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The Strange Saga Of Eddie and Gil

By Mike Wise
Saturday, February 17, 2007

LAS VEGAS Now that they're sitting on opposite sides of a curtain in a crowded ballroom, smiling partners in achievement for the once-woebegone Wizards, Eddie Jordan can finally admit it:

He did not originally want Gilbert Arenas.

When Abe Pollin brought Carroll's own home in 2003, the Wizards' new coach wanted a retro point guard. Pass first. Shoot second. And -- this was important -- all-business. Magic Johnson was his teammate in the early 1980s. He coached Jason Kidd in back-to-back NBA Finals. When it came to floor generals, compromise was not in Eddie Jordan's vocabulary.

"Wes [Unseld] said, 'We got some money' when I first got the job," Jordan recalled. "I told him I thought we should go out and get a classic point guard. Kevin Ollie or something. Wes said, 'What about Gilbert Arenas? He's talented.'

"I really didn't think he would fit in with [Jerry] Stackhouse. I thought he was too turnover-prone. And I kept hearing crazy stories about him in the locker room."

Richard Jefferson, Arenas's college teammate at Arizona, told Jordan how Arenas had "put different people's cellphones in different people's lockers, how sometimes he would just crush teammates' cellphones for the fun of it," Jordan said. "I kept hearing things like that."

But Ernie Grunfeld finished the sell-job when he became the team's president of basketball operations. The two visited Arenas in California on a free agent recruiting trip that would drastically alter the franchise. "Ernie talked me into Gil," Jordan said, nodding.

He took a bite of his tuna sandwich, soaked his fries in ketchup and shook the hands of people who came by to congratulate him on his selection as the coach of the Eastern Conference all-star team. Did we mention he was eating in a posh hotel owned by the Maloofs, who also own the Sacramento Kings, the team that relieved Jordan of his first coaching job almost 10 years ago?

A lot of people in basketball figured Jordan was cut out to be a career assistant after that gig didn't work out, and now look at him.

About 20 yards away, in the lobby of the Palms Hotel & Casino, LeBron James played Moses, parting a sea of sycophants. Dwyane Wade would soon follow, little kids behind him, squealing, "D. Wade! D. Wade!" Shaquille O'Neal, Arenas and the other stars from the East eventually made their way into the ballroom.

Eddie Jordan will control all of their playing time on Sunday. Insane, no, the crazy twists the game can bring? Is Jordan even here -- in the midst of the gaudiest party the league has ever thrown -- if Arenas is playing somewhere else?

"I was wrong," Jordan said. "Bringing Gil in was the right thing. It changed the team, gave us a very different look that was needed."

It's five days after the Wizards hit their nadir, crumbling under their own weight against Portland at home. Arenas, of course, took shots at his coach for stressing defense too much, and Jordan shot back that he lacked leadership on the floor without the injured Antawn Jamison. They made up, said all the right things the next two days. But somewhere inside Jordan still has to get his head around the idea that his best player is still a man-child, a self-proclaimed "goof."

"He's got a long way to go before he gets to leading 12 guys and he'd be the first to say it, I think," Jordan said. "And when I say a long way, it's about getting older, experience, maturity.

"You look at Gary Payton. Over the years, he went from intense to sometimes losing control with the officials. He got into it with his coach. Everybody said, 'How could he ever be a leader?' But in his own way, as he got older, he became more of a leader. He gathered his teammates around and told them what they needed to do. After so many years, you want to win and you see younger guys and you realize that's your role."

And Arenas, 25, can't ever be that guy?

"I think by the time he's 28, 29, 30, he's going to be twice the leader he is now," Jordan added. He said he didn't knock Arenas's leadership last week. "I complimented Antawn's. I didn't say Gilbert is a terrible leader or Gilbert doesn't have any leadership skills. I said Antawn has all those qualities. Gilbert and I know that he doesn't have those certain qualities. He comes out and says it."

There are other issues for a team trying to get back to the second round and, perhaps, beyond.

For instance, the Brendan Hatfield-Etan McCoy feud. Jordan has already brought Haywood and Thomas in a room together twice after swapping haymakers. Nothing seems to work. Of their latest dust-up, he said, "You can't throw a blind punch," referring to Thomas, who was suspended for two games. "You can't start a fight. Most important, you can't go to the media with things that should stay in-house. But they were both responsible, and they know it." He rolled his eyes when he heard that Haywood had essentially told The Post's Dan Steinberg he's undefeated against Thomas.

On a larger scale, Jordan wants to win now. Like any coach who signed a two-year extension with a team option for the third year last summer, the continuity line gets old.

"But I understand Mr. Pollin's standpoint," Jordan said. "We want to stay within a certain budget for the Washington Wizards. We're not going to be like four or five or six other teams that can do anything it takes to win. Those are decisions we made within the organization. It doesn't bother me. There are times when you say, 'How come we can't get this guy?' But then you say, 'These are the parameters the organization has set.' "

One of the hallmarks of Jordan's career has been his ability to remain serene and on an even keel during good and bad times. "Eddie never changes," his peers always say, admiringly. But occasionally, he'll switch up, admit his mistakes. Like the other day, when he went off on his team for their defensive deficiencies prior to the Portland game.

"I had to look in the mirror," Jordan said. "If I have a pregame talk that puts them on pins and needles, then I need to take a look at myself. So I learned something from that, too."

Take it from the coach of the Eastern Conference all-stars, the man who originally did not want Gilbert Arenas on his team: It's not only good to sometimes change your mind; often, it's downright essential.

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