By Ivan Carter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
When Ed Tapscott arrived at Verizon Center yesterday morning around 7:15, he immediately began analyzing video with Washington Wizards assistant coach Randy Ayers. That's nothing unusual for the director of player development.
Eddie Jordan also came to work early to begin preparations for the day's practice and to join his wife, Charrisse, on F Street in front of the arena handing out turkeys and other food to needy families for Thanksgiving at a team-sponsored charitable event.
Within an hour, the lives of both men -- each natives of the District -- would dramatically change.
About 8 a.m., Jordan walked into team president Ernie Grunfeld's office on the Verizon Center's second floor to learn he had been fired after a little more than five seasons as the Wizards' head coach. Within minutes, Wizards vice president of basketball administration Tommy Sheppard poked his head inside Tapscott's office and told him to come upstairs because Grunfeld wanted to see him.
Grunfeld then stunned Tapscott by asking him to replace Jordan as the Wizards' interim coach. Tapscott accepted, and like that, the onetime head coach at American University was an NBA head coach for the first time in his career.
"It was a surreal moment," Tapscott said at a news conference yesterday afternoon announcing the change. "I get out of bed this morning, come in and start looking at tape like I do every morning. Then it starts to sink in when you have to go out there with your practice plan in hand and you have to direct practice. It's still sinking in, but there's a lot of work to do."
Jordan, meanwhile, the third-winningest coach in franchise history, left Verizon Center quietly. He was not available to reporters and did not return phone calls. Although it did not come as a surprise given the Wizards' woeful start to this season, the dismissal of the popular coach saddened his players, who said they felt they had let him down.
"I was shocked. Why would I not be shocked?," all-star forward Antawn Jamison curtly told reporters after hearing the news. "The team is 1-10, not the coaching staff. Next question."
The team Tapscott inherits has already matched the 1966-67 Baltimore Bullets for the worst start in franchise history, ranks near the bottom of the league in several major statistical categories and is coming off an embarrassing loss to the New York Knicks on Saturday night.
Grunfeld touched on many topics while explaining the decision to fire Jordan, but he kept coming back to the team's dismal 1-10 record.
"We have not performed up to our abilities," said Grunfeld, who has acquired every player on the 15-man roster, with the exception of center Etan Thomas. "We have two all-stars on this team, some talented young players and some savvy veterans and we have to get them to play at a higher level. A change had to be made."
Jordan, who was under contract through next season and is owed about $8 million, tallied a record of 197-224 in a little more than five seasons, led the Wizards to four straight playoff appearances and helped make all-stars out of Jamison, Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler.
"I'm always going to be thankful to Eddie because he put the ball in my hands when I was an unproven 20-year old and he let me be me," Arenas said. "Not only did he make me an all-star, he made me an all-league player and a global icon. I owe a lot to him. I have no doubt that he's going to be a coach again real soon because he knows basketball and understands players. That's a rare combination."
But the team struggled terribly this season without Arenas, who is out indefinitely following a third surgery on his left knee, and center Brendan Haywood, who has been out since the end of training camp after wrist surgery.
Returning all-stars Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler have not consistently played at an all-star level, veteran point guard Antonio Daniels has been limited to six games because of a knee injury and the remainder of the roster is composed of underperforming veterans and inexperienced young players.
The Wizards rank 24th in the NBA in scoring, averaging 94.6 points per game, last in three-point shooting (28.2 percent), 27th in opponents' scoring (allowing 103.5 points per game) and 28th in opponents' field goal percentage (47.5 percent).
Only one team has started worse this season: the 1-13 Oklahoma City Thunder, and it fired Coach P.J. Carlesimo after its 12th loss.
"We're down two or three key players, we haven't won games and someone had to be the fall guy," guard Juan Dixon said. "Unfortunately, it had to be the coach."
Associate head coach Mike O'Koren, a longtime Jordan confidant, also was dismissed. Ayers, Phil Hubbard, Wes Unseld Jr. and Dave Hopla remain on Tapscott's staff.
Jordan was popular with players and fans and earned a reputation as one of the best tacticians in the league.
He was hired by owner Abe Pollin in the summer of 2003 to help restore pride to a franchise that was coming off a tumultuous period filled with questionable draft choices and free agent signings, the disappointing Michael Jordan years and above all else, losing basketball.
Despite a string of hard-luck injuries to key players, Jordan created a level of stability and continuity in the franchise that had been lacking for decades.
"This was an extremely difficult decision because I'm personally very fond of Eddie," Pollin said in a statement released by the team. "He helped bring our franchise back to the playoffs and become ingrained in the Washington, D.C. community I will forever be grateful for his dedication and hard work. However, sometimes circumstances force changes. Our team is not performing to my expectations and I felt it was time to make a change. We wish Eddie and his family all the best."
Before Saturday's loss in New York, Jordan talked about the strain he was feeling. "It's been tough because it wears on you," Jordan said. "You go to bed with it and you wake up with it. In the morning, a win or a loss is magnified. A win feels a little bit better in the morning than it did that night but a loss feels even worse. So yeah, it wears on you."
Jordan said he felt supported by his family and his players, some of whom sent him encouraging text messages during the rough start, telling him that they were squarely behind him.
Jamison vowed to rally the team behind Tapscott and work to dig out of the early-season hole.
"The coaching staff did a great job as far as getting us prepared and ready to play games but we didn't get the job done," he said. "In certain situations, maybe it's good to hear a different voice, change or whatever. Is this that situation? I guess we'll find out."
A few hours later, after the players had filed out of Verizon Center, Tapscott was asked what his wife, Janice Thomas, thought of the news of his promotion. The Wizards' new coach realized he still had not spoken with her during the whirlwind day.
"I haven't had a chance to call her yet," he said. "I better do that quick."