By Michael Wilbon
Friday, April 6, 2007
It wasn't yet two hours after Gilbert Arenas had limped off the court, taking with him as it turned out any legitimate hopes of the Washington Wizards being competitive in the NBA playoffs.
The Wizards didn't know how seriously Arenas had injured his knee; his MRI exam was scheduled to be administered eight hours later. But Caron Butler, when he walked into the restaurant for a postgame meal, knew this wasn't good. He extended his left hand to shake; his right one was in a cast because of the fracture he had suffered 72 hours earlier trying to block a shot. Butler, a young man with a spirit almost impossible to discourage, said in reference to this season-altering double-dose of injuries, "Can you believe this?"
Actually, and sadly, I could. For the last two years, Washington's NBA team has had almost no misfortune. Okay, there were minor injuries here and there. Butler had to miss a few games, same for Antawn Jamison. But there was nothing major, certainly nothing depressing. The Wizards had defeated the Bulls in a playoff series two years ago, and engaged in a fabulous-to-watch playoff series with the Cavaliers last year. And here they were, cruising to a third straight playoff appearance in three weeks . . . the first time the Washington Bullets/Wizards had done such a thing since the mid-1980s.
And then, boom! Just like that, the curse appears to have blindsided the Washington basketball franchise again. It's a curse Butler couldn't know about. He's too young, isn't from around here, and has had too much success here in Washington to know what we know. Tony Kornheiser coined the phrase, oh, 20 years ago, "Curse O' Les Boulez," and it appears to be back in full force and at the worst possible time.
With Arenas, Butler and Antawn Jamison healthy, the Wizards were a threat to beat any team in the Eastern Conference. Top-seeded Detroit? The Wizards have beaten the Pistons five of the last seven times, and Detroit has expressed wariness about playing the Wizards. Cleveland? That's the team the Wizards would have more motivation to play and defeat them than any team in the East. Miami? Well, it never looks good for the Wizards to beat Miami, but with Dwyane Wade injured, maybe there was a chance. The Eastern Conference was and still is fairly wide open. And the Wizards, as awful as they are defensively, had a reasonable chance against anybody.
Then, the curse returned, hitting Butler, then Arenas, and as a result the whole team, at a time when the Wizards were building a following in and around town. We probably need to review a bit, for people like Butler and Arenas who looked like curse-busters when healthy. How far back do we need to go?
To Bernard King becoming an all-star, then injuring himself after the break and essentially never playing for the Bullets again?
Do we need to go back to four-time all-star Mark Price coming to town in 1995 to be the point guard the Bullets needed before suffering injuries that would limit him to a total of seven games here?
Butler couldn't know about John "Hot Plate" Williams, the 6-foot-7 phenom out of Louisiana State whose game was so sweet he made Magic Johnson rave . . . until Williams ate himself out of the league. "Dinner Bell" Mel Turpin did the same. Kevin Duckworth seemed to weigh about 280 when the Bullets acquired him, but got up to 325 or so before training camp.
I don't mean to be depressing, but there's more.
The Bullets were poised and ready to draft Reggie Miller out of UCLA in 1987, but the Pacers unexpectedly snatched him and the Bullets wound up with Muggsy Bogues . . . for a year until he left in the expansion draft. Gheorghe Muresan appeared to be the giant centerpiece for a pretty imposing front line with Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, except that Muresan hurt his back filming the movie "My Giant" with Billy Crystal over the summer after that 1997 playoff appearance and for all practical purposes was done.
Webber, who represented as much hope as Arenas and Butler together when he arrived in 1994, suffered a shoulder injury and went off to titillate Northern California with playoff runs there. Even when Howard remained with the Bullets, via a David Stern mulligan, his $105 contract turned the town against him.
Part of me, however irrational this sounds, was convinced the Wizards needed to move out of Capital Centre, that a nice shiny new arena would change everything . . . and I was proven wrong. Ike Austin came and was terrible here after being really good in Miami. Ben Wallace went away before he became one of the great defensive forces of the last 10 years. The franchise finally gets the No. 1 pick in the draft -- and the only thing worse than having the No. 1 pick in a year when there's no great franchise-altering player, is taking a high school kid. Kwame Brown turns out to be the worst No. 1 overall pick since LaRue Martin in 1972. Michael Jordan, the second greatest winner in league history after Bill Russell, couldn't get the team to the playoffs.
Stuff just happens to people. Andray Blatche got shot before he played his first game. Mitch Richmond, who played 3,000 minutes in a season four times before he got here, apparently had left it all on the court in California before he got here.
I know the Wizards people, the ones who remember it all so clearly, don't want to see this recounted today and it's understandable . . . but so many of the rest of us can't see Butler and Arenas go down without connecting the dots . . . without saying in a very high-pitched tone, " How can this happen again?"
Ernie Grunfeld, Eddie Jordan and their players have no choice but to soldier on, but nobody wins jack in the NBA without their two best players. Take Shaq and Wade off Miami and you've got a lottery team. Okay, the Wizards have these defensive deficiencies that might have gotten them smacked out of the playoffs in the very first round. But they had some superior offensive stuff going on that might have gotten them through a round or two . . . but only with Arenas and Butler healthy. Cinderella might play for a while in March, but not the NBA playoffs.
There is one bit of good news, relatively speaking anyway. Arenas apparently didn't tear any ligaments. He didn't suffer anything as horrific as what happened to that kid with the Clippers, Shaun Livingston, whose knee exploded. Butler is going to have his cast off his right hand in two weeks and go back to work. Arenas, who operates best with a chip on his shoulder, will have one once his meniscus heals. Arenas can be back, and I presume he will be, as good and as chatty as ever. It's not career threatening. If it happened in early November he'd have been back to jump off a trampoline and win a bet with Shaq by February.
But the timing is rotten. Georgetown's trip to the Final Four should have been an appetizer to something yummy this spring, a playoff series or two in a town that doesn't take such things for granted. Now, with a magic number of 1, the Wizards will make the playoffs and have to go in overmatched, with a team that isn't capable of doing what the Wizards did before the all-star break.
It's difficult to see any scenario that isn't one-and-done for the Wizards in the playoffs. And it's nearly as difficult to see, given the long list of perhaps unrelated unfortunate episodes, how to put a smiley face on what has happened in this one week to the two players -- Arenas and Butler -- who at least appeared both willing and able to reverse the curse.