By Mike Wise
Tuesday, October 2, 2007
A 7-foot basketball player wearing a headband proceeded slowly down the stairs toward the practice court yesterday, a player who looked unmistakably like Brendan Haywood.
Crazy enough, it was Haywood. In a Wizards uniform. On picture day!
"You're still here?" I asked, tactfully.
A half-smile crossed Haywood's face. He put his palms out, as if to say, "Who knew, huh?" He acknowledged what a huge upset it was for him to be reporting to training camp today in Richmond.
To recap, this was the player who tore off his nameplate above his cubicle in the locker room after the last game of Washington's season -- the same guy who walked off the court before Cleveland's playoff sweep was complete, who traded blows and insults with teammate Etan Thomas, whose inconsistency and lack of fire irked Coach Eddie Jordan to no end and who was thought in most quarters to be gone in a summer trading frenzy that would significantly change the makeup of a roster that appeared to need a makeover.
And now he's back. Almost as strange, they're all back.
Same coach. Same offense. Most of the same players. In fact, the more you looked around Verizon Center yesterday afternoon, the more they should just steal a biblical passage for their 2007-08 motto:
"This Too Shall Pass." After a summer of small, cosmetic change, they're quickly becoming the "All Wounds Heal Over Time" Wizards.
Whatever calamity was supposed to undo their aspirations, whatever damaged relationships were supposed to detonate their postseasons to come, they dealt with them internally and refused to buckle to public opinion.
Ernie Grunfeld, the architect, did not back up the truck after all. He gambled not on the unknown quantities of free agency but on the people he knew. Character and playing flaws included. Rather than look to a quick fix with a trade, it's as if the front office, coaching staff and roster spent the offseason at a therapeutic day spa, detoxifying all the bad blood from their systems.
Jordan visited Haywood at his home in North Carolina, reaching out as best he could given the mutual professional dislike for each other. That was just the tip of the iceberg, though.
Unbeknownst to many, Gilbert Arenas had a lot of anger stored up against Jordan, whom he felt contributed mightily to his knee injury last season by not starting Arenas in the game in which he was hurt. The more he confided in people about his resentment, it sounded like the recipe for a season gone awry.
When a team's coach and his best player don't have a decent relationship in the NBA, losses, trades and firings usually follow. There was even recent talk that Arenas might publicly go after Jordan on media day.
When I asked Arenas about this in mid-September, though, he backed off.
"I was mad about that for a good two or three months," he said. "But I had the summer to think about it and now I realize stuff happens. If you asked me three months ago, then I'd have said, 'Yeah.' But naw, it's bigger than that."
In time, he realized the injury gave him some space from the U.S. national team for a summer after a bad international experience a year ago led to him coming home and not competing in the world championships.
"I know I would have went back and everybody would have been a little awkward, so this gives everybody a chance to mend," he said. "I looked at the positives instead of the negatives."
Arenas has yet to speak to Jordan about his feelings on the matter. But he added his support of Jordan has not wavered since he campaigned for his coach's contract extension a year ago. In explaining his thoughts, he essentially became the messenger for Grunfeld and Jordan's continuity themes.
"Everyone always thinks you get rid of a coach or you go to another team and the grass is goin' to be greener," Arenas said. "But we lost two players to free agency, Larry Hughes and Jared Jeffries. And they're both miserable where they are. You might have feelings where you're angry at each other but you need to move past that.
"Say you get rid of him," he added. "And then we bring in a coach nobody likes. We're practicing five hours a day. He slows the ball down. Well then it's, 'Get rid of this coach.' If it's a good fit, it's a good fit. And I still think it's a good fit."
Beyond the perceived Eddie vs. Gilbert divide, another relationship was rumored to have soured. Eddie and Ernie, that shotgun marriage of a coach and general manager that had amazingly produced the franchise's first, consecutive playoff appearances in two decades.
It got to a point where Tom Thibodeaux, the former Houston assistant coach known for his defensive techniques, had agreed to take a job under Jordan. Several days later, he reneged and eventually wound up in Boston.
The reason he backed out, a friend of Thibodeaux's said, was because the coach was worried he had been brought to Washington to eventually take Jordan's job. He didn't want to be viewed as undermining another coach and his staff, and he felt that that's how it might look if Grunfeld took action during the season to remove Jordan.
A Wizards official, on condition of anonymity, said there was never any such discussion about Thibodeaux's potential role with the team.
So, it's not just Etan and Brendan calling for a truce. ("At the end of the day, we both have a mutual respect for each other," Haywood said, "and we realize that we embarrass ourselves, our team and our families every time we go out there and act silly.") It's also Eddie and Gilbert. And from what everyone is saying, Eddie and Ernie are all good, too. The season opener Halloween night in Indianapolis is essentially an open book to continue repairing each fractured relationship.
Arenas's knee is on its way to mending, Caron Butler's fractured hand is fine, his frame lean and muscular. Antawn Jamison is back, eager to prove he's not past his prime. Darius Songaila's surgically repaired back is not bothering him, and the prospect of the power forward beginning a season with his teammates after missing the first 45 games a year ago looks promising.
For the first time in three seasons, Grunfeld actually re-signed the starting shooting guard from the previous season. DeShawn Stevenson dropped weight and should take on a more prominent role as a deep-ball threat and a defender.
Throw in the 21-year-old, 7-foot Russian Oleksiy Pecherov, draft picks Nick Young and Dominic McGuire and a still-agile Andray Blatche, and the athleticism quotient rises a bit, too.
Continuity looks nice on paper. But after two first-round exits in the postseason, it's fair to ask, why didn't they switch it up more?
The answer: Somewhere in the Wizards' minds, they viewed Cleveland's journey toward the NBA Finals with envy; they thought they had the tools to be that young team that could unseat the Pistons. And if those tools are still here and their Big Three can remain healthy, who's to say they can't be that team a year later?
It's the only rationale for keeping an occasionally dysfunctional family together.