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Wizards Glad To Push Back Vacation Plans

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 22, 2005; Page D01

For 15 of the past 16 years, Barry Leibowitz knew the routine: Spring would arrive and so would the atrocious play of Washington's NBA franchise. The shot-clock operator for the Bullets and Wizards since 1988, Leibowitz understood what time it was after his employers were annually eliminated from playoff contention.

"There was an upside in not going to the playoffs," Leibowitz said. "We had the beach to ourselves. We get to go late April, early May. We can walk here, we can run, we can get naked, whatever. June, it's just very different."

At last season's home finale, Etan Thomas and teammates gave their warm-up suits to fans. This year, they'll need them a little longer. (Joel Richardson - The Washington Post)

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If the Washington Wizards' first playoff appearance in eight years has awakened a dormant professional basketball town, it has also culture-shocked an organization unfamiliar with working more than 82 games. Its inglorious postseason drought -- the franchise has hosted one playoff game in 16 years -- may have soured Michael Jordan and many lesser players over a span of nearly two decades. But the consistent losing made company employees very adept at planning and taking vacations.

Take a Wizards player like Steve Blake, who this time last year was riding horseback and scuba diving with his fiancee in St. Lucia. Or Etan Thomas, his dreadlocks flopping in the Jamaican trade winds as his peers vied for the NBA championship. Turks and Caicos Islands are now out for Antawn Jamison and family, at least for a month, as the all-star forward and his teammates continue to win while crippling the Caribbean economy.

One year ago, after a woeful, 25-win season, club president Susan O'Malley instructed her staff to take today off.

"We always took off every Friday after the season ended because we couldn't stand getting the playoff e-mails from the league," O'Malley said. "We'd get the playoff times, dates and conflicts. I used to e-mail back, 'Please take me off your distribution list.' It got to the point where every year we didn't make it, we used to always kid about whether we would get an NIT bid."

Nowhere will the sense of loss be felt more than Balboa Park, where Gilbert Arenas will miss his annual, Northridge, Calif., pickup game of stragglers, ex-NBA role players and players Arenas refers to as "weak and terrible."

Because the Wizards posted the best record of an Abe Pollin-owned team since 1979, Arenas and his teammates have been conscripted by the NBA to travel to Chicago for Game 1 of the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs against the Bulls on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. Don MacLean, Pooh Richardson and the Balboa Park crew will have to pick up another player, at least until TNT stops televising Arenas and his team.

"As soon as I get home, my season is with my old neighborhood," the all-star guard said, almost wistfully. "I don't have any hobbies."

Larry Hughes sounded as if he will immensely miss boyhood friends in St. Louis this month. "They would all give it to me for being home," the guard said. "They would get me by saying, 'You've been gone from home all that time and you won 20 games? Paying for trainers, shooting coaches and you win 20 games?' It was rough.

"Meanwhile," Hughes added, "I'm paying for everything. The lights, the heat, the air conditioning, everything."

Coach Eddie Jordan cannot play golf for a month straight, as he did this time last year. Considering just three of his players have ever been to the NBA playoffs -- thus, having had to actually work in April and May -- the Wizards coach is understandably concerned how his team will react to its loss of free time.

"This time of year, there's two ends of the spectrum [to] how you behave," Jordan said. "Your bio clock says you're getting ready for golf, the sun is out, it's warmer, the days are longer, the bloom is on the trees and it's vacation time. Or, like [the New Jersey Nets'] Jason Kidd says, 'It's playoff time.' You've got two extremes, and you're going to be one or the other. It's the first time for us, so how is that bio clock working?"

Logic deems that this a challenging period for the team's players and coaches. For one, quality time in front of the television watching the playoffs will be irretrievably lost.

Yet team employees do take solace in trying to recoup the millions in potential income the organization has lost over the past eight, playoff-less years. One of the franchise's veteran security guards, who demanded anonymity, was quite clear about this fact:

"I don't know how much Mr. Pollin or Chris Webber or Juwan Howard lost in playoff money, but I know I would have liked some of it. Could've helped with the family vacations."

For others, postseason elimination for the Wizards became an annual rite of spring, expected in Washington as much as the cherry and dogwood blossoms.

"I've actually gotten used to the loss of income every late April," said Leibowitz, whose advertising copy chief job in Beltsville accounts for most of his salary.

Leibowitz has been witness to only one playoff game in 16 years -- Jordan and his 1997 champion Bulls swept the franchise in three competitive games. "He buzz-sawed right through us," he said. "I would have loved to give up all that vacation time to see us go late into May."

He may yet get his chance. All about MCI Center last week, lives were altered and vacations preempted as a franchise prepared to finally go overtime.

"You know what's funny?" O'Malley said on the night the Wizards clinched a playoff berth. "We had to print the May calendar this year."

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