When Steve Lappas was coach at Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, he had heard people, many of them his own players, refer to Rod Strickland as something special on the playground courts.
Then Strickland transferred to Truman from Brother Rice Catholic High after his freshman year, and Lappas quickly realized he was seeing something more than another over-hyped playground prodigy.
"My brother John was an assistant coach, and the first time [Strickland] came into the gym and dribbled the ball I looked at my brother and said, 'I think this is what a pro looks like when he's 15 years old,' " said Lappas, now the head coach at Villanova. "He was a skinny little thing, about 5 foot 9, 130 pounds. . . . He was like a piano virtuoso."
Like many virtuosos, Strickland was superior to his peers but occasionally needed to be handled with care, Lappas said.
"He was so much better than everybody else," his practice habits were not always optimal, Lappas said. "But when the lights went on, he was something else."
So goes the story of the basketball career of Rod Strickland, the Washington Wizards' 33-year-old point guard. At nearly every one of his stops with four NBA teams, coaches occasionally have clashed with Strickland the practice player, and in some cases, Strickland the person.
"But man, could he play," said former Knicks general manager Al Bianchi, who drafted him 19th overall from DePaul University in 1988.
What Strickland does when the game-opening horn blows has made coaches tolerant of him. He has averaged 15 points and eight assists during his career and for years was regarded as one of the best point guards in the NBA.
Now, in the twilight of his career, Strickland is enduring what he says is the most frustrating of his 12 professional seasons. He said his effectiveness has slipped. As with some of his previous coaches, he and first-year Wizards coach Gar Heard have had disagreements, and Strickland has said he would not object to playing elsewhere.
"This is personally like the worst year of my career," said Strickland, averaging 11.5 points and 7.3 assists in 30 games this season. "Even though my rookie year I put up lesser numbers [8.9 points per game, 4 assists per game], this is the worst year for me. We're winning and I'm glad but I don't feel like I'm playing up to my potential or abilities. . . . That's me knowing myself."
Teammates past and present, as well as former coaches who have gotten to know Strickland, said he is an extremely likable person with whom teammates bond quickly. Though Strickland is relatively quiet, his candor, toughness and humor are reasons players tend to fall in line behind him wherever he has been.
"He may not be a rah-rah type and he's not that vocal, but I know there were times he was very vocal," said San Antonio Spurs guard Terry Porter, who played with Strickland in Portland from 1992 to '95. "Rod was great for us. He was always out there trying to learn and get better. He was young then and we had a veteran ball club, but he was fine with us."
Although teammates seldom have had trouble getting along with Strickland, that has not always been the case with coaches. Conflicts usually have arisen when Strickland arrived late to practices and team functions and because of his inconsistent practice habits.
"Rod is not a malicious person and he never intentionally tried to be disruptive," said Philadelphia 76ers Coach Larry Brown, who had a sometimes-rocky relationship with Strickland when the point guard played under Brown in San Antonio from 1990 to '92. "But you've got to be somewhat flexible with him."
Looking back, Strickland is honest in assessing his relationship with his former coaches in New York, San Antonio and Portland.
"With Rick Pitino, I was a rookie with the Knicks, so he was hard on me for that fact," Strickland said. "I don't think that was anything out of the ordinary. I have a whole lot of respect for Rick Pitino. [Pitino's successor] Stu Jackson, that was a thing where I was young and I wanted to play but I wanted out [of New York] because I wanted to play and Mark Jackson was ahead of me.
"Larry Brown, that was a struggle, but I respect Larry Brown. [In Portland] Me and Rick Adelman got along great, great, super great. He didn't sweat the small stuff. P.J. [Carlesimo, Adelman's successor] was overbearing. I was in the league five or six years and he came in and treated people like they were rookies. I didn't understand that. Even in saying that, I produced and did what I had to do when I was on the court.
"[Former Wizards coach] Bernie Bickerstaff, I didn't have much problems with Bernie."
Strickland would not comment on Heard, with whom he clashed early in the season. Strickland was fined during the preseason for missing a practice, and Heard withheld him from the starting lineup twice early in the season.
"I don't think it's been a major problem with us," Heard said of his relationship with Strickland. "Some things happened in practice and it was over. He realized that the team depends on him a lot and he's been good. Rod is a competitive person and he wants to play and he wants to win. I think a lot of what happened came out of frustration. We were on a losing streak.
