Rarely does a player go 11 for 13 from the field in Game 7 of an NBA playoff series and not even serve as a footnote in the game, but that was the position Randy Wittman found himself in during the 1988 postseason, when Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird staged one of the greatest one-on-one duels. On a night when he couldn’t miss, Wittman’s performance was practically ignored, but his former college teammate won’t ever forget.
“I know everyone talks about how hot Dominique was, but Wittman was hotter,” Isiah Thomas recalled in a recent telephone interview.
Seven years earlier, Wittman outscored future top-five picks James Worthy and Sam Perkins and made a huge halftime buzzer-beater while helping the Indiana Hoosiers defeat North Carolina to give Coach Bob Knight his second NCAA championship. But afterward, all anyone wanted to talk about was Thomas, the tournament’s most outstanding player.
Even after moving into coaching 22 years ago, Wittman, 54, has been viewed as a place-holder, getting promoted to two of his three head coaching jobs after first serving as an interim or assistant.
His second full season with the Washington Wizards has been different. Facing a playoffs-or-else edict from owner Ted Leonsis, Wittman has guided Washington (43-38) into the postseason for the first time in six years, and with a win Wednesday in Boston, the franchise can tie its second-highest win total in 35 years. Wittman, whose contract expires at season’s end, will make his playoff coaching debut this weekend, but once again, he aims to deflect the attention.
“It’s not about me; it’s about them,” Wittman said of his players. “I don’t ever worry about ultimatums or things like that. You worry about that, and you’re going to overlook what your job is to do, and that’s to prepare these guys each night. I felt like, if we didn’t do that, we would not be in the position that we are today.”
Wittman joined the Wizards as an assistant under Flip Saunders in 2009 — 26 years after the Bullets drafted him 22nd overall, only to send him to the Atlanta Hawks. Reluctantly, Wittman accepted the head coaching position after Saunders was dismissed in January 2012 following a 2-15 start. Saunders convinced Wittman he might not get many more opportunities if he passed on Washington, and now his third head coaching stint has proven to be the charm.
At previous stops in Cleveland and Minnesota, Wittman either had a team that was scarred by injuries or inexperience — and he encountered both to unfair extremes in Washington before this season, when President Ernie Grunfeld finally provided him with a roster that has enough talent and proven veterans to be competitive in the Eastern Conference.
“I think, probably, if you look back at where he’s been, I saw Randy’s teams play a time or two and they looked like they should’ve been in a league in Mozambique somewhere instead of the NBA, the quality of talent that he had,” Knight, now a college basketball analyst for ESPN, said in a recent telephone interview. “I think that [Washington has] done a pretty good job of putting players together now that can play. But there’s never been a coach that can win and win consistently without players. You look back over where he’s been prior to what’s happening now, he’s just never had the opportunity.”
Knight won’t get overly dramatic about whether he thought Wittman would someday become a coach based on what he saw at Indiana.
“You want to invent something like maybe it would be better if I told you the guy came out of the sky one day and anointed Wittman. But I don’t remember that happening,” Knight said. “I don’t think that ever happens: ‘This guy is going to coach or that guy is going to coach.’ What Randy was was a very, very smart player. And Randy was an extremely good defender, so the things that he did well and he understood well were those things that helped him in coaching.”
Wittman played nine seasons in the NBA, compiling his best three-year run as a starter with the Hawks from 1985 to 1988. He was later traded to Sacramento before finishing his career with his hometown Pacers. In his final season in 1991-92, Wittman labored on a bad knee before then-general manager Donnie Walsh told him to have season-ending surgery and consider a career as a coach.
“Randy was a guy that made a place for himself as a player because he really studied the game,”said Walsh, now a consultant for the Pacers. “He knew the NBA and he knew how he could fit into it. And as a result, he became an effective player. I find that those guys usually become good coaches if they decide to do it.”
After a year on Brian Hill’s staff in Indiana, Wittman moved on to work for a fellow Hoosier, Quinn Buckner, in Dallas, before joining Bill Blair’s staff in Minnesota. Wittman was retained when Saunders replaced Blair and stayed with the Timberwolves until he was given his first head coaching job in Cleveland in 1999. At 40, Wittman adopted the same hard-nosed approach and dedication to details he learned from Knight.
“He always had us prepared. No matter the situation, I was always prepared,” Wittman said. “And a lot of defensive philosophy and teachings have carried over.”
His first job was hardly a success, with the Cavaliers failing to win more than 32 games in either season. Wittman was fired and sandwiched one season in Orlando around two more stints in Minnesota, where he later replaced Dwane Casey in January 2007 and had another failed head coaching run as the Timberwolves began to rebuild after dealing Kevin Garnett.
“What happens is, if you become a head coach at different places, people make the judgment that it didn’t work, so you’re not head coaching material and that would be incorrect with a guy like Randy,” Walsh said. “You just don’t get the right jobs. The jobs they get are the jobs where they come in the middle of the year or they take over a team that even ownership doesn’t expect to do well, but when the year ends, they go, ‘We’ve got to get a big name.’ ”
Wittman has a career record of 190-329 (.366), which is the worst winning percentage of the 90 coaches with at least 400 career games. In 2½ seasons in Washington, Wittman is 90-122 and has constantly heard questions about his ability to lead the team to the next level. He is rigid with his rotations and has been unable to get consistent production from many of the Wizards’ draft picks other than John Wall and Bradley Beal, but said the criticism and mentions of his past failings don’t bother him.
“I know who I am,” he said. “You can’t look back. Like I tell our guys, ‘Let’s learn from our past.’ But today is a new day. That’s all I do. I try to continue to improve myself as a coach and make sure that my team is improving. And that’s all you can do.”
When the Wizards got off to a 2-7 start this season, both Wall and Beal came out in support of their coach, though he wasn’t in serious danger of getting fired at the time. He helped the Wizards find success despite losing Nene to injury for 29 games and with Beal under a minutes restriction for 30 games. Wall credits Wittman for helping him develop into a better point guard, and Beal said Wittman’s passion and intensity have been essential this season.
“He came into a situation where the team was at the bottom and for him to be able to stick with it and for the front office to be able to stick with him, and the team always supporting him and having his back, it’s tremendous,” Beal said. “We may have our differences, but we figure it out and at the end of the day he loves us, and he wants what’s best for us and he wants to win games. At first, you might not like it, because he’s jumping your butt, but at the same time, it’s making you better.”
Backup point guard Andre Miller was a rookie in Cleveland during Wittman’s first season as a head coach and has noticed differences other than the increased number of gray hairs atop Wittman’s head.
“He’s doing his homework,” Miller said. “He’s more assertive. Studying film. He’s coming in and he has a game plan. And I think the guys respect him for that.”
Walsh has observed Wittman’s evolution from afar and believes that he deserves some credit for changing the culture of a once-struggling franchise and leading it back into the postseason.
“There’s a thought in this league that you have to pay your dues and there’s no doubt that Randy has paid his dues,” Walsh said. “He certainly has learned to coach in this league. All the way, so he’s a finished product.”