With their customary impeccable timing the Washington Wizards introduced their new coach, Gar Heard, on the same day the Los Angeles Lakers introduced their new coach, Phil Jackson.
Phil Jackson. Gar Heard.
Six rings. No rings.
Who do you think attracted the bigger crowd?
In introducing Heard as the coach, Abe Pollin said he went to Wes Unseld, and said (as Abe seems to say every two years or so): "Wes, I want you to go out and find the best coach for this team in the country. Money is not an object. You find the best man -- we'll take care of the financing."
Unseld narrowed the list to four, and advised Pollin to meet them. Pollin sat down with Heard and came away raving: "The interview I had with Gar Heard blew me away," Pollin said yesterday. "It's amazing what he came to the table with."
What, Hoffritz cutlery?
Pollin went on: "I've lived my life by picking people from what my gut told me to do. And my gut said, `Abe, this is the guy.` "
It's a good thing Abe didn't listen to Wes's gut. He'd have heard: "Super-size that."
Please don't get me wrong. I have nothing against Gar Heard. He seems to be a pleasant man with bearing and dignity and a twinkle in his eye. And he knows how to make a joke at his own expense: "The last 12 years whenever a job comes open, my name always comes up in the papers. Everybody calls me and says, `You're being considered.' And my first comment is: `I'm always considered by the newspapers -- not by the people who make the decisions.' "
Heard has played for and coached under some great coaches: Larry Brown, Jack Ramsay, Lenny Wilkens, Dick Motta, John MacLeod. If Heard has learned just a little from each of them, he's qualified for this job. I hope he does great. But the cynic in me fears this is an uninspired choice. The cynic in me looks at what has happened with the Redskins the last six years, and worries that being a top assistant on winning teams may not convey as a head coach. The cynic in me knows this team could use some sizzle. Heaven knows, at 18-32, there isn't much steak.
I wanted to feel excited about the next coach of the Wizards. When I found out it was Gar Heard, I felt nothing. I'm sorry, the earth didn't move for me. (I imagine this is what it's like on the Gore campaign.) Tell me I'm wrong. Tell me you rushed up to the ticket window and said, "Gimme two for Gar Heard."
I wanted a bold move. I wanted somebody you could follow to the barricades. I was on the record favoring Isiah Thomas. Not because he's a fine fellow -- because he's not -- but because the new coach of the Washington Wizards inherits a bad, disappointing, dispirited team that may have to be blown up, and I think Isiah has the kind of juice that would make the process interesting. I'd have hired Doc Rivers if I could. I'd have hired Mike Jarvis if I could. I'd have gone down to Durham, N.C., with flowers and candy, and waited on Mike Krzyzewski's porch like a dalmatian, and I'd have said to him, "Your program has just been earthquaked. Come to the NBA and get to coach your recruits."
It would have been a while before I got to Gar Heard. I would have overlooked him because I'd seen the Bullets bring in so many recycled coaches in the past 15 years -- Gene Shue, Kevin Loughery, Jim Lynam, Bernie Bickerstaff. Heard had coached once before; he was 9-44 in Dallas in 1993. That is hardly a compelling resume. True, Dallas was a terrible team. Heard was the interim coach, and everybody knew he was just playing out the string, because management was sold on Quinn Buckner to start the next season. (Buckner went 13-69 the following season. He was the Exxon Valdez.) But 9-44 slides your name down the pole a bit.
If you're the Wizards you're hoping you plucked an orchid out of the weeds. You're hoping you got yourself the next Chuck Daly. Daly was 51 years old, the same age Heard is now, when he was named interim coach at Cleveland in 1981. He was fired with three months to go in the season after going 9-32. Two seasons later Detroit took a chance on Daly, and he became one of the great coaches in the NBA. That's what you're hoping for with Gar Heard.
Yesterday, Heard said he thinks the Wizards "have the nucleus to have a very good team."
Excuse me, Tony, what did you expect him to say? That they're dog meat?
Heard had a nice touch when he talked about how the Wizards lacked height. He glanced over at Unseld and joked, "I'm trying to talk Wes into giving me 15 minutes a game."
Heard said he would stress defense, saying, "I believe in defense."
I believe in Tinkerbell, but I don't think she's flying into my window tonight. Good luck selling defense to this squad.
And Heard got a ringing endorsement from Tim Legler, who played for him in Dallas. Legler said, "I was in New Jersey, reading the papers every day, seeing who was being mentioned for this job. And every day I said: `Please get Gar Heard.' Coaches who do well are the guys who relate well to players. They get players to play at a higher level. Gar can do that. I saw him do it in Dallas."
Heard has his work cut out for him. He has a chronically underachieving team, and a hardened core of fans that expects perennial collapses. The Curse Of Les Boulez hangs over this franchise like a noose, snaring everybody who comes to town. (Mitch Richmond just had the worst year of his career here, and these people expect him to stay?) At the moment Heard is just another name -- and not a sexy one. I asked him what he'd say to people who questioned why the Wizards picked him, and not somebody glitzier.
He smiled. A man doesn't work as an assistant coach for 12 seasons and not anticipate that question. "I'd say that those big-name guys can't get on the court and put the ball into the basket. We're not picking players, we're picking a coach. I can bring more to the table." He paused for a second, then said confidently: "If I come here and make a winner, we're going to have fans in the stands. And they don't care about the name of the coach on the bench -- they care about winning." Heard looked me straight in the eye when he said that. If he was selling encyclopedias, I might have bought one.
Like I said: I wish him well. I hope Gar Heard is the best possible man for this job, the way Wes Unseld thinks he is. Then I will happily eat this column.