Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated that the Wizards-Bullets franchise had not overcome a three-games-to-one deficit to win a playoff series since 1978. The Bullets did so in 1979.
Randy Wittman hates this favorite-son-comes-home stuff. Yeah, he was a bit of a schoolboy legend on the west side of Indianapolis, won a national championship at IU with Isiah Thomas and he’s already in the Indiana Hall of Fame. Everything about the man, in fact, reeks of the Hoosier State, from the plain-Jane similes — “My team is like a bunch of smokers, I got to help them kick some of these bad habits” — right down to that bow-legged, old-jock walk that makes him look like he’s traversing land mines in front of the Wizards’ bench.
But when it comes to fluffy personal anecdotes apart from the game, he’s still Bob Knight’s former don’t-show-feelings player.
“I’ll deal with all that reflection stuff after the season is over,” said Wittman, who has coached Washington’s pro basketball team closer to the Eastern Conference finals than anyone since Dick Motta in 1979. “Right now I just gotta worry about this series.”
Still, you had to see the schmaltzy scene Tuesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, less than 10 miles from where Wittman starred at Ben Davis High. You had to be in that cramped corridor a few feet outside the Wizards’ locker room when a half-dozen family members, including his sister, daughter and parents, kissed and hugged the 54-year-old itinerant basketball lifer, showered affection on him as if he were 15 again and just sunk a baseline jumper to electrify a packed little Indianapolis gym on a frosty February night.
“What got into Gortat?” Shirley Wittman asked her son after planting one on his cheek, moments after the Wizards forced Thursday night’s Game 6 at Verizon Center. “He was just amazing.”
“That was a real good win,” said Randy’s father, Bob, nodding approval beside Shirley. “Real good win.”
Bob Wittman was asked facetiously if his son was any good in high school, given he was his school’s second-leading career scorer and ended up becoming a Big Ten player of the year at Indiana.
“He was fair,” Bob said, deadpan.
“But he was extremely dedicated,” Shirley added.
“Don’t be going around trying to find out dirt on me,” Wittman said, chuckling as everyone caught up.
There has been a lot of talk at various junctures of the season about whether Wittman should be the Wizards’ coach going forward, whether he is the right coach to get John Wall and Bradley Beal to the next level of their careers.
Why not go after a proven playoff winner, such as George Karl, the counterargument goes.
Or Lionel Hollins.
Or a hot, young assistant.
Or someone, anyone, other than Randy.
And at times we all bought into this logic, mostly when a Wizards opponent overcame a double-digit deficit in the second half, which happened an alarming 11 times in the regular season and once in the playoffs.
But after Tuesday night, it’s time to get over reservations about Wittman. Like the misgivings about Wall, it’s time to take the good with the bad and realize that Wittman is the right coach for this team going forward.
I don’t know if Wittman is the coach who will lead Washington to an NBA championship. I don’t know if he can draw up the perfect play with five seconds left or summon the right halftime adjustment in a Game 7 to get his team to the next round.
I don’t even know if he is the perfect coach to ensure the development of Wall and Beal into perennial all-stars and title contenders.
I do know he has earned the right to see if he can become that coach with this team.
I do know there is a good chance he likely will be signed to a contract extension of at least two years guaranteed this offseason, and that that would be a good decision for this franchise.
I know this because the reason the Wizards are playing Game 6 on Thursday night has as much to do with Wittman as it did Wall and Gortat going off for a combined 58 points in Game 5.
Sensing Wall was taking his poor play in the series personally, Wittman spent considerable time building his point guard back up — telling him that he didn’t care if he played like a wild man and committed 20 turnovers, that he needed to play his frenetic, stop-and-pop game and to develop thicker skin.
It probably sounds maudlin and cliche in some corners, but the notion of an old-school Hoosier — from the no-sentimentality Knight school — taking the time to send a text to his psychologically wounded player on game day is worth repeating.
“Just believe. Just believe in yourself, John Wall,” he texted his point guard, who was emotionally moved by the gesture.
Wittman also spent considerable time rebuilding Gortat’s confidence, essentially telling the Polish center, “When you play well, we win. It’s that simple.”
If you don’t think those acts had anything to do with the reinvigorated Wall dumping in a playoff-high 27 points Tuesday night or Gortat breaking a playoff record for big men by hitting 13 of 15 shots from the field, well, you’re either cynical or already have your mind made up about Wittman.
I’m probably as guilty as anyone in thinking a more prominent coach could effect immediate results. But we need to stop looking for the train in the distance in this town and start realizing the one in the station might be in good enough condition to take us to our destination.
He began this season 147-291, a winning percentage (.336) that is a record for being bad in the NBA among any coach with 350 or more games.
But now many of his players’ bad habits are gone, replaced by the hope that comes from being one of the final eight teams playing in May.
Now he’s two wins from pulling off the franchise’s first comeback from a three-games-to-one deficit in a playoff series since 1979 under, yes, Motta, the man who a year earlier stole a San Antonio TV newsman’s line about the opera not being over “till the fat lady sings.”
This team and its coach aren’t done, either. Win or go home Thursday, advance or be eliminated Sunday in Game 7, Randy Wittman and this team go together. They fit. That’s all you need to know.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.