After the Wizards lost in double-overtime the San Antonio Spurs last week, Al Harrington was probably the only player in the locker room with a smile on his face. His teammates were dejected about losing a game that was in their grasp but Harrington — while sharing in the disappointment– was upbeat about moving a step closer to helping on the floor.
Harrington has recently been cleared to participate in some contract work and realized that he would be freed up to play in four-on-four scrimmage on Thursday with some of the Wizards’ backups. He wanted them to know that he was coming after spending the past two months recovering from surgery to remove loose particles in his right knee.
“Y’all gon’ get it,” Harrington warned as he walked out of the locker room, high-fiving his teammates.
The next day in practice, Harrington was a man of his word as witnesses said the 15-year veteran dominated the scrimmage with his offensive repertoire. He played so well that Coach Randy Wittman let him get a little action in Saturday’s practice, signaling that Harrington’s return might not be far away.
“It felt good to know I still got game. I wanted to test it to see if I still had it. We had a lot of fun out there,” Harrington said of his scrimmage performance. “I just felt it. I’m starting to feel healthy, starting to get a lot better. Now it’s time to start getting myself back in shape to get back on the court.”
Harrington doesn’t have a specific timetable for his return but he doesn’t expect to be sidelined much longer.
“I can guarantee I’m going to play some time after all-star break,” Harrington said with a hearty laugh. “That’s for sure. I just don’t know which game. We haven’t really talked about a target game, but some time soon after that. I just got to get in good enough shape that coach can trust me out there playing minutes, defensively. I feel like I can play offense tomorrow but the way the team has been playing defense and stuff like that I don’t want to be the weak link out there. I got to catch up. The fastest way I’ll be able to do that is to get in shape, then I can contest and show, and get back and box out and stuff like that. That part will take a little bit of time, hopefully a week or two.”
Harrington said his rehabilitation has been “tedious” and added that he didn’t move very well in an earlier pickup game last week, but he also noticed that his right knee – which has endured at least two surgeries over the last two years and nearly pushed him to retirement – isn’t hindering him as it did in the past.
“That’s the funny thing about it. I feel better now than I did in training camp which is kind of weird because I thought that was as good as I was going to feel ever again,” Harrington said. “But I feel so much better so, I guess that surgery was much needed to get my knee to a good place.”
The Wizards brought Harrington to town to be a forward who could stretch the floor and provide offense off the bench. Harrington is averaging 7.9 points in seven games but his contributions have mostly been behind the scenes – helped organize a players-only meeting in mid-November and had a team-bonding Thanksgiving dinner at his mother’s home in Indianapolis. The 33-year-old Harrington has also assumed a role as an unofficial assistant coach from the sidelines.
“I still talk to the guys but more individually now than collectively until I get back in uniform where I can go off and they can see I’m in the fire with them,” Harrington said. “If they pouting about one thing, I try to show them, you’re pouting for the wrong reasons, about this instead of that, and that’s what I try to provide for them now.”
Harrington has been able to closely observe the team in recent weeks and believes that it is improving defensively but lacking in a critical area if it hopes to become a serious team this season: “Our weakest thing at this point is our mental toughness,” he said. “We really lock in for the good teams and then we allow these teams that are sub-par and we just relax. We try to play in the last six minutes of the game and think we can turn it on but we’re not the Miami Heat. We’re not that good. We can be that good as far as closing teams out. We’re not there yet. That’s what these guys need to realize.”
But Harrington said the Wizards’ struggles against teams with inferior records won’t prompt another players-only meeting. “Talking is healthy. Guys get in there and try to get some stuff off their chest if they feel some type of way. That’s not where we’re at right now. We don’t have any animosity between guys. When we had that first talk, I know we did,” he said. “That talk is not needed. It’s just a gut-check type of talk we need to have in yourself. You need to look in the mirror and say are you doing everything you can to help us win? Are you playing as hard as you can?
“One thing a coach always told me back when I was young, if you’re not asking to come out the game you’re not playing hard enough,” he said. “Until we get like that, until guys are really picking up and denying and stuff like that we’re not going to get over the hump. We’re going to continue to be just mediocre.”