mid-November that helped turn around the season — have helped the team come together for dinners and other activities at least once a month. For Thanksgiving in Indianapolis, Harrington invited the team to his mother’s house for dinner.
The events are sometimes set up last minute, always mandatory and usually scheduled on the road, when it is very easy for players to go their separate ways.
“You know, I’ve been in a situation where a team lands in a city and you don’t see a guy until next day at shootaround,” said Drew Gooden, a 12-year veteran. “I said to the guys, I haven’t been on a team like this, since I was in Cleveland where the whole team went out and did stuff like that. It goes a long way. If something happens, whether it’s positive, cheering on you or getting on you, like, ‘That ain’t it.’ You got to respect it more, because it’s more of a comfort level because you have an on-court relationship and a relationship off the court, so it’s easy to take that constructive criticism.”
Gooden said being a close-knit group helped the Cavaliers reach the NBA Finals in 2007 and he was introduced to the connection among the Wizards immediately after joining the team in late February.
On a road trip that would prove to be the first for both Gooden and Miller, the Wizards went on a bowling excursion in Toronto. Since no one could use the excuse of having family in Canada, crossing the border also served as good time to welcome the newest members of the team. Beal prevailed by knocking down a few more pins than Garrett Temple in the friendly competition. The next night, the Wizards beat the Raptors in a grueling triple-overtime battle.
“It meant a lot. Just got a chance to know some of the guys and observe how they carry themselves. It’s something that a lot of teams try to do,” said Miller, who feels that good chemistry only goes so far. “It helps a little bit, but not too much. Some guys may look at it different, but I don’t think it really matters.”
Kevin Seraphin said he learned the importance of player unity from his conversations with fellow French players Tony Parker and Boris Diaw, who told him how the Spurs routinely had team dinners during the season and in advance of the playoffs. “That’s what the good team do.”
In his brief stint in San Antonio in 2009, Gooden also was part of that tradition, so he suggested the idea of a pre-playoffs dinner for the Wizards to Temple, Harrington and Wall before taking on the Bulls. It didn’t require much convincing.
“Anybody that plays basketball understands and knows that a team that has a great relationship off the court will play well on the court,” Temple said. “It comes into play when you have to get into a situation on the court. You understand that it’s not personal. We’re friends. So if I come after you like this, it’s business and it’s about getting our team to do better.”
Harrington and Ariza split the tab for the first few players’ only dinners but they were eventually able to convince the team to cover the costs. “It’s nothing because of what we get out of it, us getting out of the first round and stuff like that, so it was money well spent,” Harrington said. “I’ve been reading a lot of stuff John’s been saying — ‘family, family’ — and that’s what we’ve become. This is the type of team we’re going to be checking on each other 20 years from now and that’s what it’s all about.”