'Former Clipper. Former Clipper. Former Clipper." Grant Hill was candidly going down the list of names on an NBA roster about six years ago, resigned to the fact that a certain team had little chance of competing for a title.
"What does that tell you?" the all-star forward said, referring to three former players from the woeful Los Angeles Clippers. "It tells you they don't know how to win."
We should mention the Wizards' three best players spent the bulk of their careers with the Golden State Warriors, a franchise with a playoff drought three years longer than Washington's.
Antawn Jamison, Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes have known losing. They have lost overtime games and lost by 30. Jamison once engaged in a 51-point-apiece duel with Kobe Bryant, and the Warriors still lost. In their 15 combined seasons, they have been a part of two playoff teams -- Jamison in Dallas last year, and Hughes his rookie season in Philadelphia. All three are supposed to lead an organization with a .359 winning percentage over the past five years -- 24th among 29 NBA teams.
So as the Wizards' season opens tonight in Memphis, forget all the offensive promise and intangibles of an entertaining ballclub. Forget the playoffs. And ask the obvious:
Are Jamison, Arenas and Hughes tired enough of losing to alter tradition and perception? Within two seasons, can three veterans accustomed to clearing out their cubicles in April propel the Wizards where they have not been since 1997?
"I know, 'They were all Warriors' doesn't sound that great," Jamison, 28, said after practice on Monday afternoon. "But during that particular time, we were a lot younger. We were all thinking about contracts, trying to establish ourselves individually. Now, with the exception of Larry [a free agent at season's end], we're all set with our contracts. We just want to win."
"I don't think the Warriors' thing applies," Hughes, 25, said recently. "Different situations create different opportunities. All three of us are older. We've had more experiences that have made us grow and develop. In some cases, we know we would have done things differently. You just can't compare the two."
Ernie Grunfeld, the Wizards' president of basketball operations, traded for Jamison this past summer and signed Arenas the previous summer. He discounts the notion that being a part of a losing organization can have a lasting effect on a player. While in New York, he traded for Latrell Sprewell and Marcus Camby, who made the jump from Gen-X knuckleheads to NBA finalists in a single postseason.
Grunfeld reminds you that Patrick Ewing won 23 and then 24 games in his first two seasons as a Knick. Grunfeld was working as a broadcaster when the culture in New York changed. "Rick Pitino took over and the Knicks barely made the playoffs the last game of the season -- I think Kenny Walker hit a shot at Indiana," Grunfeld said. "They eked into the playoffs. That's what started the process. Players started believing. The attitude became different.
"It's a process," he added. "It takes steps. Hard work comes first. Out of that hard work comes the winning. Initially, you just want to become a playoff team."
It's not as if the Wizards have not been part of something greater than themselves. Jamison, Brendan Haywood and assistant coach Mike O'Koren are all Carolina guys. (By the way, notice how Carolina guys always have to remind you they are Carolina guys? No one ever says, "Hey, we're all Swarthmore guys.")
Jared Jeffries played in the national championship game a little more than two years ago, where his Indiana Hoosiers were beaten by a Maryland team featuring Wizards teammates Juan Dixon and Steve Blake.
Before Kevin Garnett grew into the league's reigning most valuable player, Anthony Peeler often bailed him out with big shots in the playoffs while with Minnesota. Peeler came off the bench for Sacramento last season. Grunfeld acquired Peeler and Michael Ruffin, who played on Jerry Sloan's overachieving Jazz last season, to shore up a missing ingredient: competitive aggression. Some of the Wizards players have indeed known winning at different points in their careers.
But traversing through the locker rooms of losing organizations over the past decade is to learn why some teams never evolve. That Clipper-Warrior-Wizard mentality sets in about the same time a handful of close games are lost in the final minutes in January and February. Someone sounds off about a teammate not doing his job, reporters run to the dissed player to hear his take, and the team begins to fray.
The self-doubt creeps in individually at first, each player secretly harboring a fantasy about playing for the Lakers or the Kings or the big-market Knicks, where their self-interested "friends" remind them daily, "You would blow up in that city. Tell your agent you want out."
Eventually, they all feel like they're in a bad marriage and no one wants to compromise on the court. They keep losing. Agents begin waging their campaign against the coach for not playing their free-agent-to-be 40-plus minutes and -- just like that -- it's back to the lottery.
Hughes was prescient enough to acknowledge where it starts. "The number one thing is, learning how to win at the end of games," he said. "We could play with anybody last season, but those last five- to eight-minute stretches we didn't make plays. We make those plays now, it's a different season."
Since they were last all together three years ago at Golden State, Hughes now can call Michael Jordan a former teammate, Arenas is just beginning to harness his immeasurable talent and Jamison has sniffed the playoffs in Dallas, where he sacrificed minutes and parts of his game to come off the bench for the Mavericks.
Former Warriors, all trying to change the same-ol', same-ol' Wizards.
"I talked to Larry and Gil when I got traded," Jamison began, "and Gil was just like, 'Man, I'm tired. I haven't been on a winning team since I've been here. I'm just ready to do whatever it takes to get it done.' Larry was pretty much in the same situation. 'Other than those first couple years in Philly, I haven't won.' I just finally experienced winning last year and I'm not ready to get back on the losing track."