By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
CHAPEL HILL, N.C., Oct. 17 -- For the sake of their fractured -- some would say obliterated -- relationship, Washington Wizards Coach Eddie Jordan and center Brendan Haywood needed to come together. They had to talk.
When Jordan had exit meetings following the team's first-round elimination by the Cleveland Cavaliers in last season's playoffs, he offered one tip to each of his players. With most, the advice was related to basketball. With Haywood, who was coming off the first season in which his production declined, Jordan simply said, "I just want our relationship to get better."
Shortly after Jordan signed a three-year extension last July, Haywood initiated what turned out to be a heartfelt conversation between the two. Haywood asked Jordan what he wanted of him, what he needed to do to gain his confidence and to stay on the floor. Jordan told Haywood that the team needed to get better defensively, that it needed to protect the rim better.
"He pretty much said: 'Look, we're both going to be here a long time. Let's work on this thing,' " Jordan said of Haywood. "It meant a lot to me that he came to me."
The conversation also moved beyond basketball -- the side of the discussion neither Jordan nor Haywood will talk about -- and both said they came away encouraged.
"It was one of the few positive [talks] we've ever had," said Haywood, who has played three of his five seasons in Washington under Jordan. "We'll see how it plays out during the season. I'm hoping it plays out in a very positive manner, and myself and him can put the previous years behind us and move forward. I'm about winning. He's about winning. We were just on different pages about how to get there."
The relationship may be improving, but the source of the discourse with Haywood -- his playing time -- still is somewhat of an issue, as Haywood is locked in an intense battle with Etan Thomas for the starting job. Although Thomas was the starting center late last season before injuries forced Haywood back into the starting lineup, Haywood says he doesn't understand why he has to compete for the job he held for 138 games over the past two seasons.
"But I don't want to rock the boat," he said. "If they say you got to compete for it, what am I going to do? Go out there and compete and show them why it shouldn't be any doubt in their mind who the starting center is."
Asked about the competition before Tuesday night's game, Jordan smiled and said, "It's very, very close."
Haywood got the start against the Charlotte Bobcats at the Dean E. Smith Center, where he played four seasons at the University of North Carolina, and received extended minutes as Jordan elected to give Thomas a game off.
Playing a preseason-high 34 minutes, Haywood scored five points, blocked two shots and snared a game-high 12 rebounds in the Wizards' 100-84 victory. The highlight came early on, when he outfought Bobcats center Emeka Okafor for a rebound and fed Caron Butler for a layup before landing on his back.
"I don't look at it as I'm competing against Etan Thomas. I'm competing with Brendan Haywood. Because if I take care of my business, that'll be it anyway," Haywood said.
The friction between Jordan and Haywood played out on an almost nightly basis last season whenever Haywood was pulled from a game. He often would lower his head and sulk to the sideline while Jordan either offered an angry stare or ignored him completely.
It also sprouted up at times in media, with the sides trading verbal jabs, Haywood lamenting for more playing time, Jordan demanding more production. Jordan benched Haywood twice last season, and the relationship was damaged when Jordan sat him and Antawn Jamison in favor of Michael Ruffin and Calvin Booth in late December. Haywood took exception because Jordan called Jamison about the change but neglected to call him.
"It's behind me," Haywood said. "At that time it did [upset me] because to me it was a sign of disrespect, but that's the past. I wipe that slate clean with him. I hope he's done the same for me."
Jordan said, looking back, he probably should've called Haywood as well but added, "Every decision a coach makes, he doesn't have to talk to a player."
Haywood said he is eager to put behind him almost every aspect of last season. "I definitely feel it was a step back," said Haywood, who averaged just 7.3 points and 5.9 rebounds. "My statistics went down a little bit -- not much -- but at the same time, my minutes went down. Those two things go hand-in-hand. That was my whole problem last year.
"It used to really affect me in a negative way to play 25 minutes one night and play 10 the next. I think now, it doesn't. I've got to be in control of the things that I can control and I have to be ready when I go in -- if I play one minute or 15."
Wizards Note: Jordan left early in the second quarter with a stomach virus and top assistant Mike O'Koren, a North Carolina alum whose No. 31 hangs in the rafters, took over for the rest of the game. "Let me be honest with you: I think he was a little under the weather, but I think he was being nice to me also," O'Koren said of Jordan.