Elvin Hayes and other former Bullets reconnect with team

Map of the Wizard training camp
Gene Thorp/The Washington Post
By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 12:47 AM

Elvin Hayes said somewhere along the way - possibly after the Washington Bullets dealt him to the Houston Rockets in 1981 - that his relationship with the only organization for which he had won a championship, the place where he had established most of his Hall of Fame credentials, had been severed.

It always pained him that he had mostly lost that bond but he didn't realize how deep the disconnect was until he called the Wizards last season and struggled to find someone who recognized his name and could offer him assistance. Hayes, whose No. 11 jersey hangs in the rafters, eventually called former teammate and current Wizards broadcaster Phil Chenier, who helped put him in contact with the right people.

"That's when it really hurt me. You have put so much sweat and blood on the court and you call a place, and it's like, 'Who?' " Hayes said in a telephone interview from Houston. "It was like nobody knew. I called everywhere. I finally got one person who said, 'I know who you are.' "

Hayes likely won't have that problem anymore. Since taking over as owner of the Wizards, Ted Leonsis has made a concerted effort to reach out to former players with the hopes of establishing a formal Wizards/Bullets alumni program. He has reached out to Hayes, Wes Unseld, Bobby Dandridge, Earl Monroe, Kevin Grevey and Kevin Porter and asked President Ernie Grunfeld to assist him in contacting players.

Taking a cue from organizations such as the Boston Celtics, who constantly intertwine their past history, Leonsis wants players who have contributed to the success of the Bullets and the Wizards to have a more visible presence - in the owner's box at Verizon Center, at games, at practices - sharing their wisdom with the current players and serving as ambassadors for the team.

After Abe Pollin's death, and the Pollin family selling the team last June, Leonsis felt the organization lost an important link to its past success and needed to start anew.

"I promised we'd pay homage to the past, but I didn't have that natural connective tissue," Leonsis said. "I need to build that sense of community, because Mr. Pollin owned the team for so long, he was the team. I'm new. I can't do it on my own. I need help. In my due diligence and my research, I felt like this franchise has had a lot of great players, Hall of Fame players, championship-winning players who had developed and become great and successful in life."

The Wizards have invited several players to attend training camp this week at George Mason University's Patriot Center. Monroe plans to attend Thursday to Saturday, and during that time, the Hall of Fame guard who won a title with the Knicks but began his career with the Bullets said he hopes to spend some time with No. 1 overall pick John Wall. Dandridge and Grevey are expected to participate in the Fan Fest before the final practice on Sunday.

"There always should be some kind of thread that runs from what used to be, to what is now," Monroe said in a telephone interview. "It could be a very good thing for those players coming up to have somebody to at least talk to every now and then. It's not all just glitz and glitter. As former players, we understand the game a lot, in terms of how it's played. I think one of the problems that happens is that we don't have anybody to give that knowledge to. It just kind of sits there."

Coach Flip Saunders said on Monday that he is excited about having the former greats come back to pass on their wisdom. "Part of understanding the league and respecting the league is understanding a little bit of the history," he said. "So we're just trying to let them know that the living that they have now and the money they are able to earn is because of the sacrifices that those guys made. I think it's important to those players too, to know that they are appreciated by organization and by individuals."

Leonsis said he plans on hiring someone whose sole responsibility is helping this program take flight. The team also plans on starting a newsletter to provide former players with updates on what other players are doing and establishing a true community. Thus far, Leonsis has been leaning on Dandridge, a member of the 1978 championship team, as somewhat of a point man after telling him of his plans when Dandridge visited Verizon Center last June to watch draft prospects.

"I am, because if you look at it, although there are probably four retired jerseys hanging in the rafters, there were still other great players with the Bullets," Dandridge said, rattling off the names of Rick Mahorn, Jeff Ruland, Mike Riordan, Archie Clark, Jack Marin, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and current Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak. "It's letting them know that they have not been forgotten and letting the new guys know they got foundation that they can stand on - and it's a winning foundation; not a losing foundation."

The franchise hasn't won a title since 1978 or won more than 45 games since 1979, but Dandridge and Hayes can only recall a time when the Bullets were considered one of the best organizations, making long playoff runs and reaching the NBA Finals.

"It seemed like for a minute or two, once they switched the name over [to] the Wizards, even though it was the same franchise, same owner, the Bullets thing was put in the background," he said. "For a period of time, it was a common occurrence for the Bullets to be in the playoffs. Ted Leonsis wants the guys to know, there is a certain history and a certain pride with this franchise, and they can build on that legacy and the franchise can rightfully take its place among the elite teams in the league."

Hayes said he always marvels at how Celtics embrace their past and said it could go a long way toward improving the culture of the franchise.

"When I was there and we used to bring in players and ask, 'Are they a Bullet player? Are they a player that can play on this team?' I think that sometimes, when you lose that tradition, you can have problems," said Hayes, who said he also plans to attend training camp this week. "I think it's good to link, not to separate from the past. You don't have a lot of the problems when you have that tradition coming back and visiting with the younger players and encouraging your younger players and directing your younger players. You don't see a lot of the off-court problems."

When Leonsis called to tell him what he had planned for the organization, Hayes was thrilled. He plans to visit Washington and also joining the team when it comes to Texas. "I think that it was just tremendous for me to receive that call. I think it will be a plus," Hayes said. "When I came there, I said I wanted to win a championship for Abe Pollin, and really for Irene and the fans of Washington. I'm glad to be re-plugged in, with the excitement and enthusiasm I will have, being in Washington and being at games. This is really going to mean a lot for me."

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