On the day he and his teammate made their first all-star team, Gilbert Arenas remembered those dreary nights when he was headed to a meaningless game in Oakland. If it was drizzling in the Bay Area, the sky was often gray, the Golden State Warriors were usually awful, and by February everyone on the team's roster had an inside joke about how to make an NBA all-star team:
"We always used to say, 'Everyone who leaves the Warriors becomes an all-star,' " Arenas said yesterday, after he and Antawn Jamison became Washington's first all-star duo since Moses Malone and Jeff Malone in 1987. (Jeff Malone? Are you kidding me?)
"Spree. Webber. Mitch Richmond. They all had to leave the Warriors. I thought that was funny at the time. Turned out, it's true."
Former Warrior Latrell Sprewell resuscitated his image in New York, Chris Webber had a pit stop in Washington before turning his career around in Sacramento and Mitch Richmond, as a member of the Kings, was actually the 1995 All-Star Game's MVP. Something about leaving one sad-sack franchise and turning around another energized them, much the way it stoked Arenas and Jamison this season.
The Wizards are watchable again because they seize games in the fourth quarter and they don't fall into 10-game tailspins. They're watchable because Ernie Grunfeld successfully gambled on Jamison and put the right veteran role players around his offensive stars. They win because their coach, Eddie Jordan, deposits his players in situations that play to their strengths. Notice Jamison thriving in the cut-and-move Princeton offense; he barely needs a dribble to release a shot.
But mostly, Washington is in playoff contention because two former Warriors did not want their NBA career legacy to be stamped, "Great Talents Who Played on Bad Teams."
Same goes for Larry Hughes, who was in all-star consideration before he broke his thumb last month. The Wizards' guard is another former Warrior, who earlier this season summed up his drive to win as a veteran: "You look around our locker room, we got some guys who have lost a lot of games in their careers. After awhile, the points and the commercials and the money don't cut it. You want someone to think of you as part of a great team, part of something bigger than just yourself. That's what this is about this season."
If anything can be gained from Arenas's and Jamison's invitations to Denver for the 2005 NBA All-Star Game, it is this: Never underestimate the power of losing enough games to qualify for the lottery. No matter how many 30-point games you can put together on a sorry squad, each galling loss forces a young player to make some decisions about what he wants out of the league.
Arenas, Jamison and Hughes decided the accolades were nice, but the playoffs would be better. "To be one of the top 24 players in the league, it's a great thing," Arenas said. "Antawn feels the same way. But we're just having fun with it. A weekend is a weekend. We still have 30 games to go before he can say we've done anything. We're happy we made it, don't get us wrong. But we're going to get noticed most if we get this franchise to the playoffs."
For most franchises, all-star selections are more eye candy than achievement. It's not as if Tim Duncan, Shaquille O'Neal or Kevin Garnett were ever in doubt. And over the years All-Star Weekend has devolved from a genuine signature sporting event during the mid-1980s and early 1990s to a bloated Nestlé Crunch-Gatorade corporate retreat today. The game is usually uncompetitive. No one has cared about the dunk contest since 2000, when Vince Carter blew up on All-Star Saturday.
But these are the Wizards, and this is a big deal. They last made the playoffs in 1997 and have not won a first-round series since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson's third year in the league, 1982. Yesterday at MCI Center after practice, observers reported watching a nice little scene unfold as owner Abe Pollin said some nice words about the club's two new all-stars and rolled out a frosted cake for his new employees of the month. Pollin doesn't come down to the floor that often, preferring to watch from his suite in the arena. One of the only images of him is a large black-and-white photo hung around the corner from the team's locker room, a photo etched in time: He and Wes Unseld, hugging elatedly after that 1978 championship season.
Pollin has taken his hits over the years for the demise of the franchise, never more so than when he unceremoniously dumped the game's greatest player in his office almost two years ago. When the Rent-an-Icon experiment failed, Pollin was excoriated. For all his civic-minded philanthropy, for all of Pollin's desire to fork over his own money for MCI Center so that a broader, commercial life might return to downtown, he does not want to be remembered as "The Man Who Fired Michael Jordan."
Arenas said he actually thanked Pollin for acquiring him in free agency, to which he said the owner replied, "I'm just glad to have you."
The way this team has turned around this season under the leadership of Jamison and the creativity of Arenas must make Pollin feel a little better about his Wizards legacy. Less than two years after a public relations fiasco, the NBA's coaches have recognized the club's success. It's not like fans voting Carter onto the team after admitting he dogged it at times in Toronto.
In February 2000, Jamison was sidelined with an injury at the same time Carter was being touted as the Air Apparent. The All-Star Game was played in Oakland that season, and everybody and his mom wondered why the Warriors had taken Jamison instead of Carter.
Though he and Carter are good friends, ex-North Carolina teammates and brothers-in-law, Jamison retreated inward, feeling he might not ever get his shot. With all of the problem children in the NBA, he thought for a while that you had to have a serrated edge to get noticed in the league.
Jamison was wrong. All he needed to make his first all-star team was a former Warrior like Arenas, a teammate just as tired of losing.