Savannah Washburn was in her 40's and in the 15th year of her marriage to Dwight Washburn when she delivered her first child, on May 13, 1965. By then, she had a stepdaughter who was already in her teens. Mrs. Washburn considered this late pregnancy to be more miracle than accident. She knew her firstborn would be special, a gift from God. All the child had to do was show up healthy. She would take care of the rest.
When Chris Washburn was 15 years old, he stood 6'10" in his stocking feet. He weighed 275 pounds. And he could play basketball. "I was always coordinated," says Washburn. "I could always dribble. I could shoot with my left hand. I could run. I never lifted weights." So, it was not surprising to hear many prep school and college recruiters agreeing that Chris's mother was right. He was a gift from God. Any fool could see it. Some even added (out of the sides of their mouths) that he might be above certain rules. Things might be arranged. All he had to do was show up healthy. They would take care of the rest.
Washburn finally settled on North Carolina State, primarily because the Wolfpack was reigning NCAA champion and because the school was only 135 miles from his home in Hickory, N.C. In his two years there, he set no records, took a stereo that didn't belong to him and then declared himself eligible for the NBA draft last April.
Washburn was drafted by the woebegone Golden State Warriors, at the time rumored to be in the Pacific Division of the NBA. He was the third pick overall in the draft. The Warriors hoped he would be one of the elements in the resurrection of a franchise that had not made the playoffs in nine long years. The team's new coach, George Karl, had spent hours the night before the draft studying film of Washburn and others. "We looked at Ron Harper, we looked at the rest," says Karl. "We saw this 6'11" guy with talent. We had to take him. And I think he'll be a good player, maybe, in three years. If he works. If he changes. But sometimes I wonder if we drafted the kind of player who will always break your heart."
February 2, 1987
The Warriors reportedly have fined Washburn at least nine times for such transgressions as being late for a team bus or missing it completely or being late for practice or just "brain locking," as Karl calls it, in games. Almost in spite of Washburn, it seems, the Warriors have been resurrected. They could even find themselves in the playoffs this year, if they all keep playing up to the limits of their talent. Meanwhile, Washburn has spent most of the season on the bench (he is currently out of action with a kidney ailment). He won't be in the running for NBA Rookie of the Year.
Washburn has laid out so much money in fines that the team, with Karl's approval, decided to buy a dressing room stereo with some of the proceeds. It represents Washburn's greatest contribution to the Warriors so far and perhaps his first lesson in real life: What goes around comes around. Washburn has many more lessons to learn before the Warriors can become championship contenders, and Karl can get his blood pressure under control.
"I don't see what being five minutes late has to do with anything," Washburn says. He is standing outside his town house high in the Oakland hills. He is not wearing a shirt. A woman backs her car out of the driveway next door, feigning nonchalance, looking the other way while attempting to get a better glimpse of this colossus. She backs into the car parked across the street. Washburn hears the crash and shrugs. He continues explaining the difficulties of his rookie year. Finally, he shakes his head. "It's not just opponents; it's your coaches, your teammates. They all test you in your rookie year."
So here, then, is Chris Washburn—not the legendary Washburn of almost no measurable SAT score, not the Washburn who made college recruiters compromise principles and not the Washburn of the Warriors' dreams, either. This is the real Chris Washburn, as seen through the eyes of his teammates, his coach and his toughest opponent.
Teammates: Your name is Larry Smith and you are a rebounding machine. Clocks can be set by your rebounds. You average one board every 2.8 minutes on the floor—a better rate even than Buck Williams'. If Golden State is playing, you're getting your 11. You have played power forward for the Warriors for the last six years and led them in rebounding every season. Last year you led the team in rebounds in 50 games. You have had 30-rebound games twice in your career, and once, on a defensive mission, you helped hold Larry Bird scoreless for 37 minutes. In seven years, you have been fined once. Fifty dollars. You wish you had those back. You made $65,000 as a rookie in 1980-81. Yet the Warriors have not made the playoffs since you've been with them. So you have been part of the problem. You are only 6'7" in an era of Twin Towers. And you have no shot to speak of. The Warriors drafted Washburn and gave him a four-year, three-million-dollar contract to take your job. He was a gift from God. All he had to do was show up healthy. And beat you out.
"George called me in this past summer," says Smith. "He told me he preferred to go with bigger people." Smith is dressed in a business suit and cramped in the coach section of a jet winging toward the Bay Area. On a recent road trip, the fingers on his right hand were hyperextended so badly that he couldn't make a fist. He averaged 13 boards per game anyway. Washburn had the flu and was usually a DNP-CD—did not play, coach's decision.
