Eddie Jordan is worried. Last season, his Wizards were the toast of the town, surging from 25 wins to 45, making the playoffs for the first time in eight years, winning a playoff series for the first time since 1982 and raising expectations for future success.
But a little more than a week into the season, Jordan sees things that bother him. "It's a different team with a different personality," he said Wednesday after the Wizards lost to the Los Angeles Clippers, 102-97, in a game they led by a point in the final minute.
The big difference, of course, is the departure of Larry Hughes, whose presence in the locker room will be missed as much as his defense and 22 points a game.
Hughes and Kwame Brown have been replaced by Caron Butler, Chucky Atkins and Antonio Daniels, who, on paper, appear to make the Wizards better. "You can replace the numbers, but not the chemistry," Jordan said.
In addition to worrying about intangibles, Jordan added: "I'm concerned about not defending and rebounding. You've got to get things done defensively as a team in this league to win, and tonight we didn't get it done. I'm happy with our wins and that we're sharing the ball more. But I'm not happy with what I've seen so far with our defense, rebounding and emotion. We're missing something you need to win."
That missing something could be Hughes, who left town for Cleveland over the difference between a $14 million contract and the $12 million the Wizards offered. If Hughes was so well liked in the Wizards' locker room, it's a pity GM Ernie Grunfeld couldn't have kept him. But competing factors were in play, such as: Do you pay Hughes more than Gilbert Arenas, who is clearly one of the best guards in the NBA, and all-star forward Antawn Jamison?
Also missing so far, Jordan explained, is the emotional surge that carried the team and its fans to surprisingly great heights last season. The crowd of 13,736 Wednesday night was into the game, though disappointed with the outcome. There's no question team president Susan O'Malley and her merry band of marketeers have their work cut out for them to match last season's buzz and atmosphere inside MCI Center.
"I don't see any carry-over from last season's playoffs," a colleague noted during a lull in the action the other night. He was right; fans have short memories and last season's thrills quickly can become this season's malaise if the players and sales staff aren't careful.
"You get buzz from team performance and providing a good experience at the game," O'Malley said. "You have to show fans you're building a perennial playoff contender; nor does it hurt to have a magnetic star like Gilbert Arenas."
I like the team. Arenas can be spectacular; Jamison very good; Jarvis Hayes solid if he stays healthy; Butler a major plus; Brendan Haywood is adequate; Jared Jeffries interesting; and Daniels helpful. Backup center Etan Thomas is a Renaissance man the town should get to know.
The team also has an owner who has a lease to play in a building he owns and built himself. That's unique.
The three of them, all Washington guys, sat next to each other Tuesday at a table in the Chinatown restaurant China Doll, talking basketball. Two of them -- Red Auerbach and Morgan Wootten -- are in the Basketball Hall of Fame. The third, former Wizards executive Hymie Perlo, could have played in the pros had he not busted up his leg after parachuting out of a plane over France on D-Day, 61 years ago.
Auerbach, 88, of Boston Celtics fame, is several weeks out of Sibley Memorial Hospital's ICU, where he spent nearly a month for complications following surgery last summer for colon cancer. Perlo, 83, has a bad hip and is fighting cancer. And Wootten, 74, the legendary retired DeMatha coach, is a liver transplant recipient and runs a high school basketball tournament (Dec. 10) that promotes organ donation.
The topic on the table was whether they agreed with me that Miami center Shaquille O'Neal was the equal of Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The three shook their heads in disdain, dismissing the suggestion and moving on to how much Auerbach would have gotten had he tried to trade Terrell Owens.
At that moment, life was good for the three of them and the rest of us.
The T.O. Effect
When an NFL player does something really wacky, as Owens did recently to get suspended by the Eagles, I turn to friends in the high school coaching profession for their thoughts.
Willie Stewart, who has been at Anacostia High School for the past 24 years, says his players are "crazy about Terrell" but don't understand "nobody is bigger than the team." Stewart says he asked his players, "Who do you think blocks to give Owens the time to go out for a pass and do you think Terrell throws the ball to himself?" Stewart added: "Terrell Owens is no Art Monk. He was a team player."
Said Bill McGregor, coach at No. 3 DeMatha: "We tell our kids a team has one heartbeat. No one should ever cut down a teammate, or be so out of control. We spend a lot of time telling our kids to do the right thing. I'm glad the Eagles did what they did."
Touching the Bases
It seems to me the United States will sign the Kyoto accord before Major League Baseball and the D.C. Council sign a lease for the proposed new stadium. Getting the lease done and the Wall Streeters on board are the major hang-ups keeping My Man, Bud Selig, from providing some group or person the privilege of buying the Washington Nationals from MLB for $450 million.
Tom Boswell was on the money Friday when he wrote in The Post that MLB ought to lighten up on some demands. Such as a $6 million insurance policy against terrorism in consideration for the profits it will reap from sale of the former bankrupt Expos (worth $170 million last year) and a new $535 million stadium in D.C. A profit of $270 million isn't good enough for these guys?
Hey Bud, the Nats need an owner fast to decide on who will be the team president, GM, manager and marketing director, as well as to bid for free agents and get more games on TV. Can't we pick up the pace? Also, 2005 was a honeymoon season in Washington and honeymoons don't last forever, particularly if Peter the Great cleans up that mess of his in Baltimore and comes down the parkway looking for fans.
Have a comment or question? Reach me at email@example.com. Book news: After a favorable review in Sports Illustrated, Feinstein's book on the Ravens likely will surpass "Tuesdays With Morrie" as the all-time leader among books written by a sportswriter.