Slitting Their Own Throats? As their showboating and swagger undermine their talent, Chris Webber and the Wizards are again struggling to claim a playoff spot

April 06, 1998
April 06, 1998

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April 6, 1998

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Slitting Their Own Throats? As their showboating and swagger undermine their talent, Chris Webber and the Wizards are again struggling to claim a playoff spot

Some nights they're as good as anyone. Some nights they perform
like a team with three All-Star-caliber players, and they don't
need to hold an election to determine who will take the big shot
down the stretch. On such nights--miracle of miracles--they even
hit their free throws, and they run the Seattle SuperSonics off
the floor or beat the Utah Jazz on the road or stun the Bulls in

This is an article from the April 6, 1998 issue

But some nights they only think they're as good as anyone. They
come at you with this swagger, this attitude. The power forward
celebrates by dragging his finger across his neck in a
throat-slitting pantomime, and every fast break turns into some
sort of highlight-reel audition, as if they expect to get points
for degree of difficulty. Some nights the Washington Wizards
seem so impressed with what they can do that they forget to do
it. "There are times," coach Bernie Bickerstaff says, "when we
carry ourselves in a way that infuriates people." Those are
usually the nights when the Denver Nuggets or the Dallas
Mavericks or some other team with half their talent leaves them
staring blankly at the scoreboard, wondering how they lost.

Everyone else wonders, too. They wonder not so much about why
Washington loses games it shouldn't but about when the Wizards
will finally figure out the reasons for themselves. When will
they see that there's a correlation between two teammates
punching each other out hours before a game and the loss that
follows? When will they understand that it's no coincidence that
they lack a true leader when they can't depend on the most
obvious candidate for the job not to get ejected from a crucial
game? When will they learn that talent and emotion without
maturity and stability will win games some nights but not enough

The Wizards aren't exactly your paragons of professionalism. Rod
Strickland, their marvelous point guard, is so habitually late
that his recent efforts to arrive at the required time for
practices and games were praised by some of his teammates as an
example of his commitment. Washington's preferred starting
center, 7'7" Gheorghe Muresan, strained a tendon in his right
ankle during the off-season, when he was also filming a Billy
Crystal movie, My Giant. The Wizards--some of whom have
insinuated that Muresan didn't make a serious effort to
rehabilitate the injury--will have to go to theaters when the
movie opens April 10 if they want to see Muresan in action,
because he will not play this season; the injury has been slow
to heal, and his career may be in jeopardy.

It's no wonder, then, that the Wizards are a some-nights kind of
team, but in the NBA some nights won't get you any further than
the middle of the pack, which is where Washington has been all
season. The Wizards are the gifted student who doesn't do the
reading all semester and then crams for the final exam to pass
the course. At week's end they were languishing at 36-36, in
10th place in the race for the eight Eastern Conference playoff
slots. Washington shouldn't be scrambling just to reach the
postseason. In Strickland and forwards Juwan Howard and Chris
Webber, the Wizards have the kind of three-man nucleus many
teams dream of. "I think that outside of Chicago, obviously,
Washington has as much talent as any team in the East," says New
York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. That may be a stretch, because
Webber, Strickland and Howard are surrounded by a group of solid
but largely one-dimensional role players. Terry Davis, Muresan's
replacement, has given the Wizards defense and rebounding but no
offense. Guard-forward Calbert Cheaney and forward Tracy Murray
are mainly spot-up shooters. Still, there is no question that
the Wizards have above-average talent.

Last year the Wizards won 19 of their final 26 games and earned
the final playoff spot by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers on the
last day of the season, then gave the Bulls fits before being
swept in the first round of the playoffs. After the series,
Michael Jordan anointed Washington as a rising power in the
East. But this year the Wizards have gone back to "some nights."
They are maddeningly inconsistent, the most unpredictable team
in the league. They somehow lost to Dallas by 26 points on Feb.
28, then followed that with a win over the powerful Los Angeles
Lakers two nights later. They stopped the Charlotte Hornets'
10-game winning streak on March 14, then handed the woeful
Nuggets their eighth win of the season three nights after that.
A month of betting on Washington could persuade a gambler to
take up needlepoint. "I wish I could give you the answers, but I
don't know what they are," says Webber. "Is it concentration? Is
it experience? Is it injuries? It's probably a combination."

The general approach to playing the Wizards is to let them fill
up the highlight reel and wait for them to beat themselves.
"They spend too much time showboating instead of playing
hard-nosed, grindstone basketball," says Houston Rockets forward
Charles Barkley. "It's O.K. to have one or two flashy plays a
game, but it's the other 100 plays that win the game. They
concern themselves so much with making highlight plays that they
forget the fundamentals."

The Wizards, to their credit, won't use Muresan's injury as an
alibi, though his absence robs them of an intimidator in the
middle. Howard also missed 16 games with a sprained left ankle,
and Webber sat on the bench beside him for six of those games
with a strained right shoulder. Even so, Washington has problems
that injuries cannot explain. The Wizards too often fail to make
crucial free throws, which isn't surprising when you consider
that, through Sunday, their percentage of .695 ranked 26th in
the 29-team league. Against the Phoenix Suns last Friday, Webber
missed two foul shots with 6.7 seconds left that might have
helped Washington avoid an 89-85 loss.

