Take a hard look at Antawn Jamison's mug, how that soft, babykins complexion has taken a beating this season. Study the small, visible scars under each eye, how the all-star forward resembles an aging pug rather than a pro basketball player in his prime.
Gilbert Arenas ribbingly calls his teammate "Scarface."
_____Eastern Conference_____ The Wizards and Bulls are vying for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, which carries home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Washington holds the tiebreaker over Chicago.
|Team ||W-L ||Pct. ||GB |
|4. Chicago ||46-34 ||.575 ||- |
|5. Wizards ||45-35 ||.563 ||1 |
• Bulls (2): Tonight, vs. Knicks; tomorrow, at Pacers.
• Wizards (2): Tonight, at Nets; tomorrow, at Knicks.
"He's either a cutter or a bleeder," Larry Hughes said, winking and smiling.
When the turnabout transformation of the Washington Wizards is finally chronicled -- when all the key victories and comebacks are cut and pasted for the memorable mosaic -- remember that face and how it got that way.
Remember that twice in 11 days this past December, Jamison left the court bloodied yet unbowed. On Dec. 4, he caught an elbow against Chicago late in the second quarter. He needed three stitches under his right eye. He returned, knocking down a jumper in the fourth quarter to give the Wizards their first lead of the second half.
Against Miami on Dec. 15, Jamison collided with Miami's Udonis Haslem in the first quarter. He got five sutures that night under his left eye, returning in a loss. Such resilience in hockey or the NFL would be routine. Such resilience for an NBA player collecting a paycheck from Abe Pollin has been mighty uncommon.
From Gheorghe Muresan to Tim Legler and beyond, recent pro basketball players in Washington often went to the training room never to return. A jaunt underneath MCI Center's stands with the team physician equated to B-movie horror, in which patrons warn the characters on the screen not to go in the house.
Jamison went in and came out alive. He returned more than once from an in-game injury, the way his team returned from a five-game losing streak to notch the franchise's first postseason appearance in eight years.
"When it first happened, people were like, 'Who beat your behind?' " Jamison said, hours before the Wizards staved off LeBron James and his fading Cleveland Cavaliers, 119-111, for their 28th home victory -- three more wins than they home and away last season.
"I just feel if I can walk, I can do anything to play," he said. "That's why it was so hard for me to accept sitting out games with a knee injury. As long as I can go, I'm going to play. Other guys see that and it rubs off on them. 'Well, Antawn got four stitches and he came back.' I guess that's leading by example."
As the season wore on and Jamison absorbed more punishment and tested his ligaments with those off-balance runners, he had too much pride to admit he had tendinitis in his right knee. Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan and team doctors finally intervened.
"We had to sit him [down] and get him on a schedule," Jordan said. "He wasn't going to do it himself."
Funny, no? When Jamison was labeled a "finesse player" early in his career, the NBA translation became "soft player." As in, the Golden State Warriors' gunner had no interest in physical or mental fortitude. The book on Jamison was: "Rough him up. He'll start taking those weak fadeaways."
"When I first got into the league, that was the knock: 'He doesn't like physical play,' " Jamison said. " 'Let's beat his behind up.' Then I would take them by surprise. I really don't mind that kind of banging and play, to be honest. I never back down from any situation, anybody. If you don't know me, you might not expect that out of me, because of how I present myself. But don't let the face in the game fool you."
Image is nothing. The Wizards are on track to host their first playoff game in the District a little more than a week from today -- eight years after the last game at their old arena in Landover. A renowned basketball town finally has a winning NBA team with a high entertainment quotient. The Wizards also have a deceptive toughness, viewed through Jamison's grit and perseverance as much as anyone's.
Jamison finished 9-of-18 for 21 points in 42 minutes against Cleveland. Two nights earlier, the 6-foot-9 Jamison finished with double figures in points and rebounds for the 23rd time this season.
Many of his rebounds have been in traffic, against more physical, larger players. He was willing to be cut and sewn up to win.
Adding to the healing wounds under his eyes, Jamison's right cheek has an inch-long scar from childhood. "I got it at maybe five or six years old, but I can't remember what happened," he said.
Wizards are not supposed to come back from injury, at least until management exerts pressure on them (Jerry Stackhouse) or eventually casts off their aging bodies (Mitch Richmond).
But after clinching a postseason berth on Wednesday, Jamison and his team are clearly of a different mold. He went to change a flat tire on his Range Rover the other day and was encountered by fans.
"Just since Wednesday, people are like, 'Hey, man, thank you. It's been a long time since we had playoff basketball. I've been a season ticket holder for 25 years and I stopped coming three or four years ago. Now I'm fixin' to come back.' You just got a smile on your face, it's sunny outside and you don't want to pull the covers over your head. You want to get up."
Two years ago, the Michael Jordan experiment ended amid a public-relations fiasco. The game's most accomplished player was canned and the franchise was in utter shambles. Two years later, the postseason awaits.
"When Mike came here -- and duly so -- he was probably the best basketball player to ever play the game," Jamison said. "He sold out everywhere he went. People just wanted to see Michael play. "But our motto is 'One team, one goal.' Individuals can only get you so far."
Jamison paused for a moment and began walking toward the training room at MCI Center. The scars were less visible as he ambled down the corridor.
"We just wanted to stop the bleeding and turn things around," he said.