Randy Wittman had to deal with being rejected by the Washington basketball franchise once before. Wittman was a hot-shot, co-Big Ten player of the year out of Indiana in 1983 when the Bullets drafted him 22nd overall and gave him the chance to wear a red, white and blue cap on stage in New York, but not much else.
He caught a flight home to Indianapolis later that night and by the time his plane had landed, the Bullets had already traded him to the Atlanta Hawks.
“I’m still [upset] that they traded me,” Wittman said jokingly, almost three decades later, as the Wizards proved their commitment by signing him to a two-year contract that would allow him to stay on as head coach of the franchise.
Wittman said his return to Washington as an assistant under Flip Saunders three years ago helped bring his professional basketball career full circle, since the franchise was responsible for fulfilling his childhood dream of being drafted in the first round. He eventually moved one seat over on the bench and replaced his good friend after a 2-15 start last season.
In the nearly six weeks that it took from the end of the season to the official announcement of his return, Wittman said he didn’t allow himself to worry that he might be forced to part ways again with the District before he really had the chance to get settled in. He was under contract for next season, either way, and he was still performing the duties of a head coach.
“There was really no angst. ‘Why is it taking so long?’ Looking at it, that's what organizations do, they evaluate the situation,” said Wittman, who was 18-31 after replacing Saunders. “They hadn't told me I wasn't going to coach, so I just continued on as I normally would. Until that time came where they told me to hit the road.”
Despite connecting with the players, holding them accountable without discouraging them, and finishing the season by winning eight of the final 10 games, Wittman heard silence with regards to his future.
And the alternatives included more proven, bigger-name coaches such as Stan Van Gundy, Jerry Sloan, Nate McMillan and Mike D’Antoni. Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld, though, said that Wittman was the man the team wanted all along.
“After we took time to evaluate our situation, yes,” Grunfeld said. “I think continuity is important and familiarity is very important and I think Randy had that. These young players believed in him and he believes in them, which is very important. . . . As this process went on, it wasn’t a secret which direction we were going in.”
But the secret was under wraps to Wittman, he said, up until a few days ago, after owner Ted Leonsis publicly expressed at the NBA draft lottery that he was “very, very comfortable” with Wittman. The turning point in the evaluation process occurred two weeks ago, when Wittman finally had the chance to sit down face-to-face for a full day with Leonsis at his office at Verizon Center.
“He and I never really had a chance to talk the way we did,” Wittman said of the meeting. “You always want your owner and the people working under you to have an idea who you are and what your beliefs are and that was what my goals were going in there.”
Leonsis felt compelled to sit down with Wittman after nearly every player on the roster — most importantly John Wall and Nene — expressed their support for Wittman in their exit interviews. Grunfeld said those comments certainly played a role in the decision, “but they didn't have to say anything. You could see it by their actions, because they played hard for him and they played the right way and they did the kind of things he asked them to do on the floor. I think they spoke louder by their actions on the court.”
Wittman demanded more out of Wall defensively, helped Kevin Seraphin develop into a reliable big man and benefited from a cultural shift that began with the acquisition of Nene from Denver. The team went 11-14 after the trade and was 7-4 with Nene in uniform.
The Wizards will add another young player with the third pick in the upcoming draft, making Wittman’s job about winning games and planning development.
Wittman couldn’t ensure that the Wizards’ lottery days would immediately be over this season, but felt that the team could continue to move in the right direction with the chance to have a summer of workouts, a full training camp and practices, which all had to be sacrificed because of the lockout.
He will also have the opportunity to add his true imprint on the Wizards, using the experience of previous failed stints in Cleveland and Minnesota to help him become a better coach. Wittman added that might make adjustments to his current coaching staff of Don Zierden, Sam Cassell, Gene Banks and Ryan Saunders — all of whom are under contract for next season — but would make a decision after speaking with Grunfeld.
“I never look at it, this is my last chance, this is my last opportunity,” said Wittman, who has a career record of 118-238. “When it didn’t work out the other two places, I came back the other two places as an assistant. I want to be around the game. That's kind of who I am. I'm a basketball junkie. I'm a lifer. This is what I’m going to do. When I'm done doing this, I'm done working.”
Wittman had always held on that Bullets cap he received on the night of the draft.
Now he has been given the chance to attach more memories. “I’m thrilled to be here today as the head coach of the Wizards,” he said.