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George Solomon

Washington's Success Brings Back Fond Memories of Playoff Teams Past

By George Solomon
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page E02

NBA playoff basketball today, with the Wizards in Chicago to play the Bulls in a first-round, seven-game series that marks Washington's first time in the postseason since 1997 and only its second appearance in 15 years.

A 45-37 record by Coach Eddie Jordan's team is a remarkable turnaround from last year's 25-57 mark. And with stars Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison and Larry Hughes still young and at the top of their games, the Wizards have a solid foundation -- if GM Ernie Grunfeld can re-sign Hughes and keep most of the cast together.

Center Wes Unseld, blocking out Seattle's Jack Sikma in 1978, was the backbone of many Washington playoff teams. (NBA Photos via Getty Images)

Just to refresh the memory, playoff basketball was a given here from the time Abe Pollin moved the former Bullets to Landover from Baltimore for the 1973-74 season. The team made the playoffs 11 of 13 years, winning the title against Seattle in 1978 but also getting to the NBA Finals two other times.

Led by Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, the Bullets won a number of pulsating Eastern Conference series in the 1970s against Boston, Philadelphia, Buffalo and San Antonio in a Capital Centre that shook with noise and emotion. "The Bullets were very good," said Hall of Famer Red Auerbach, who was president of the Celtics at the time. "They were smart and had good balance. Wes Unseld was always hurt, but he always played."

The general manager of the Bullets during that era was Bob Ferry, who each season put together a team good enough to make the playoffs through 1988 but gave way to successors whose goals were set higher by management but never achieved. That brings us to this year's club (notice how 17 years to Medicareland fly by), put together by second-year GM Grunfeld, which posted the best record here in 26 years. "Our goal was to make the playoffs, which we did," Grunfeld said. "We're in the midst of a growth process: becoming a good team on our home court, with supportive fans believing in us and our showing we can win on the road."

The Wizards beat the Bulls two of three during the season, but Chicago has been the better of the two teams down the stretch and Washington's defense has been suspect all season. "The game is different in the playoffs," Auerbach said. "Crisper, fewer turnovers, tighter defense, better passing and more concentration. Injuries? Hey, if you can walk, you can play." Motivation? "Once I asked [player] Frank Ramsey to do the pregame speech and he just wrote on the blackboard: $10,000 [to each winning player] and $5,000 [to each losing player]. That was it."

Theatre of the Absurd

Go figure.

After all the threats, snarls and bellicose posturing by Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos in his opposition to the Nationals moving to Washington, guess who got sued? On Thursday, Comcast SportsNet filed a lawsuit against Major League Baseball, the O's and the Angelos-created Mid-Atlantic Sports Network (MASN). The suit seeks to prevent the O's from moving their games from Comcast SportsNet to MASN after the current contract expires in 2006 without giving the network a chance to match the deal, a right that Comcast claims is guaranteed in its current pact with the O's.

How does this duel of suits and suspenders impact the fans?

Here's how: While the suit is being litigated, Comcast will not televise Nats games on its system, which means its customers in Anne Arundel and Howard counties will continue to be completely in the dark because the current Nats station, WDCA-20, isn't part of the Comcast lineup in those counties. Comcast lawyer David Cohen also objects to what he claims would be a $2 to $3 a month "Angelos tax" that would be added to cable bills as a result of the new sports network.

But MASN VP Bob Whitelaw rejected Cohen's allegation, calling it "baseless and inflammatory," which, by the way, is how I often characterized Angelos's opposition of the Montreal Expos' relocation to Washington. Whitelaw told The Post's Thomas Heath that the Comcast lawsuit was filed to "purposely inflame" the Washington fans.

Meantime, those of us who are constantly inflamed and have DirecTV's "Extra Innings" baseball package at a cost of $135 per season (at my request, the DirecTV bill states "Human Fund Giving Program") are not seeing any Nats games. My friend Kenny Albert is doing play-by-play to no one. Fans are frustrated and angry; the Nationals need the exposure; and millionaires are throwing depositions across the table at each other.

Nats President Tony Tavares said Thursday: "I don't believe for a moment Peter Angelos is trying to keep our games off the air. He's got a vested interest in getting our games on. He's agreed to pay us $21 million a year to show the games and needs them on TV to get a return."

Still, I never liked the TV deal MLB cut with Angelos (90-10 in his favor) even though Bud Selig says I do not understand bidness (a Dan Jenkins word for business) and economics, and that the deal is good for the Nats and their fans. That said, Selig and his bidness team need to fix this mess. Fans believe Angelos is at fault (who caused nearly every delay in the relocation process?) and if Selig leaves the negotiations to Angelos and his toadies, we'll be looking at "this game is blacked out in your area" crawls all summer. Angelos is for Angelos, and he's smart, vindictive and mischievous.

That said, the Nationals' first home stand was an unqualified success, with more than 220,000 fans in attendance creating a wonderful atmosphere, a 4-3 record with exciting ballgames. Tavares admits the RFK mound and field require work and the stadium needs a better cleaning service, improved scoreboard and a few good cooks. In Baltimore, meantime, the O's were playing good ball, too, before big crowds watching the Yankees and Red Sox. But when they play the Tigers on a Monday night and attendance slips under 20,000, the Camden Yards warehouse sounds like a winery. Please.

Short Hops

• If Vince Lombardi were alive and watching the Redskins' front office in action last week he'd be asking his famous question: "What's going on around here?" I couldn't tell, trying to monitor the meaningless back-and-forth stuff from Redskins Park. I hear Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, wanted a cornerback, head coach-offense Joe Gibbs wanted offensive help and grew smitten with Auburn QB prodigy/project Jason Campbell while professing loyalty to Patrick Ramsey.

Taking Campbell with the 25th pick seems fine, but I don't want to hear any more from Coach Joe about how "Patrick is our guy." Obviously, he isn't. Taking cornerback Carlos Rogers with the ninth selection was right, as someone has to replace Fred Smoot.

• Please, is the recycled Richie Adubato the best the Mystics could do for a coach? Isn't there a capable woman available to coach this women's pro basketball team?

Have a comment or question? Reach me at Talkback@washpost.com.

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