Gar Heard was officially introduced as the new coach of the Washington Wizards yesterday by an optimistic front office that hopes his arrival will help reverse the fortunes of a struggling team.
Team owner Abe Pollin said hiring Heard was a "gut feeling" that came to him immediately after meeting Heard for the first time at an interview last week in Chicago.
"The one interview I had with Gar Heard, he blew me away," said Pollin, who added that the meeting brought Heard to the forefront of a group of four finalists. "It was a 2 1/2-hour interview and I was blown away."
Heard, 51, agreed to a three-year contract Tuesday that will pay him roughly $1 million annually.
Team officials hope that the public is as receptive to the first-time head coach, who has spent the past 12 seasons as an NBA assistant.
"In the real world this is about selling tickets and influencing people to come and watch your product," Wizards General Manager Wes Unseld said. "There is a much bigger, overriding factor and that's winning games. If we do that, those [other] things will happen."
Added Heard: "A bigger name coach comes in, sells tickets for 10 games, they go 0-10, then what? They have a bigger name coach and they're still losing and his philosophy is not working. My thing is, if I was a coach or general manager and I wanted to pick a guy to play, I would pick Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] or Isiah Thomas instead of Gar Heard.
"But we're talking about a coach and my philosophy is that if you're capable of coaching this team, and the players respect you as a coach and you go out and win, fans will come out. I've been around long enough to know if you win, they come out. If you don't, they won't."
The more high-profile candidates interviewed by the Wizards included Thomas, Abdul-Jabbar, Maurice Cheeks, Dave Cowens, Mike Jarvis and Glenn "Doc" Rivers.
Although Heard got his first tour of the team's facilities yesterday, he is already familiar with some of their players. Tim Legler and Terry Davis played for the Mavericks when Heard was an assistant coach and interim head coach in 1992-93, when Dallas won just 11 games -- nine with Heard at the helm.
"I've been watching this coaching search the whole way and when I found out it was him I was like, `Great choice,' " Legler said. "He's going to do well here."
Heard lobbied for the Wizards to re-sign free agent guard Mitch Richmond and Unseld sounded as if he would honor Heard's wishes. Though he would not comment on the issue, Unseld spoke frequently of the team's nucleus, which Heard said was forward Juwan Howard, point guard Rod Strickland and Richmond.
The Wizards cannot begin negotiating with Richmond until July 1. To keep him, Washington likely would have to pay him at least $9 million or $10 million annually.
"I want to keep Mitch," Heard said. "Although he's aging a little bit, he's still one of the top shooting guards in the league. I can't think of anybody on the free agent market out there who's better than Mitch.
"If I had to name my starting lineup it would be Rod, it would be Mitch, it would be Juwan, it would be Ben Wallace [at power forward]. At center, I don't know yet. Those four guys would be in the starting lineup based on last year."
Finding a center in a free agent talent pool shallow at that position could be tough, especially for the Wizards, who have only the $2 million and $1.1 million salary exceptions as bait. Will Perdue of the San Antonio Spurs and Olden Polynice of the Seattle SuperSonics are the most recognizable free agent centers.
Heard said he would prefer a younger, more energetic post player but his options may be limited.
The areas the team most needs to address are defense, rebounding and shot blocking, categories in which the Wizards were abysmal last season, Heard said. Other than that, Heard said Washington needs to be competitive night in and night out to pull out victories late in games -- a chronic problem last season.
"My job is to get us in position to be able to win games down the stretch," Heard said. "If we're in the game down the stretch, I think I'm capable enough and will have a good enough staff so that we're capable of winning those games."
Heard said he hopes to have three assistant coaches, one of which will be a part-time scout, in place by July 1, a day after the June 30 draft at MCI Center. He said he does not know whom he will hire but he wants at least two former players, one of whom has played guard, to be on the bench.
Mike Brown, who was an assistant to Bickerstaff and interim coach Jim Brovelli, could be the third assistant-scout. He will be retained by the Wizards as a full-time scout if he is not named as one of Heard's assistants.
As for finally getting a head coaching job, Heard said his time has come. He said he thought he should have had an opportunity before but that he welcomed the chance to come to a team that he feels could turn itself around quickly.
"I have never doubted that I could coach in this league," said Heard, who played in the NBA for 11 years, an experience Pollin and Unseld said will help him as a coach. "The last 12 years, my name always came up in the media for a job, but this is the first time in the last seven years I actually got a call."
The Wizards considered hiring Heard two seasons ago after they fired Jim Lynam during the season, Unseld said, but they hired Bickerstaff instead. Bickerstaff was fired April 5 and was replaced on an interim basis by Brovelli.
Washington Wizards Coaching History
CAPTION: Wizards Coach Gar Heard discusses his plans for turning around a team that finished 18-32 last aseason and missed the playoffs.