"George said he was told never to coach a nonshooter," Smith goes on. "Well, it struck my pride. I went away to Hawaii with my family. I came to training camp ready to go to war. When T saw Chris, frankly, I was amazed. The things he could do. I've never seen a guy that big be that agile." Smith sighs. "But I went to war with him. You're talking about rebounds, you're talking about my life. I have to feed my children."
Washburn started the season next to 7-foot center Joe Barry Carroll. But Karl didn't like what he saw, and two games later, Smith was safely back in the starting lineup. He celebrated the occasion with 10 boards in a win over the Knicks. Karl's edict against nonshooters fell in the face of a higher ethic: Defense and rebounding win games.
Soon after this, Washburn began lapsing into tardiness and brain locking. He missed a team bus in Boston on Nov. 21 and another in New York the next day. The Warriors assigned veteran forward Greg Ballard to be Washburn's baby-sitter, duty Ballard accepted for two weeks before asking out. "He's not my responsibility," Ballard says. "He's 21. He's grown. But he's got to get his mind on playing, rebounding."
"Rebounding?" J.B. Carroll utters the word as a rhetorical question. "Larry Smith is a rebounding machine. In the dictionary next to rebounding they've got a picture of Larry Smith." He does not mention Washburn.
The 28-year-old Carroll is the Warriors' main man in crunch time, the one they go to in the last two minutes of the game. "I don't know what Chris thought," says Smith. "He doesn't move his feet on defense. Maybe he thought he'd be the man on offense. But this is J.B.'s team. J.B.'s automatic. I guess Chris has always been the man." Smith shakes his head at the unfathomable ways of this rookie. "I don't know what's on his mind. I tried to talk to him. I said, 'Chris, this is a business. Nobody's going to take care of your business but you.' He said, I know, I know, you're right.' He didn't hear. He's a good person. He just has hangups."
Eric (Sleepy) Floyd made the transition from shooting guard to lead guard through skill and diligence. Now he is the second-best point guard in the Western Conference, behind Magic Johnson. "Larry Smith is flat awesome," says Floyd. "All the players know that. Nobody but Buck Williams and Moses Malone can rebound like Larry. We have a defensive philosophy on this team. It's hard to break it up just to get Chris in there. There's so much he doesn't know. How to box against great rebounders, for instance."
This season of accomplishment for Floyd, Carroll and Smith is all the more impressive considering that they've done it without Washburn and 6'7" forward Purvis Short, the NBA's most prolific unknown scorer (25.5 ppg last year). Short damaged the cartilage in his left knee Nov. 19 at Cleveland and isn't expected back until sometime this month. "If Larry Smith played power forward for the Lakers, they'd win the title easy," says Short. "If Larry Smith was in Chris Washburn's body, we'd win the title."
Washburn's teammates aren't waiting for him to show up. But they know he represents the future. "I don't think I'll be here next year," says Smith. "It's business. I understand. I just hope Chris understands." For now, Smith will have to do. The Warriors play with one true rebounder. "And his name," says Smith, raising an index finger to make the point, "is not Washburn."
Coach: Your name is George Karl and nobody has ever given you anything you didn't work for first. You are a former player and a permanent disciple of Dean Smith; a devotee of Don Nelson of Milwaukee; a two-time Continental Basketball Association Coach of the Year. You got fired in Cleveland last season and you know you didn't deserve it. You came to the Warriors when new owner James Fitzgerald decided it was time for some changes. This is your chance. You saw Washburn warming up in training camp, and you knew why all those people called him a gift from God. Washburn is the greatest warmup player in the world.
"He did great for three weeks in camp," says Karl. "Then it was like somebody got in his head and told him he didn't have to work anymore. When he warms up, he's so impressed with himself. He's looking up in the crowd to see who's watching him. He has no idea...." Karl is trying not to be angry as he negotiates the gentle curves of the Warren Freeway, high above Oakland. "I see how Rod Higgins and Ben McDonald look at Washburn, how they wish they had that kind of ability, how they can't understand how he can waste it. Chris is not playing because he broke down in habits and concentration."
Rod Higgins and Ben McDonald are two nondescript forwards who give their coach everything they have. And it is Karl's coaching that has helped the Warriors survive the loss of Short and Washburn's walkabouts. The Warriors play a trapping, shunting defense that doesn't allow the ball to go where the opposition would like it. If it does, the defense doubles and triples. "Pinning the ball," Karl calls it. The consensus among NBA coaches is that the Warriors have been called for illegal defense more than any other team in the league this season. But their traps and the whoops and yips of their private fast-break communication have served the Warriors well. They are winning with Karl's philosophy, and no one plays it harder or smarter than Higgins and McDonald, Karl's pet workmen.
