Mike Wise: Grunfeld, Tapscott Go Way Back, Must Move Wizards Forward

By Mike Wise
Thursday, November 27, 2008

The team president and his handpicked, trial-by-fire coach met through a mutual friend at the 1991 ACC tournament. Later that evening, over burgers at Frank Manzetti's Bar & Grill in Charlotte, Ernie Grunfeld, then a fledgling New York Knicks executive, and Ed Tapscott, the former American coach turned player agent, maneuvered salt and pepper shakers symbolizing players, talked personnel and promised to stay in touch.

In thanking Grunfeld for his time, Tapscott added, "Sir, I remember you from the Bernie and Ernie days," referring to the University of Tennessee's high-scoring 1970s duo of Grunfeld and Bernard King, who later were Knicks teammates.

"I'll call you when I get up to New York."

Within months, Tapscott was pitching Grunfeld a lemon of an Oklahoma State center, hoping the Knicks would bite and invite the scrub to summer league or training camp. Neither remembered the kid's name yesterday when asked.

"I said, 'Eddie, that guy can't play,' " Grunfeld recalled. "He said, 'You're right, he can't.' Normally you don't hear that from agents."

Tapscott explained to Grunfeld that day, 'Ernie, my job is to represent them -- not lie for them.' " Two months later, the Knicks' new vice president of player personnel brought a well-connected, Tufts-educated, work-the-room wordsmith into the organization and, as Tapscott said yesterday, "Now here we are, years later."

Tapscott's ascension to Wizards interim head coach after the firing of Eddie Jordan on Monday might come across to the uninitiated as a curious stopgap, the elevation of an assistant whose last coaching gig was his daughter's youth-league team a decade ago.

But the moment the Ernie and Eddie Show was unceremoniously closed after a five-year, four-playoff run and needing someone to steady a 1-10 team, Grunfeld called on a man whom he had come to unfailingly trust in the shark-tank world of NBA front offices, playing rabbi for Tapscott just as he had in New York and Milwaukee.

Which, depending on how the Gil and Caron era winds up in Washington, can be good or bad.

More than ever, it's on Grunfeld now. The architect of the roster, not the owner, picked the coach this time. Until at least the summer, it's the Ernie and Tap Show, starring two veteran NBA executives; a gimpy-kneed, $111 million franchise player; his now 2-10 teammates; and a mountain of uncertainty.

Everybody is saying how bad they feel for Eddie Jordan, a very good coach, a better soul and the District's own. I feel bad for homegrown Eddie Tapscott. Jordan gets to spend Thanksgiving with his family, $8 million of Abe Pollin's severance money (roughly what it would have cost to re-sign Roger Mason) and the knowledge that he did the best he could with the tools he had.

Tapscott has to spend Thanksgiving watching Orlando's Dwight Howard try to emasculate a front line that doesn't hit the boards as much as it caresses them.

Say what you want about Jordan's message not resonating in the locker room anymore. The truth: Aside from this season's start, he and his staff siphoned more out of a Band-Aid roster for much of the past two years than any coach in the NBA could -- vintage Pat Riley and Phil Jackson included.

The Wizards may incrementally improve over the next few months, finally finding their level when their best player isn't bailing them out and their best defender isn't patrolling the paint. But until Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood return more healthy than not or Grunfeld makes a trade (or both), it's not going to be exceptionally pretty.

The good news for the Ernie and Tap Show: Losing or winning times, there won't be any divisiveness at the top. In the late 1990s in New York, they saw the disastrous consequences of what happens when different factions splinter a championship-caliber organization from the inside.

"The theme that you hear resonating in what I've tried to say in the last couple days is, 'Let's get everybody in agreement with what we're doing,' " Tapscott said. "Clarity. Avoid confusion. Eliminate confusion. Communicate and talk to each other so we have clarity, we know where we stand with each other."

Shortly before he and Grunfeld were relieved of their duties in New York within months of each other in 1999, "We didn't have clarity," Tapscott said. "We had obfuscation. Clarity allows the mind to sort of focus in on the right things."

The Knicks were involved in two Eastern Conference finals, an NBA championship series and a truckload of epic playoff series against the Bulls and Pacers during their tenures in the 1990s.

"It was a great run in New York and a great time, and things happened," Grunfeld said.

"An unbelievable experience," Tapscott said. "Look at the people I worked with, notwithstanding some of your issues that you have. [Dave] Checketts. [Pat] Riley. Grunfeld. [Don] Nelson. [Jeff] Van Gundy. Don Chaney. Brendan Malone. Dick Harter. Those are some terrific basketball minds. Those were some terrific years."

Patrick Ewing's Knicks never won a title because of Michael Jordan and because their musical-chair ownership and management never were able to put a complementary all-star around the future Hall of Fame center until his body had betrayed him.

The paramount issue today facing Grunfeld and Tapscott, whether he remains coach or not after this season, is whether they can put the right pieces around Arenas and Caron Butler before their primes end without a ring or even a trip to the NBA Finals.

Three days after Eddie Jordan was relieved of his job, it's really on them. It's now the responsibility of two longtime friends and successful associates to again make those salt and pepper shakers move beyond the first round.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company