"The one thing he does understand [is] I'm fair to everybody. I don't treat anybody special. You can't show favoritism if you want to be successful."
Said Strickland: "Maybe that was the case. I took that [the discipline] personally because we're all in this together. We're a team and with so many things coming at me it seemed like it was a boulder trying to hit me in the head."
After the Wizards had granted Strickland leave in October to attend a funeral in New York, he failed to tell the team he would not make practice the day after the funeral. He was fined and kept from traveling to Cleveland for a preseason game. Later, he was late to a practice and missed two practices in one week, citing injury and illness. As a result of those incidents, he did not start two games.
Like nearly all of Strickland's previous coaches, Heard initially was critical of his practice habits, saying he wished his point guard would play as hard in practice as he did in games. Heard said it was not a personal attack, but because Strickland plays the position that influences nearly every play, he wanted constant energy.
Even in high school, Lappas said that to get Strickland to practice harder, he would tell him there were college scouts in the gym. Joey Meyer, Strickland's coach at DePaul, used the same technique, claiming pro scouts were in the stands.
Strickland acknowledged that he may not be the most dedicated player in practice, but when it comes to games, he delivers.
"Even in high school, I remember a scout from North Carolina State came to a practice and he turned around like, 'We don't want him,' " Strickland said. "I don't think they ever came back. In retrospect, sometimes maybe I wasn't going as hard like I thought I was.
"There's times I feel like I'm going hard and maybe [coaches] don't. I think the older you get you've got to conserve something. Clyde Drexler used to always say, 'Do you want it now or want it later?' I think there's a lot to that. As you get older, your body gets more sore and you can't come back like you used to."
Said Adelman, now coach of the Sacramento Kings: "I had a number of guys who were late here and there, and with Rod, it wasn't a habitual thing. It wasn't anything I viewed as a distraction. He was usually on time and I could always count on him when it was time to play."
Because of his approach to things such as practice, Strickland needs to be handled differently than other players, some of his previous coaches said. Three of those coaches said that if Strickland thinks he is being singled out or embarrassed by a coach, he takes it personally and may not let go of those feelings.
"One on one, you could say anything to him, but get him in front of his peers and he doesn't like that," Meyer said.
Said Strickland: "It's how you do it. I don't think you're supposed to embarrass me in front of the team. You definitely have to tell me if I did something wrong, if I wasn't in spot or position. . . . It's not like I can't take criticism. There's been times when I may react a certain way and know right after I did something I was wrong, but that's my makeup."
As for his play this season, Strickland said he is unsure whether his skills are declining. Strickland believes Heard's system has somewhat lessened his offensive role, which may explain why he is not playing up to his former level.
"I really don't know what it is," Strickland said. "I feel like I'm playing better. Mitch [Richmond], Juwan [Howard] and myself are playing better and that's going to help the team. We're going to have a chance to win more games because of that, but this is a different system and things are not the same."
From the first day of training camp, Heard said players would have to sacrifice their own offensive numbers for the sake of the team. Not one starter has put up numbers close to his career averages for the Wizards (10-20), although the statistics of the Wizards' key players have improved as the team has improved over the past month.
Strickland said his desire to play is as strong as ever. Still, in the second year of a four-year, $40 million contract that can be bought out after next season, Strickland has begun making plans for retirement. He is in the process of starting an entertainment company and is involved in a new media technology company.
Strickland also heads a nonprofit organization called Young Athletes Inc., a foundation in New York that funds a 64-team basketball league for junior high school-aged youths.
"There's a lot of things I want to do," Strickland said. "I'm still finding my way around."
Strickland's Career Statistics
Year Team Pts. Asts.
1988-89 New York 8.9 4.0
1989-90 N.Y./San Antonio* 10.6 5.7
1990-91 San Antonio 13.8 8.0
1991-92 San Antonio 13.8 8.6
1992-93 Portland-x 13.7 7.2
1993-94Portland 17.2 9.0
1994-95 Portland 18.9 8.8
1995-96 Portland 18.7 9.6
1996-97 Washington-y 17.2 8.9
1997-98 Washington 17.8 10.5
1998-99 Washington 15.7 9.9
1999-2000 Washington-z 11.5 7.3
*Traded from Knicks to Spurs Feb. 21, 1990, for G Maurice Cheeks
x-Signed as a free agent
y-Traded with F Harvey Grant from Trail Blazers to Bullets July 15, 1996, for F Rasheed Wallace and G Mitchell Butler
z-Through 30 games.