"Look, I don't think Chris is dumb. And he's not a bad kid," says Karl. "He just doesn't understand work. All that stuff he thinks is basketball...if he goes between his legs, if he showboats, he's going to get pulled out." Karl grips the steering wheel tighter. "I won't reinforce that, and that's just the way it is."
Practice had recently concluded for the next day's game with the Washington Bullets. During a lull, there was an interesting conversation between the up-and-coming young coach and the rookie prodigy. The team had been shooting free throws when Karl, a former guard for North Carolina, mishandled a ball beneath the basket.
"Coach," said a smiling Washburn, "you never had a handle."
"Chris," said Karl, "you never had any concentration."
"Coach, I can shoot."
"Chris, do you have any N.C. State records?"
Chris frowns. He doesn't know.
"I still have a share of an NBA team record," says Karl. "Check the San Antonio Spurs. Five steals. One game. Playoff situation."
Chris has no trouble brushing this off with his wide, disarming, gap-toothed smile.
"You don't have five steals all year," says Karl.
"Give me five minutes, I'll get five steals," says Chris.
Later Karl says, "He'll play when he can remember what we're doing out there. When he doesn't brain lock when we run plays for him, he'll play." On the night they lost Short in Cleveland, the Warriors twice ran plays for Washburn after timeouts. Twice Washburn forgot the plays. Karl says, "Do you know I only had two plays run for me in my life? Two! One against Ernie DiGregorio, and that doesn't count."
Al Attles can only shake his head. The Warriors' coach from 1970 until 1983, Attles is now a team vice-president. He is disturbed by what he hears. "I tried to explain things to him," he says. "I said, 'Chris, the organization is not giving you all this money because they like you, they're giving it to you because they expect something back.' He said, 'I know, I know, you're right.' I tried to explain to him it's just as easy to be five minutes early as five minutes late. I know he's young. But a five-year-old knows the difference between right and wrong."
Karl doesn't waste much time worrying about Washburn. He's trying to be the best—burning the midnight oil, watching film until his eyes droop and he falls asleep, awakening to concoct a mix of three scorers and a switching, swarming defense into a team to be reckoned with. Maybe if Washburn would show up and go to work, Karl's job would be easier.
No. 1 Opponent: Your name is Chris Washburn, and everybody is suddenly saying that you have to do more than just show up. You have to be on time. You have to play defense. You have to rebound. You don't quite understand this. "I don't see what being late has to do with playing in the game," you say. "I don't see why Coach has to sacrifice a game just because I was late."
Washburn is at his town house, down the street from Rickey Henderson's place, near the Caldecott Tunnel. Ex-Raider Raymond Chester helped Washburn find these digs. Normally Washburn would be joined by Jackie Knowles, who was assigned by Gus Williams Enterprises, which represents Washburn, to serve as his latest babysitter. But Knowles has gone to New York this week, and Washburn is joined instead by Lloyd Johnson, a part-time deejay at a roller rink. Johnson says it is his fault that Washburn was late for the shootaround before yesterday's Bullets' game. Johnson was using Washburn's black 500 SEL Mercedes-Benz for some personal business, he says.
Washburn begins to speak, and soon it is apparent he has an excuse for everything but no adequate explanation for anything. It is also apparent that Washburn is far from dumb—just as Karl had said. In fact, Washburn is slick-smart. "People think things about me because I don't speak up," he says. "People say, 'He's ornery' or 'He can't talk.' They don't know. They talk about SATs [on which he scored 470]. Hey, when someone tells you all you have to do is sign your name, that it doesn't mean nothing...why should I try?
"Coach wants me to change my game to a power game—which I have," says Washburn. "But these guys in the NBA, I can't push them out of the way. They have that old strength in their bodies. I guess I just have to pay my dues. Forgetting those plays in Cleveland? It was the noise. It was so loud that night. And the other time, I was set up wrong. I guess if we weren't winning, people would be really upset and mad at me.
"I want to play almost as long as Kareem has," Washburn says. His chest swells with pride. "My toughest opponent? I'd say it's probably me." Washburn pauses, then looks surprised.
A revelation? Time will tell.
No, Washburn is not dumb or ornery, but he is definitely, maybe even irreparably, spoiled. He has always been told that he was a gift from God. He has never learned that so is Larry Smith. And George Karl. And Al Attles. And everybody else. That it has nothing to do with the price of rice, or rebounds. Washburn will eventually learn these seemingly simple facts of life. The Warriors hope he learns in time to help the team. Washburn should hope he learns in time to help himself. Life is a long season, longer even than the NBA's.