The photo of a dribbling Larry Hughes that used to hang inside the media room at MCI Center is gone, replaced this summer by a picture of Hughes's former back-court mate, Gilbert Arenas.
Also gone are the banners that used to adorn the outside of MCI Center, the ones that featured "the Big Three" of Hughes, Arenas and Antawn Jamison. The only reminder of Hughes's three seasons as a Washington Wizard is his framed jersey on the wall in the MCI Center's McDonald's.
Still, the ghost of Hughes has hovered around the Wizards as they have prepared for the upcoming season. After he'd been asked about Hughes for, oh, the 1,000th time, Coach Eddie Jordan broke into a smile and offered: "Larry who?"
Tonight, when the Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers open the preseason at MCI Center, Hughes will be wearing different colors. In the first and by far most unimportant of five scheduled meetings between the Eastern Conference rivals, Hughes and the Wizards will get their first glimpse of what life will be like without each other.
The Wizards and Cavaliers will play their first regular season game against each other Nov. 15 in Cleveland. Hughes will make his first regular season appearance at MCI Center on Feb. 10.
"When the schedule first came out, I thought it was kind of funny," Arenas said. Tonight's game is "more of a fan game because me, LeBron [James], Larry and Antawn, I don't know that we're going to play that much. So it's more of chance for the fans to get a chance to boo Larry because he's back, and it gives Larry a chance to show us how he's doing before the season gets started."
Arenas spoke with a prankster's grin of fans booing Hughes, as if he would enjoy needling the man he still calls a friend. Hughes, who signed a five-year contract with Cleveland that could be worth up to $70 million, was his typical calm, cool self discussing his return to Washington.
"No hard feelings, I'm thankful for what they did for me," Hughes said. "I think it will be an okay reception, I think they know I had to handle my business. I'm sure some fans will be disappointed that I left and may show it in a negative way."
Even though his departure was not acrimonious, Hughes was unhappy by the Wizards' original offer.
"I don't think they envisioned me doing the same thing I did last year this year, so I have a lot to prove. I don't think anybody will say that, but I put two and two together. If they expected me to do that, they would've paid me like an all-star, so they didn't seem like they expected it."
While acknowledging the role Hughes had in last season's success, the Wizards think they have recovered nicely by acquiring swingman Caron Butler and guards Chucky Atkins and Antonio Daniels.
While no single player is being asked to replace Hughes's 22 points, 6.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and league-leading 2.9 steals per game, the Wizards' coaching staff and some players believe they have enough depth and the right mix of talent to remain a contender in the revamped East.
"I think it's a slap in the face for people to say that we're not going to be a good playoff team because Larry's gone," Jamison said. "We didn't make the playoffs last season because of one player."
Hughes has also moved on. In Cleveland, he's viewed as a key piece to helping the Cavaliers get back to the playoffs for the first time since 1998. Appreciated for his calming influence and all-around game in Washington, Hughes could be an ideal complement to the explosive James.
"I think if you looked at Gilbert and Jamison and I, we all had different talents and I think it is the same with the guys we have here," Hughes said. "I don't need the limelight; I don't need the fame or all the interviews. For the most part, I'm a laid-back, easygoing guy."
Too often last season, James was the basketball equivalent of a power hitter who didn't have anyone in the batting order to protect him. That was never more evident than in a key late-season game against the Wizards at MCI Center on April 15.
Needing a win to help the Cavaliers stay in the playoff picture, James did his part by scoring 38 points. However, Washington pulled out a comfortable 119-111 victory in part because Hughes scored 31 points and grabbed six rebounds.
"Having Larry here takes some of the pressure off me," James told reporters in Cleveland. "When I was in high school I had a lot of weapons around me; I feel like that again."
Wizards Notes: Training camp broke yesterday morning after a brief practice in Richmond. The team will continue to train on the MCI Center practice court. Rosters must be set by Oct. 31.