By the close of last season, after it had won seven of its last nine games, George Washington appeared to have a good basketball team that would be getting nothing but better. The Colonials would have their top six players coming back, including Mike Brown, a tractor-trailer down low, who had averaged 19.6 points and 12.1 rebounds as a junior. And a blue-chip recruit, Max Blank, was supposed to take some of the inside burden off Brown. The expectations -- serious contender for the Atlantic 10 title, 20 victories, an NCAA bid -- were great, but reasonable under the circumstances. Having aggressively hawked his program from the day he arrived on campus three years before, Gerry Gimelstob had the microphone in his hand and the crowd paying attention; he'd worked on the songs and arrangements. All the players had to hit were the right notes.
They haven't: too many flats, not enough sharps.
GW is 13-12 with two league games and the league tournament left to salvage a disappointing, frustrating season. It has lost five of its last seven, a bad sign late in a season. And it has been ulcerated by dissension, a terrible sign any time in a season.
Things fell apart: Brown hurt his left big toe running sprints at practice Dec. 27 and has practiced only twice with the team since. Consequentially, said Mike O'Reilly, the point guard, "the continuity isn't the same -- it's not as natural on the court as it should be with teammates who've played together this long." Over the season, playing hurt the last 18 games, Brown has averaged 17.1 points and 11 rebounds, but he has scored only 89 in the last seven. Blank tore up a knee last summer, and played just 48 minutes this season. Beyond Brown, GW doesn't have a player averaging as many as three rebounds per game. Shooting is off; Chester Wood, Darryl Webster and Troy Webster -- GW's fourth-, fifth- and sixth-leading scorers this season -- are collectively shooting 40 percent. Gimelstob has started all but his freshmen players, but hasn't yet found the combination that satisfies him. "People aren't used to playing with the same people for any real length of time," said Joe Wassel, GW's second-leading scorer and rebounder. "We use a lot of people, and we lose continuity."
Along with the breakdowns on the court, came breakdowns off it. A few weeks ago some members of the team, hiding behind anonymity, criticized the coach for what they called a lack of confidence in some players, favoritism toward others and puzzling substitutions. Grumbling is common to deflated teams, but it's far easier to manage when it is kept in-house. "(Gimelstob) was hurt by it," Wassel said. "He felt badly that his players couldn't come to him and talk about their problems."
Until this season, Gimelstob had been quite successful at GW. Taking over a team that had finished 8-19 the year before, Gimelstob recruited well, sold his players on the notion that together they could build the program up to where it would deserve to be mentioned in the same paragraph -- not just on the same map -- as Georgetown and Maryland, and coached his brains out. In his first season GW was 13-14, then 14-15 and 17-12. Gimelstob, who was an assistant to Bob Knight at Indiana, is the only GW coach ever whose teams have had a winning record in the Eastern Eight or Atlantic-10, or won a conference tournament game. He is young, 33, and he is aggressive and ambitious -- enviable stats in his business.
But this season has been torturous to him. "I think about it all the time," Gimelstob said the other day. "It's all I think about, quite frankly." He took a deep breath and spoke openly and sincerely of the results of his self-examination. "I think the major responsibility is my fault. It has to be. That's what the coach is for . . . I've tried everything I know to help this team. I've brought them in and showed them a movie, which I hoped would teach them about the importance of internal leadership; I've worked them hard; I've given them time off. I don't know exactly what is wrong. I know that as a group, we are, collectively and individually, very frustrated.
"I think I made a mistake, probably, in trying to get too high too quickly. I wanted to play Kansas and Michigan State; I think you should play the top-20 teams, and not just a bunch of bops. But maybe losing those two at home, early, started the frustration; I don't know, I'm just thinking out loud . . . We played some good teams -- Kansas, Michigan State, Virginia -- dead even to the five-minute mark. If we're good enough to be tied with five, six minutes to go, why aren't we good enough to win those games? I don't know. I really don't . . . I think that my expectations, probably, were too high. I guess I got caught up in all of the enthusiasm, and I overestimated our abilities.
"The biggest disappointment to me is that I haven't been able to develop in the team that sense of unselfishness among one another as a team, where players put the unit above the individual . . . The criticism hurts, I admit it. There may be some kids who question my confidence in them. They have to understand that I have a deep and sincere affection for them, but as a coach I have to make some objective decisions on who plays. I don't care who shoots the jumper out there; I just want results. I don't determine the time they play -- they do.
"I like them; I may be wrong, but I think they like me. I think what I have to do now as a coach is cleanse all that bad feeling they've accumulated throughout the season."
He shook his head.
This wasn't any fun at all.
The deal you make in sports is win, lose or draw, you're supposed to learn something. The players and coaches at GW are learning how it feels to fall short of their expectations. They can take the low ground toward recrimination, or, as Gimelstob seems inclined, the high ground toward compassion and charity.