Larry Hughes has always been the type of guy who listens first and speaks second, although the second part doesn't always happen. So, when Hughes was riding high to the playoffs as Allen Iverson's sidekick during his rookie year in 1999, he paid attention when Philadelphia 76ers veterans Rick Mahorn, Harvey Grant and Doug Overton told him to hold on to that feeling because it was fleeting.
"They said, 'Once you make it that one time, it's not given that you'll make it again,' " said Hughes, the Washington Wizards' soft-spoken shooting guard.
Hughes has switched coasts (he was traded to Golden State in 2000 before signing with the Wizards as a free agent two years later), switched coaches (Eddie Jordan is the sixth coach for whom he has played) and switched positions (from shooting guard to point guard and back to shooting guard) several times since he was that bright-eyed 20-year-old.
The only constant since Hughes's rookie season has been losing. He languished through two miserable seasons with the Warriors -- the only team in the NBA with a playoff drought longer than the Wizards' seven-year run of futility -- and even playing alongside Michael Jordan two years ago couldn't help Hughes sneak a peek at the postseason again. All the while, Hughes remembered what he was told.
"I listen to guys," said Hughes, now in his seventh season at age 25. "If they said it was hard work getting back, I believed them. Now I see it."
Hughes has seen -- and perhaps made -- enough blunders to know what not to do to win games the past five seasons. He also would like to see the drought end this season -- to taste the playoffs again and avoid another year playing in obscurity.
"I feel I can hold my own with anybody in this league -- and a lot of times, get the upper hand," Hughes said. "Winning brings exposure. Me and [Gilbert Arenas], we're explosive in the back court. We're missing exposure. All we have to do is win and it'll come."
"In this league, a lot of people put up numbers but you really do get recognized and get respect when you're part of a winning situation," Wizards General Manager Ernie Grunfeld said. "Larry's really matured as a player. He's starting to understand what it takes to win."
This is a critical year for Hughes, who is in the last year of his three-year deal with the Wizards. Hughes has expressed a desire to stay in Washington "for the next couple of years" and he was handed greater responsibility at the start of training camp. Jordan and his staff selected Hughes as a team captain along with his former Golden State teammate Antawn Jamison and Etan Thomas.
"The players respect him. Even though he's not verbal and loud, they respect him," Jordan said about Hughes, who has a tattoo across his belly that reads, "Quiet Storm."
"He wants to win," Jordan said. "We saw that last year, when we didn't have some of our guys and he gutted it out and carried us."
Hughes averaged a career-high 18.8 points in 61 games last season, picking up the scoring slack when Arenas and Jerry Stackhouse were out because of injuries. Hughes put up a career-high 43 points against the 76ers, dropped 38 on the Jazz and displayed a scoring touch that made the 6-foot-5, 185-pound guard's early attempts to play point guard at his various stops appear misguided.
"I do like to handle the ball and I do like to make plays . . . but, I also like to slide away," Hughes said. "The team was looking for me to step up [last season], so I had to. I was being more natural, running free, doing the things I planned on doing in years past. It was years of me learning and putting it all together."
Hughes said he "faded" toward the end of the season, so he worked making his legs stronger last summer. He has missed the past week of the preseason with tendinitis in his left knee but said, "If I had to play, I would."
Hughes practiced some yesterday and will try to play tonight against the Detroit Pistons in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the Wizards will face Hughes's former coach, Larry Brown, who guided the 76ers to the playoffs during Hughes's rookie season.
"I'm tired of losing," Hughes said. "It's just about winning right now. Being in the playoffs, being with a winning team, a winning organization. That's all I'm missing right now."