Wizards coach Flip Saunders is right to criticize team's performance

By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, December 31, 2009

Flip Saunders had me at "They can't guard anybody."

But he locked me up when he added, "You know, I think I can go out there on that floor and take anybody on our team, one-on-one at 52 years old, and drive right around them." (Saunders was so annoyed he seemed to have forgotten he was actually 54.)

Sometimes I think I've been waiting my whole life to hear just one Washington coach of a high-paid pro team with an abysmal record and a history of goldbricking challenge his athletes to shape up or have the truth about their slack habits exposed in public.

Finally, a slap in the face, a kick in the butt and a sign on the wall: The Play-Defense Bus leaves at dawn. Be on it or under it.

What made Saunders's calm, choose-every-word incrimination of the Wizards Tuesday night so damning was that he was fingering the franchise's long-term NBA identity. "This team for the last five years has been known as one of the worst defensive teams in the league," Saunders began.

Gosh, that's exactly when Gilbert Arenas arrived, followed by Antawn Jamison and then Caron Butler. The stars are the bums?

"Until our guys decide that it hurts when teams score on you, we've got no chance. We're kidding ourselves," said Saunders, whose 597 career wins as a coach make him an NBA authority.

"I feel bad for the people that came to the game and had to watch us play like this," he said. "We got a responsibility as professional athletes, as entertainers, to go out on the floor and perform at a high level, especially at home."

In my lifetime, I can count on my fingers the Washington coaches who instilled true fear, true accountability, as well as respect in their players. With the Redskins, Vince Lombardi, George Allen and Joe Gibbs all managed it. If Marty Schottenheimer had stayed long enough to learn where Connecticut Avenue was, he'd have aggravated the Redskins into shape.

With the Wizards franchise, only one coach, Dick Motta, actually relished being disliked by his players. His personality started at prickly, then trended toward unprintable. To Wes Unseld's credit, he once rode a star player so hard that the guy left practice and came back with a gun. Other than that, every Wizards coach has been Kevin Loughery, except some were named Gene Shue, Jim Lynam, Bernie Bickerstaff, Doug Collins, Eddie Jordan and Ed Tapscott. All the same guy: Please Tread On Me.

In baseball, Earl Weaver once said: "My players can say anything they want. That's free speech. But I can say anything I want about them." So, he said, "I gave Mike Cuellar more chances than my first wife." He saw Al Bumbry going to team chapel and said, "Take your bat." When Jim Palmer whined, he said, "I'm sick of sending [coach] Ray Miller to the mound to change his diaper."

For hard honesty, Frank Robinson makes my short list, too. His '89 Orioles and '05 Nats were my two favorite hell-for-leather teams. The only time Robby ever thanked me was after I wrote that Fred Lynn made as much money in a week as a fireman made in a year, but the firemen went into burning buildings while Lynn refused to pinch-hit in Yankee Stadium because he had a cold.

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