The trend in recent years is for big guys to play like little guys. There's so much dribbling, twirling, fading and jump shooting, hardly anybody wants to stay down underneath the basket and engage in low-post mayhem. The last time the Washington Wizards had a legitimate low-post presence who could score, defend and bang -- big Gheorghe Muresan -- they made the playoffs. In the two seasons since, the Wizards have had no big-bang threat, and as a result have been no threat to anybody.
Isaac Austin, all 6 feet 10 and 270 pounds of him, has been brought in to change that. His personality fits his size and he knows why he's here. "It's nice to shoot jumpers and stuff," he said this week. "But it's better to be back down in the low post again. My job here is to make it easier on Rod [Strickland] and Mitch [Richmond]. That's my job."
Only high-risk stocks have risen and fallen in value as dramatically as Austin's career fortunes. Two years ago, with Alonzo Mourning injured, Austin was an overpowering center for Pat Riley's Miami Heat. As a starter he was constantly getting around 20 points and 10 rebounds. About to become a free agent, Austin played well enough to be shopped around the league by Riley, who in what is now a laughable move, sent Austin to the Clippers for Brent Barry. After the end of that 1997-98 season, Austin signed with Orlando. But he was ill-suited to Chuck Daly's high screen-and-roll system, which uses the center (remember Bill Laimbeer?) up around the foul line instead of underneath the basket. "I was never comfortable with 60 percent of my shots being jumpers," Austin said. "It was a bad year for me, and it sure dropped my stock as a player. I didn't have the right attitude because I felt in that role I was just set up to fail."
In 2 1/2 years Austin went from nomad, to late bloomer, to coveted, to overrated. Oh, and also to overweight. Again. So he became expendable. The price was Ben Wallace, a promising pogo stick of a rebounder who still might prove to be a big-time player. But the true value of Strickland and Richmond could never be reached without a forceful player down low, so the Wizards made the deal.
The man who reported to camp last week is one thankful dude -- slimmer too, and in search of something. Just as Austin is a rare big man who wants to play like one, he's also a rare competitor who says freely that proving himself worthy is a big deal.
"This is a chance to redeem myself," Austin said. "That's what the game, what sports, is all about. Last year, my work ethic wasn't there. I didn't do the extra work. It's up to me to prove I can and will. I have a lot to prove. To me, you've always got to prove yourself, to make someone feel differently about you. You want to make them feel about you the way you feel about yourself. Me, I want to get back to the way I played at Miami. I accept the criticism about my play last year, and it's up to me to prove I can be the kind of player I was in Miami by helping this team win."
To that end, Austin started his own personal preseason camp on July 1. He worked with a Florida-based trainer, fanatically doing track and field-like conditioning work, pumping more iron than ever before. He went from a soft 288 to a granite 273. A chef cooks his meals, paying great attention to calories and fat intake. Austin is leaving nothing to chance. "No room for possible excuses," he said.
New coach Gar Heard said he wants, and the Wizards need, Ike Austin to rebound like he's never rebounded before. "He can rebound when he wants to," Heard said after watching Austin dominate the glass in a practice session. "Our thing is to make sure he wants to. He's never had to, but we need that from him. We're not a very strong rebounding team."
As much as Richmond was growing attached to Wallace, he'd never run into so many forearms and rear ends of opposing centers and power forwards. For opposing defenses, it was open season on Rod and Mitch. After one game in which Strickland and Richmond were clearly out of gas in the fourth quarter, an opposing power forward said to me, "Don't blame Mitch and Rod." Why not? "Because we beat their butts out there. I mean literally -- we beat 'em up. We don't have to worry about guarding a guy down in the block, so we step out and hammer 'em. They've got no chance until they get a big guy."
The other day, Richmond said, "I enjoyed Ben Wallace, and we miss him. But we had to have a big body in there. Ike provides a presence we didn't have last season. And he's a pretty good passer out of there, too."
But it'll be Austin's ability to power the ball to the basket, particularly early in games, that will free Richmond, Strickland, Richard Hamilton and Tracy Murray. Austin won't have to worry about any comfort level because he should never be more than 10 feet from the basket.
"He will be a threat down there," Heard said. "He showed in Miami (13.5 points per game in 1997-98) he can score down there. He wanted back in the low post and we're going to feed it to him."
It's the very sign of Austin at camp, plus the ability of such youngsters as Hamilton and Laron Profit, that has made this a pleasant start. It's an unusually healthy, excited and eager group of Wizards. It's possible that Profit's skills, given the up-tempo, man-to-man nature of the NBA and the new rules that will limit contact, might be better displayed at the pro level than in college. The veterans have been most impressed with him these first few days.
But Hamilton and Profit can afford to take their time, gradually grow into NBA life. Austin is 30 years old and has played basketball from Salt Lake City to Turkey to France to the CBA. Most of that has been as a journeyman backup. But everybody saw for a half-season in Miami that Austin could be depended upon, that he could hold his own with the best big men in the NBA. The Wizards are hoping, and Austin is insisting, that the spark we saw in Miami can at last turn into a flame.