Milwaukee Bucks Coach George Karl recently glanced over the Washington Wizards' roster and got an uneasy feeling.
"Washington is a team that scares the heck out of me," Karl said.
His assessment may seem surprising, especially since the Wizards are coming off an 18-32 season during which Bernie Bickerstaff was fired as coach. But Karl isn't the only Eastern Conference coach who thinks Washington finally has the pieces in place for a playoff team.
"They could be a factor," Philadelphia 76ers Coach Larry Brown said. ". . . The Eastern Conference is really wide open."
The Wizards themselves possess a calm optimism that isn't just the usual hallmark of a new season. With the arrival of 6-foot-10 center Isaac Austin, the Wizards have filled a position that had been the team's weak spot the last two seasons.
The Wizards traded promising forward Ben Wallace, along with guard Tim Legler, forward-center Terry Davis and guard Jeff McInnis to the Orlando Magic for Austin in August. Not since 7-7 Gheorghe Muresan, who suffered an assortment of injuries following the 1996-97 season and didn't play for the Wizards again, has Washington had an inside presence that opposing teams had to account for.
"There's no secret that when Ike is physically in great shape, he's a premier center in the league," Boston Celtics Coach Rick Pitino said. "If he takes care of his body, he's a force to be reckoned with."
While Austin is not necessarily an all-star caliber center on the level of Patrick Ewing or Alonzo Mourning, he promises to be a solid complement to guards Mitch Richmond and Rod Strickland and forward Juwan Howard on a team that has had just two winning seasons and has made the playoffs just once since 1987-88.
"I'm looking at me to be the answer," Austin said. "At the same time, knowing that if I come in and play well, it's going to open things up a lot more for other players, like Mitch, Juwan and Rod. I think they're banking on the way I'm capable of playing."
Austin, 30, has averaged as many as 13 points a game, and is capable of being a factor rebounding as well.
"Ike gives them that presence," said Miami Heat Coach Pat Riley, who coached Austin for almost two seasons after discovering him in a Turkish pro league. "He's somebody who on the high post makes real good passes, and he's a good pick-and-roll player. I don't think he does anything else but facilitate the strengths of their top three or four guys."
Austin missed all but one of Washington's preseason games with a strained left hip flexor but will play in tonight's season opener at MCI Center against the Atlanta Hawks.
The question surrounding Austin is whether he will play up to his capabilities. Three seasons ago with Miami, he averaged 13.5 points and seven rebounds and won the NBA's most improved player award.
Last season, after signing a three-year, $15 million contract with Orlando, Austin appeared in training camp weighing close to 300 pounds and performed far below expectations. Austin averaged 9.7 points and a meager 4.8 rebounds and often found himself on the bench at the end of games.
"In Orlando, I wasn't used to my potential and it was a confusing season for me, but I accept the blame for whatever happened," Austin said. "The teams I was with before used me where I could be most effective."
Where he's most effective is close to the basket, and that is where Wizards Coach Gar Heard has said he will play with the Wizards. With the Magic, then-coach Chuck Daly frequently stationed Austin near the foul line on offense, which limited his rebounding and inside shot attempts, Austin said.
However, sources in Orlando said Austin's poor conditioning and inconsistent effort were key reasons for his disappointing season.
Austin took the first step toward resurrecting his NBA career for the second time by losing 25 pounds over the summer. He is down to 270 and has a personal chef to cook him low-fat meals. When he is on the road, he said he has learned to monitor what he eats.
That wasn't always the case.
Four years ago, Austin weighed close to 320 pounds while playing in Turkey, exiled from the NBA after spending two seasons in Utah and 14 games with the Philadelphia 76ers and essentially eating his way out of the league.
The Miami Heat's scouting department spotted Austin, who was averaging 22 points and 13 rebounds, and told him he could earn a job with the Heat if he dropped 50 or so pounds.
With the help of Miami's training staff, Austin lost the weight, made the roster and earned the most improved player award in 1997. He became the first player to earn the honor who had not played in the NBA in the previous season.
The following season, Austin started 25 games for the Heat, subbing for the injured Mourning, and established himself against the front-line centers around the league. He no longer was considered a backup player.
With his stock soaring and the inability to pay Austin what he would command on the open market because of free agent rules, Miami traded him to the Los Angeles Clippers in February 1998.
"He really remade himself coming back into the league with Miami," New York Knicks Coach Jeff Van Gundy said. ". . . Austin is a good player. He's very talented, with soft hands. It's really up to him as to how good he can be."
Heard has watched as Austin's magnetic personality and relaxed leadership has had a positive effect in the Wizards' locker room.
"It takes pressure off the coaches," Heard said. "Players tend to listen to other players more than the coaches sometimes. Ike has done some things on his own that have been a big help. It meant a lot to other players when Ike would call them over the summer and say, 'We've got to go work out today.'
"The attitude in here now is, 'Let's get together as a team and let's work together.' Ike has helped foster that."
Austin has played for two of pro basketball's best coaches in Riley and Daly, and has been to the postseason twice in the past three seasons. Based on that experience, Austin said he thinks Heard has exhibited the know-how and the firm hand needed to make the Wizards into winners.
"When I was on the Clippers, people didn't care," Austin said. "It didn't hurt players when they lost. With Miami and Orlando, every loss hurt. On winning teams you have to have the ability to bounce right back and take away that sting.
"This team needs to be tested at that. Right now teams don't believe that we're going to do anything. If we get after them right off the bat and we start winning and showing teams that we're for real, that's going to change. Teams are going to come after us. That's when we're going to be tested. Then we'll see how we handle that. That will tell if we're winners or losers."
ATLANTA HAWKS at WIZARDS
When: Tonight, 7 .
Site: MCI Center.
F Roshown McLeod
F Alan Henderson
C Dikembe Mutombo
G Jim Jackson
G Bimbo Coles
F Juwan Howard
F Michael Smith
G Mitch Richmond
G Rod Strickland
Ticket prices: $19, $32, $40, $67, $77, $85. In addition, one section for each home game is designated as a special $10 family section.
Individual game tickets can be purchased at MCI Center or through Ticketmaster, 202-432-SEAT.