On April 13, 2001, the Washington Wizards defeated the Orlando Magic, 113-110, thanks to 30 points from Richard Hamilton and 26 from Christian Laettner. In front of an alleged 14,104 fans most likely there to see then-star Tracy McGrady play for Orlando (he scored 49 points), the Wizards scratched out their final win in a dismal season. It was the last time Leonard Hamilton won a game at Verizon Center, which wasn’t even called Verizon Center then.
Hamilton returned to the arena for just the second time as a coach Tuesday and finally got another win: 11th-seeded Florida State had few problems with woebegone Boston College in an 88-66 win to open ACC tournament play. The Seminoles advanced to face sixth-seeded Virginia Tech on Wednesday night.
Asked afterward if being back in Washington made this trip any different, Hamilton laughed and reminded reporters that he also has to make yearly visits to play Miami, the program he coached for 10 seasons before taking the Wizards job. Otherwise, it’s just “a business trip,” he said.
“You know, I get so many questions about being different places, playing tournaments,” Hamilton said. “I always enjoy coming to Washington; it’s a great basketball town. The fans have tremendous love and respect for the game.”
Now in his 14th season at Florida State, Hamilton is the program’s career leader in victories and is what passes for an elder statesman in a realigned ACC; only Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski has been with his program longer among teams that were in the league when Hamilton took over in Tallahassee in 2002. He led the Seminoles to a Sweet 16 berth in 2011 and the ACC tournament title the year after. On Feb. 28, the school announced that it had reached an agreement in principle on a contract extension through the 2018-19 season.
In other words, he’s in a much better situation than his disastrous one-year stint with the Wizards in 2001-02, when he went 19-63 — setting a franchise record for losses in a season — and resigned after a two-hour meeting with team president Michael Jordan immediately following the team’s season finale.
Even for a franchise with such a history of low moments, it was a notably bad time: Jordan was running the team from afar and barely spoke with Hamilton, his second choice after Mike Jarvis of St. John’s withdrew his name from consideration. Rod Strickland was suspended for a game after he failed to show up for a road trip and was eventually cut. During a game in January, Hamilton had security escort Tyrone Nesby to the locker room after the two got into it on the bench. Jordan traded away Juwan Howard to free up money to spend on free agents the next season, and Mitch Richmond got hurt late in the season, “leaving Hamilton with a young, raw lineup with several players playing out of position,” the AP wrote.
Nevertheless, his resignation came as a surprise to just about everyone, considering that he told no one of his decision until after the two-hour meeting with Jordan. The consensus had been that he would return for another season.
Instead, he took a restless year off before returning for another challenge: Florida State, where basketball ranks a distant second to football and a program that had been to the NCAA tournament just once in the previous nine seasons. Fourteen seasons and four NCAA tournament appearances later, he’s still there.
“It’s a great atmosphere to come and play in the ACC tournament, and that’s what I enjoy the most,” he said.