But lack of discipline is even more telling. With the Wizards
leading the Portland Trail Blazers by three points late in the
third quarter on March 24, Strickland picked up a technical,
then kept talking to referee David Jones during a timeout even
after Bickerstaff and teammate Harvey Grant went on the floor to
drag him away. Jones eventually gave Strickland a second
technical and an automatic ejection. Even though Washington went
on to win 99-87, getting tossed from a close game when your team
is battling to make the playoffs is boneheaded, especially for a
veteran who is supposedly a team leader.

But then Strickland has no interest in being the team leader, at
least not the kind who lights a fire under his teammates with
words of inspiration. "Vocal leader? Bernie's our vocal leader,"
says Strickland. "That's his job." Which might be just as well,
because it's possible that Strickland's delicate system couldn't
handle the pressure of being more demonstrative. Strickland, who
is partial to pregame meals of hot dogs or pizza, has been known
to call for a towel on the bench and deposit the contents of his
stomach into it during a game. On March 22, during a road game
against the New Jersey Nets, he wasn't able to be quite so
discreet and left it all on the Continental Airlines Arena
floor, so to speak, while he was still in the game.

"I don't think people want to give this team the benefit of the
doubt," Webber says. That may be because the Wizards have been
even more immature--dangerously so--off the court. In November
'96, Howard was charged with driving while intoxicated after
being stopped for speeding, though the charge was dropped after
he agreed to enter an alcohol rehabilitation and education
program. Last September, Strickland was charged with driving
under the influence of alcohol and disorderly conduct. In
January, Webber was charged with three misdemeanors, including
second-degree assault, and six traffic violations, including
driving under the influence of a controlled, dangerous
substance, after he was stopped by police on the way to a
morning practice. Strickland's and Webber's charges are pending.

Not all of their misbehavior was related to traffic violations.
On Dec. 10, Strickland and Murray had a fight in a Charlotte
hotel room over comments Murray had made to a woman about
Strickland. That night Washington lost 104-101 to the Hornets.
Strickland played with a taped left wrist and Murray with seven
stitches below his left eye, a swollen lip and a bruise on his
arm. "They take responsibility for what they've done, they don't
run from it or make excuses," says Bickerstaff of his
trouble-prone team. "If they weren't good human beings, I would
be the first to say so, but they are." The Wizards have a
relatively harmonious locker room--even Strickland and Murray
have made peace--nor is there any lack of respect for
Bickerstaff, making the situation even more baffling.

Strickland, who at week's end was leading the NBA in assists
with 10.6 per game, has played as well as any point guard in the
league this season, with the possible exception of Seattle's
Gary Payton. Howard, who was averaging 18.7 points and 7.0
rebounds, is the highest-paid Wizard, having signed a
seven-year, $105 million contract before last season. However,
it is the talented, charismatic Webber who has to deal with the
blessing and the curse of being Washington's most identifiable
player. He has had perhaps the finest season of his five-year
career, averaging 22.2 points and 9.4 rebounds. Yet he is seen
by many as exciting but not a winner--much like his team. Of the
Wizards' big three, he is also the one most willing to confront
the problems, his team's and his own, head-on. "I've made
mistakes and put myself in certain positions that I shouldn't
have been in, and that's my fault," he says.

Allowing fans to have a five-minute conversation with Webber--he
talks softly and sensibly about his team's difficulties and
about how badly he wants Washington to become a consistent
winner--might be the surest way for him and the Wizards to
reverse their image. Webber insists that his antics on the
court, his gestures and scowling demeanor, aren't meant to be
offensive. He drew criticism for his throat-cutting act after
Washington beat New Jersey, but he says the move was intended as
a playful message to some college buddies in the stands, not as
a taunt to the Nets or their fans. "I wish I hadn't done that in
front of the camera, but it was not meant the way people
interpreted it," Webber says. "I don't want to eliminate things
like that from my game entirely, but I need to choose the time
and the place more wisely."

Until he does, the Wizards will not be an every-night kind of
team. "I think they want it, but they don't know yet how to get
it," says Bickerstaff. "We have a ways to go, but we're on the
right track." That may be, but what good is being on the right
track when you're running in place?

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER SLASHING MOVE Webber admits that he ought to tone down his antics but says his gesture in a game against the Nets was misunderstood. [Chris Webber gesturing by "slitting" throat with finger]COLOR PHOTO: MITCHELL LAYTON/NBA PHOTOS A WIZ HE is The mercurial Strickland is among the league's best point guards, but he has never assumed the role of team leader. [Rod Strickland and others in game]COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN VAUGHAN/CASTLE ROCK ENTERTAINMENT NO LAUGHING MATTER Muresan's cinematic turn with Crystal is comic, but for the Wizards his absence has been tragic. [Gheorghe Muresan and Billy Crystal in car in movie My Giant]
"It's O.K. to have one or two flashy plays," says Barkley, "but
it's the other 100 plays that win a game."
"If they weren't good people, I would be the first to say so,"
says Bickerstaff.