By Tracee Hamilton
Wednesday, September 29, 2010; 12:28 AM
It's tempting to go with the obvious jokes here. The Wizards kicked off the 2010-11 season at 12 a.m. Tuesday with a midnight madness-style practice. Because such festivities are the purview of college programs, not professional ones, this is where you insert your smart remarks.
"What's the difference between Kentucky's midnight madness and the Wizards? The Wildcats could be competitive in the NBA."
Go ahead, get it out of your system. All of Tuesday morning's smoke machines and laser light shows can't obscure the facts. The Wizards won just 26 games last season - only three teams won fewer. Their star point guard, Gilbert Arenas, was suspended for 50 games for a locker room gun incident. The team dumped stars Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood at the trade deadline. Newly acquired forward Josh Howard led the team to a 3-1 record in his first four games - then tore an anterior cruciate ligament.
This is not a team burdened by expectations, to put it mildly.
But this summer - freed from distractions such as the pesky playoffs - things started to go right for the Wizards. Perhaps their karma took a turn. Whatever. Ted Leonsis finalized a deal to assume ownership of the team. Irene Pollin went to New York and grabbed the top pick in the draft, and the Wizards used it to select Kentucky freshman John Wall. JaVale McGee found his mojo in the summer league, in tandem with Wall, and made a splash at Team USA tryouts. The Wizards added veteran guard Kirk Hinrich for some needed stability and maturity. And they're trying to get the uniform colors changed back to red, white and blue for next season.
None of that means they're going to challenge Boston and Miami and Chicago and Orlando for Eastern Conference supremacy. In fact, the Wizards are being picked to be among the worst teams in the NBA - again. They are fighting for fans and ticket dollars in their own town; taking on the NBA will have to wait a spell.
But the group that took the court early Tuesday morning at the Patriot Center is hungry and young. In fact, they blended in quite nicely at George Mason, where students joined diehard fans from off campus, maybe 3,500 in all, to watch the first practice of the season.
They came to see the Wizards but especially Wall, and that knowledge can't be easy for Arenas. A year ago, Agent Zero would have been the last player introduced, with the most smoke, the most lasers, the most cheers. He would have struck a fun pose, flashed that big smile and hammed it up for the fans.
Tuesday morning, his was the penultimate introduction, and he drew nothing but cheers. Wall came last and got by far the biggest hand.
Arenas is still owed $80 million - or 21/2 times as much as the Redskins have paid Albert Haynesworth, to put it in terms D.C. fans will understand. That makes him virtually untradeable. Leonsis has reached out to Arenas and has asked fans to do the same. NBA Commissioner David Stern, meanwhile, has told everyone in the organization, including Arenas, to shut up about the guns, the suspension and the halfway house. The gag order seemed to be working Monday afternoon during media day, when Arenas seemed almost comatose.
He's changed his number from 0 to 9, and a summer working for Tim Grover in Chicago seems to have honed him into great shape. But the biggest change is this: It's no longer his team. At the age of 20 - younger than most of the people in the stands and all the people on the court - Wall has the reins and responsibility. Perhaps that will allow Arenas to rediscover his child-like love of the game, without lapsing into his child-like behavior.
It's early, but Arenas and Wall seem to be coexisting so far. Everyone showed rust Tuesday morning, but during five-on-five drills with time expiring, Arenas bounced in a three-pointer at the buzzer. It was a typical Hibachi move by a bearded and morose stranger. Wall, playing on the other team, broke into a big grin, crossed over to the opposing huddle and congratulated Arenas.
As the morning wore on, Arenas seemed to lighten up. He said Monday he would save his smiles for his court time, and eventually he did. When Wall missed his own buzzer shot, Arenas offered commiseration.
On the court, there was harmony. Afterward, while Wall stood in the middle of a five-deep circle of reporters and cameramen, Arenas kept on working. He fired up shot after shot from behind the three-point line, clanking them at first but developing a rhythm. Assistant coach Sam Cassell fed him ball after ball, and the stroke got smoother and smoother. He moved out near the half-court line and started again. Clank, clank, clank. And then one swish, two, three, four, five, six. And when the seventh rimmed out, Arenas turned and ran to the locker room without a backward glance.