One of the most hyperbolic NBA Finals in years tips off Tuesday night in Miami. It’s rich with disparate personalities, styles and playground nicknames. It’s Bron-Bron vs. RiDirkulous, D. Wade vs. J. Kidd and Hooligan Eastern Conference Defense vs. Stop and Pop Western Conference Offense.
There are also more former Wizards in these Finals than at a Hogwarts convention.
With a Dallas-Miami ratings bonanza upon us, it’s time homage is finally paid to the man responsible for ensuring Heat-Mavericks happened:
Stand up, Ernie Grunfeld.
What, you wanted Pat Riley and Mark Cuban? Ha. Obvious choices.
Twenty-three wins, and Grunfeld and the Wizards are representin’ this week. Honest.
“I’m very happy so many of our former players are getting a chance to compete for a title,” Grunfeld said by telephone Saturday. “We were in a rebuilding situation and for many of the veterans it’s good they were able to get that opportunity. They all left on good terms.”
Well, those who actually made it to town in the first place left on good terms.
Bottom line, what do Dallas’s Brendan Haywood, DeShawn Stevenson and an injured Caron Butler have in common? The same thing that Miami’s Mike Miller, Mike Bibby and, yes, Big Z, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, have in common. In the past 15 months, they were all property of the Wizards — some for years, some for days, some for a measly two games and, others, like Z, mere hours.
“No lie, I was Wizard?” Ilgauskas asked with a strange look when informed of a transaction that happened in February, in which he bought out his own deal before playing a single game and loved Washington so much he went back to Cleveland.
If you count Juwan Howard from the 1990s and Dallas’s Brian Cardinal from the Michael Jordan era in Washington, that’s eight former Wiz kids in the league’s signature showcase — more than any lottery team.
“They miss you in D.C.,” someone said to Howard on Thursday night in Chicago after the Heat eliminated the Bulls.
“Huh?” Howard replied, unable to fondly recall his time as a Wizard.
Okay, not everyone is representin’ like Mike Miller.
“It is pretty wild — it’s like we’ll have a reunion next week,” said Miller, who left Washington via free agency last summer after the Gilbert Arenas era went up in smoke. “Caron will be there. Brendan. DeShawn. . . . Man, I really wanted it to work out in D.C. But here I am in Miami, with a chance to win a title. Crazy league.”
Without many of those seminal role players — not you, Juwan, you’re still only relevant as a fashion plate after games — no way LeBron or Dirk and their teams meet for the title.
Best anecdote to illustrate why there are so many Wizards in the Finals: the details surrounding Bibby’s quick exit this past February.
In the midst of that 59-loss schlep of a season, Ted Leonsis gleefully walked into his suite at Verizon Center and met with guests. The Wizards were playing, but not with Bibby.
Acquired in the trading deadline at Atlanta in the deal that brought Jordan Crawford to Washington, Bibby, once among the game’s elite point guards, had reached that humbling part of his career when he was essentially a throw-in player to complete a trade. Leonsis was ecstatic that night, guests remembered, because he had perhaps spent the best $1.3 million of his nascent tenure as an NBA owner. He had just signed the check to buy Bibby’s contract out for the remainder of the season, which meant Bibby would waive the final year of his contract, $6.2 million — expensive for a journeyman who wasn’t going to get many minutes behind a No. 1 draft choice.
But one owner’s $6.2 million savings became a player’s opportunity to play for a team that still mattered. Bibby signed with Miami, having been a Wizard for mere days and having played in just two games.
Goodbye, backing up John Wall in NBA purgatory for 18 months.
Hello, hovering behind a three-point line in late May, waiting for LeBron to deliver the ball on his fingertips for a bona fide second chance at a title.
“His mother and I cautioned him against it — after all, that is guaranteed money,” David Falk, Bibby’s Washington-based agent, said Saturday afternoon. “But it was ultimately his decision. He really felt he could give a good team a lift and it was important for him to play for something meaningful before his career was over.”
What do all these Wizards at the Finals really mean?
“It means we had some good players here,” Grunfeld said.
Yes, we had some good players in Washington, many of whom are coming off the bench this week to help their teams win it all.
You’re welcome, Dallas. Don’t mention it, Miami. We do generosity big in the District.
From once sending a future all-NBA player in Chris Webber to the Kings for a washed-up Mitch Richmond, to Rip Hamilton, Ben Wallace and Rasheed Wallace all getting rings in Detroit after Washington let them go, we know what it takes to build a champion for someone else.