Antawn Jamison declared yesterday that winning is his primary goal and that the team comes before anything, which had to be of great comfort to the Washington Wizards.
The Wizards got rid of Michael Jordan apparently because management felt he did not work well with others in the organization, only to have last season's highest-paid player, Jerry Stackhouse, anger the front office by announcing he was ending his season because of injuries without management's consent.
Jamison, obtained in a trade by the Wizards last week and introduced to the media during a news conference yesterday, received accolades this past season for accepting a reserve role with the Dallas Mavericks after spending his first five years in the NBA as a starter.
To many, that kind of self-sacrifice may not sound like much, but Donnie Nelson, the Mavericks' president of basketball operations, said what Jamison did was "unprecedented" during a period in which some stars talk about self-sacrifice but begin wrecking furniture and demanding a trade when their playing time is cut.
The Wizards hope Jamison's team-first mentality rubs off on their younger players.
"He is the type of player that young players are going to look up to," Wizards President of Basketball Operations Ernie Grunfeld said. "He is the type of player that they can emulate."
The Wizards acquired Jamison, 28, for Christian Laettner and Stackhouse, who was expected to be the team's mainstay last season. Two years before that, the franchise had pinned its hopes of ending a 22-season drought without a playoff victory when Jordan stepped out of retirement and back onto the court.
Jordan was ushered out of town by team owner Abe Pollin at the end of the 2002-03 season. Stackhouse became the team's veteran star after that. But then Stackhouse was arrested for allegedly assaulting a real estate agent last summer. He also irritated some on the team by waiting until just before opening day to undergo knee surgery.
Lacking a leader and hampered by injuries, the Wizards' losses mounted and some players began to squabble among themselves. The team finished with a 25-57 record.
Coming into a fractured and hostile environment is nothing new for the 6-foot-9, 225-pound Jamison. He played for the Golden State Warriors for five losing seasons, when infighting among teammates was common. He learned the difference between a losing locker room and a winning one after the Mavericks obtained him last season.
"There was too much negativity in Golden State," Jamison said. "When you have negativity, you have guys going in different directions. Last year [in Dallas] we didn't care about [Mavericks forward Dirk] Nowitzki taking 20 shots a game or how much money [Mavericks forward Michael] Finley was making. We cared about winning basketball games, not being the weakest link when we were on the basketball court."
Jamison said he is unlikely to try and offer much instruction in teamwork, however. He said he likes to lead by example.
Wizards guard Larry Hughes, a former teammate of Jamison's when both were with the Warriors, agreed.
"He does less talking than I do," said the soft-spoken Hughes.
But Jamison is likely to get his points across, Nelson said. Jamison's pride-swallowing acceptance of a backup role buys him credibility with other players.
How big a sacrifice did Jamison make?
First, he agreed to the reserve role while in the prime of his career, just a season after he averaged 22.2 points per game. Not only did his number of minutes drop from 39 to 29, but his scoring average plummeted to 14.8.
This was hard to take for a player of Jamison's caliber and standing. He won the NCAA's John Wooden award as college basketball's player of the year in 1998, beating out players such as North Carolina teammate Vince Carter and Paul Pierce, both of whom have become perennial NBA all-stars.
Did he worry that the move to the bench might be perceived as a demotion?
"I didn't think I had anything to prove whether I could compete with the Vince Carters or Dirk Nowitzkis of the league," said Jamison, who will make $12 million next season. " I knew I was just as good as those guys are."
Jamison is a power forward who is more scorer than rebounder or shot blocker. He scored 51 points on Dec. 3, 2000, and followed that up in his next game three days later with the same amount. He has a full arsenal of running jump shots and dunks, and is adept at converting offensive rebounds into baskets.
The Mavericks were faced with a logjam at the forward positions, including all-stars Nowitzki and Finley. Mavericks Coach Don Nelson, Donnie Nelson's father, needed to make room and went to Jamison with a request that he come in off the bench.
"He told me that as long as he's been in the league he always had someone who could score a lot of points coming off the bench," Jamison said. "I just thought this guy is the coach. He's one of the winningest coaches in the league and maybe he sees something that can really help out this team. It was difficult but I went along with it."
Jamison didn't call his agent, or start busting up furniture. He went to work and thrived. Coming in off the bench, his coaches and teammates praised him for the added scoring punch he brought. For his troubles, he won the NBA's prize for being the league's top reserve and the respect of practically everybody else in the league.
"He felt it was in the best interest of the team," said Donnie Nelson. "He did it willingly. It's unprecedented in this day and age."
As for the prospects of the Wizards as a team, Jamison said he wasn't worried about joining another losing team. The Wizards have failed to advance beyond the first round of the NBA playoffs in 22 years and the team's overall winning percentage during the last 15 years is the third-worst in the league.
"This is not a situation that I'm coming to just to be the face of the team or have good guys in the locker room," Jamison said. "I was brought here to win and I think this is a situation where we can accomplish that. We have some great talent here."