"San Diego's up," said Bob Ferry. "Gene's old team. You know they'll take a guy with a bad attitude."
That's an inside joke.
Ferry, the Bullet general manager, laughed and laughed. The team's new coach, Gene Shue, lately freed from the San Diego Clippers, sat next to Ferry. Shue is the NBA's Albert Schweitzer, a saint who sees blessed good where others see original sin. Here is a coach who actually traded to get Lloyd Free on his side. Only an angel with a coach's whistle would sign up Marvin Barnes.
So Bob Ferry, with San Diego's turn in the NBA draft coming up next, yesterday made his little inside joke. And everyone laughed and laughed.
And five picks later, what did the Bullets do?
They picked a guy with a bad attitude.
At least, some people think Wes Matthews has a bad attitude.
The heavens will fall before the Bullets say so.
They say Matthews is a good kid, a good competitor, a great basketball player.
"We talked to his high school coaches in Connecticut. We talked to his assistant coach at Wisconsin, and from our sources that know the kid, they tell us he's a good kid," Ferry said.
Other sources say Matthews is a young John Williamson, trouble looking for a place to happen. "Matthews' hero is none other than Williamson," said a basketball man who watched Matthews play three seasons at the University of Wisconsin. "Matthews is supposed to be the best thing from Connecticut since Williamson left Bridgeport. They played together in the summer, and I hear that's why Matthews went hardship."
In three stormy years at Wisconsin, Matthews, a slim, 6-foot-1 guard, averaged 18.1 points a game. But he was academically ineligible once, he raged and sulked regularly, and he was suspended for the last game of last season after what he admits was a "crazy incident" in which "I got out of control." Matthews left school in April to chase his lifelong dream of playing in the NBA.
"To put it in perspective for you in Washington," another Wisconsin man said, "maybe the Bullets could work out a deal where Matthews could room with Bobby Dandridge."
In Dandridge and Matthews, the Wisconsin source sees wonderful players when they want to be wonderful, but he also sees players whose attitudes will test the saintliness of any coach.
"Matthews is a hot dog," a source said. "He left Wisconsin no more disciplined than when he got there. The coach (Bill Cofield) finally suspended him for that last game after three years of bull. It was just one thing after another. The kid is a great ballplayer and if you saw him on the right night, he was absolutely fantastic.
"But he lost a lot of games in the last two minutes trying to be the hero, throwng the ball away, taking the stupid shot. People who saw him a lot -- the Milwaukee Bucks' people, for instance -- didn't like him. Eventually, he hurts you more than he helps. He just isn't a winning ballplayer."
The Bucks' coach, Don Nelson, called Matthews' first-round selection by the Bullets one of the major surprises of yesterday's draft.
The surprise started with Ferry's scouting of Matthews over the last three seasons. The general manager said he had seen Matthews play maybe three games. At the Bullet's mini-camp recently, Matthews was the standout of 30 prospects.
It is one thing to be a gifted athlete; it is another to be a professional player. Egos seriously out of whack do not cut it in the NBA. For a decade, Ferry has drafted for the Bullets with a certain standard of character in mind. "We want Bullets," he always said, putting an extra spin of quality on the word "Bullets." Wes Unseld is a Bullet; Marvin Barnes is not.
And Bob Ferry believes that Wes Matthews, if not a Bullet already, can become one.
But what about the troubles between Matthews and his college coach, Bill Cofield?
"Do you know anything about Bill Cofield?" Ferry said.
"Not really," came the answer.
"I talked only to his assistant, Larry Reed, who used to work for the Bucks," Ferry said.
"I didn't even talk to Cofield," Ferry said.
"So you're saying, if I get the drift, that if you had a choice of believing Cofield or Wes Matthews, you'd go with Matthews?"
"I didn't even ask Cofield for his opinion," Ferry answered.
No one admits to being an attitude case. Bobby Dandridge is a magnificent mercenary, not an attitude case. Let John Williamson shoot, and his attitude is fine. Ask Wes Matthews if he has an attitude problem, and he says, "Oh, no, oh no. I come to play. No problems out of me."
Someone said, "But Wes, tell me about being suspended for that last game this season."
"Yes, sir, the coach is a screwball, kind of, but the man's been good to me," Matthews said. "I had no problems, it was just that the thing was blown totally out of proportion. It was just a crazy incident."
"It was a crazy thing," Matthews said, "that went down in practice that week between me and an assistant coach. Nothing really happened. It was a situation where I was kind of, you know, rude. I got out of control. It was a tempermental thing, a very temperamental thing. It was a bak break. But, hey, sometimes you pay for the bad breaks."
Without Matthews, Wisconsin lost that last game to woebegone Northwestern and missed out on a possible trip to the National Invitation Tournament. The suspension also cost Matthews a chance to become Wisconsin's all-time leading scorer.
"Those days are over with," Matthews said yesterday. "The Bullets have made my dreams come true. This has been a great day. Hey, I'm feeling real good. I'm so glad to be with the Bullets."
"One other thing, Wes," someone said. "How well do you know John Williamson?"
"John Williamson is from New Haven," Matthews said. "And I'm from here in Bridgeport. I've seen him a few times, and I played against him some when he was with the Nets."
"Oh, someone told me he was your hero."
"No, sir, I only see him once in a while. Hey, sir, do something for me."
"Tell everybody in Washington I'm really going to play for them."