By Thomas Boswell
Thursday, December 31, 2009; D10
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.
Finally, there was Davey Johnson, who said his role model was his father. Why? When his dad knew he'd be captured by the Nazis, he hid a knife up his rectum during the strip search, then killed a guard, escaped and got back to his unit. Peter Angelos just never felt comfortable around Davey. Too edgy. Too bad for the Orioles.
It doesn't take wartime courage for a rich NBA coach to call out rich players. But it's a start. Saunders gets extra points because this puts Ernie Grunfeld right in the cross hairs. Maybe the Wizards' team president was doing what his late owner wanted, but his fingerprints are all over a roster that can't keep 54-year-olds from going to the rack. So now, thanks to Saunders, the rest of the Wizards' season is going to be interesting because it is finally going to be honest.
Last year I asked a friend who's been an NBA coach and executive how he evaluated the Wizards. Talent level aside, how many winning players did they have -- hard-nosed, strong, defense-first, bust it every minute, workaholic, team attitude and mean, too?
"Maybe Dominic McGuire," he said. Nobody else.
One guy off the bench, without too much raw ability, was the only person he saw who could have been an old Celtics sub or a bad-boy Piston or a role-playing Rocket. The rest, in a word: soft.
Long ago, I asked Gene Mauch what was his worst day was as a manager. Random question. But Mauch actually thought about it, then said, "The day you realize you care more than the players do."
Saunders knows the feeling. Now we have the truth about the Wizards out of the mouth of their own coach, bless his infuriated heart. Some of us have felt this bubbling disgust for many of the last 30 years as Wizards players, who were always loved and treated as personal friends by the late Abe Pollin, had it too easy. Their "curse" may have been that they weren't cursed (at) enough.
Saunders only needed 30 games to get sick of it and blow the whistle -- on the whole Wizards culture. A new sheriff, Ted Leonsis, is almost certainly coming soon. When he gets there, maybe he should have the players' names taken off their jerseys. Why not stitch "No D" on all their backs. When Saunders thinks they deserve it, let them put their names back on -- one at a time.
After all these slacker years, how much can the truth hurt?