After 23 Years, Washington Is a Winner

Bulls Wizards
Jared Jeffries is called for a blocking foul on Chicago guard Kirk Hinrich during the first half. (John McDonnell -- The Washington Post)
By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 7, 2005

At times, Abe Pollin must have thought he would have to live another 23 years to see the club he purchased in 1964 win a National Basketball Association playoff series. Twenty-foot jump shots by the home team barely traveled 19. Errant passes went out of bounds. Like much of the past two decades and change, the basketball was often hideous.

But a sinewy, 6-foot-10 role player flipped an old script last night at MCI Center. Jared Jeffries stole the ball, taking a pass away from Chicago Bulls guard Chris Duhon at midcourt and dunking with two hands with 32 seconds left in the game. As more than 20,000 fans stood and let out a throaty roar, the Washington Wizards had their first lead since early in the first quarter and were suddenly on their way to a much, much greater commodity:

After 183 players, 12 head coaches and 23 years of maddening losses, Washington's professional basketball team advanced to the second round of the NBA postseason. The Wizards beat the Bulls in a physical scrum, 94-91, to win the best-of-seven, first-round series, 4-2.

They meet Shaquille O'Neal and the top-seeded Miami Heat in Game 1 of the conference semifinals tomorrow afternoon at 3:30 in Miami, a date that looked as improbable as Washington winning for much of last night's game.

"Does this end all the jokes and history?" Jeffries said afterward. "I mean, it helps with it and it puts us on the right path. But I like to look at this as more a continuation of something than a defining moment."

Unable to catch the resilient Bulls, down by 10 in the second half, the Wizards looked on the precipice of a daunting Game 7 at United Center in Chicago. It was not until Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes started penetrating the Bulls' defense and finding their bigger teammates for passes near the basket that the Bulls finally looked fallible.

Arenas, Hughes and Antawn Jamison -- the Wizards' leading scorers dubbed "The Big Three" -- struggled for much of the evening. But when it mattered, they were as good and balanced as they were during much of the team's turnaround season, when they posted a record of 45-37. Hughes finished with 21 points, Jamison and Arenas had 19, as the Wizards became only the ninth team in league history to rebound from an 0-2 deficit to win a seven-game series. Eddie Jordan became the first coach in league history to accomplish the feat in his first career playoff series.

Whatever real or imagined curse that engulfed the Washington franchise, it died alongside the Bulls' season. Juan Dixon, the former University of Maryland star, helped seal the win by converting 1 of 2 free throws with 16 seconds left. Bulls center Tyson Chandler rebounded a three-point miss with four seconds remaining and tried a long two-pointer, which came off the rim of the basket and ended up in Arenas's hands. The all-star guard flicked the ball several rows into the stands as the final second ticked away.

The arena erupted with fireworks and sound, and fans clamoring so long for a winning team finally enjoyed their most satisfying moment in more than two decades.

Missy Rosenberg was born on April 21, 1982, two days before the franchise last won a playoff series. "I've been literally waiting all my life for this," Rosenberg said. "All 23 years."

Between the Redskins' inability to make the playoffs since 1999, the National Hockey League strike keeping the Capitals off the ice and the failure of the University of Maryland men's basketball team to earn a bid to the NCAA tournament in March, the Washington sports landscape has been barren of late. Save the arrival of the Washington Nationals, the Wizards have essentially carried the area's torch for much of the last few months. Much of their following would say it's about time.

After many in the MCI Center crowd had shuffled into a chilly spring night, talking about the most significant victory any of them could remember, Jordan awaited a smattering of television interviews on the confetti-littered court. He lit up a cigar, puffing it pleasurably as the questions came in waves.

Jordan was a backup guard on the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982, when he earned a championship ring with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Arenas was four months old when the Wizards last won a playoff series. He, too, savored the journey into the second round. "You've got to earn respect in this league, little by little," Arenas said.

His teammates came back out on the court to sign autographs for young and old fans who had craned their upper torsos over a railing near the entrance to the locker room to get closer to the players.

Brett Gober, an 11-year-old from North Potomac, has been a Wizards fan all his life. He waved a jersey in front of Jeffries and Michael Ruffin to sign. "Tonight was like a miracle," Gober said. "To me, it made my day. No, it made my life."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company