A DISMAL START HAD D.C. FANS RESIGNED (YET AGAIN) TO DISAPPOINTMENT. BUT A TEAM MEETING CHANGED THE OUTLOOK OF THE FRANCHISE PLAYER AND THE FRANCHISE, GIVING THE CAPITAL AN UPSTART TO EMBRACE
AS USUAL, it will take the rest of the republic some time to catch up with the latest unreal doings in Washington. One day last week, for example, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, smelling quite nice, removed his suit jacket, stepped out on the court inside his Verizon Center and started launching jumpers from 15 feet. He missed his first, swished the second. "You just don't move your head," he explained to swingman Martell Webster.
Laughter kept erupting near the other basket, loudest of all when the city's newest folk hero, Marcin (the Polish Hammer) Gortat, told a cackling TV reporter that, no, he couldn't translate Inside Stuff into his native tongue on camera because it would sound too filthy. And day after day, as the players rested, practiced and waited for the Pacers to wake up and become their second-round opponent, life in Wizards land felt like that: loose, a bit upside down and fully jarring.
Brazilian big man Nen√™, miserable when traded from the Nuggets two years ago, was now telling folks that he was enjoying the game as never before. John Wall, the mercurial point guard, had all but completed a change of persona since the season's start. "He became more vocal," says forward Al Harrington. "Now John is always telling somebody what to do—almost to the point where you want to tell him to shut up."
Then there was Ernie Grunfeld, the team's long-maligned president, walking the halls last Saturday with a literal hop in his step. Grunfeld has spent most of his 11 springs in D.C. wondering if the torch-and-pitchfork crowd would finally have its way and the idea that his contract—as well as coach Randy Wittman's—would soon expire seemed the one discordant subplot in the Wizards' feel-good narrative.
"That is the last thing we're thinking about right now," the 59-year-old Grunfeld says. And here's maybe the weirdest thing: You actually believe it. His grin may well mean that Leonsis has privately assured his return—one unconfirmed report on Monday claimed that Grunfeld actually had another year on his current deal—but it's also the look of a man gone giddy. And why not?
No team proved more in the first round than the Wizards. No team, from a pure basketball standpoint, gave aficionados a more pleasurable jolt. That fifth-seeded Washington demolished the No. 4 Bulls in five games—twice overcoming sizable deficits on the road, neutralizing Defensive Player of the Year Joakim Noah, outgrinding the ultimate grind team to clinch—was impressive. That it did so with a fast, unselfish and variegated style, with the skillful blend of old heads and young, with swiftly evolving talents like Wall and his 20-year-old backcourt mate, Bradley Beal, also allowed for the sudden sense that no matter what happens against Indiana, a force is rising on the Potomac.
"We're coming to shock everybody," says rookie forward Otto Porter Jr. "And it really shouldn't be shocking; we are a contender. We showed that, hey, if we play together, we can beat anybody."
Still, even with the evidence at hand, it's hard not to be suspicious. Because this is the Wizards: They rarely contend and it's been a while since they've done giddy. No, Washington has been about losing, depression and sour chemistry, about big contracts and slim results, about a franchise so dreadfully bad that even Michael Jordan emerged from it stinking. Before last week the Wizards had won just two playoff series in 34 years. They had drafted Kwame Brown with the No. 1 pick. They had given $111 million to injured guard Gilbert Arenas, whose idea of leadership involved filling a teammate's shoe with fecal fun and bringing four guns into the locker room.
Besides, this year's version is the ultimate late bloomer; the Wizards meshed for good in mid-February and didn't truly start humming until Nen√™ returned from a sprained left MCL in April. Their 44--38 record had plenty of bright spots—wins over the Pacers, Trail Blazers, Thunder and Heat—but there were enough mediocre patches to keep them below the local, much less national, radar. And it's not as if the bad old days are all that far behind them.
After last year's 29-win debacle, the team signed Wall, then 22, to a five-year contract extension worth about $80 million. Then came a horrid start, including a limp, 92--79 loss in San Antonio, where Wall was 5 of 19 from the floor with three assists. Taking a clear shot at the future, Nen√™ told The Washington Post, "Our young guys must take their heads out their butts and play the right way, because I'm getting tired of this."
"That game was completely embarrassing," he says. "I was so mad, because it was so selfish."
Six days later, with the team's record at 2--7, Harrington and forward Trevor Ariza called a players meeting at the Verizon Center. Harsh truths were aired, and in a development stunning for this do-nothing era in the nation's capital, they produced change all sides can believe in.
"It definitely helped us," Harrington says, "because we were having a bit of turmoil. People were saying things—and not directed at somebody, but in the paper. So it was one of those breaking points where a team could've just completely exploded."
WALL, OF course, was the central issue. He had to be. Ever since being drafted, at 19, as the No. 1 pick in 2010, the 6'4", one-and-done speedster out of Kentucky has been the alternately brilliant, selfish, diligent, delicate and moody face of Washington basketball. No one has ever accused Wall of not working; he has come back from each off-season stronger, a sharper shooter. He wants to be great. But learning how hasn't been easy, what with his foot and knee injuries as a rookie, the 2011 lockout and—not least—because Leonsis's mandate for a total team teardown had losses piling up like dimes on a dresser.
Then, before training camp could even open in '12, Wall was diagnosed with a nonsurgical injury to his left patella that caused him to lose another half-season. "I really thought my third year would be the one I'm having this year: Go to the playoffs, be an All-Star," Wall says. "Then I got a stress fracture on my knee, almost broke my kneecap, and I'm like, Well, what the hell is going on? I can't find a way to get healthy and improve.
"But I never questioned or threw my teammates under the bus. Even earlier in my career, when I had teammates that probably weren't dedicated to winning like I was or serious about their craft or the game, I never complained: 'He can't shoot! He can't do that!' I might have said, 'We need a stretch four, or a three-point shooter,' but I always gave my teammates credit. Everything's happening for a reason now. I think just me, my time, happened: Getting better teammates, guys who want to win—and me improving my game—put it all together."
Not quite. First was that matter of solving Wall himself. He broke out of the regular season's gate intent on justifying his new contract, a point guard thinking score-first/pass-maybe, mystifying teammates who had seen no sign of that in camp.
"He had just got his max [deal], and he felt as though he had to prove it," Beal says. "I'm pretty sure any player in the league would feel the same way. He had individual goals, and he was trying to get off to a great start."
Gortat, a 30-year-old acquired from the Suns just five days before the opener, had heard a decade's worth of league horror stories about the Wizards. But playing with Wall and Nen√™ seemed intriguing, at least until the first stretch of games.
"I'm not going to lie: [Wall] was getting a lot of people nervous," Gortat says. "My question was, Is anybody going to do anything about that? His mind-set was just to take 20, 30 shots, score 30 points and lead the team to a win. No. You can score 30 points any day; you handle the ball every time. The question is, Can you involve everybody else? Can you make people around you better?"
Thus Nen√™'s blast last November and the team meeting that will, if Washington beats the top-seeded Pacers, be heralded locally as something between the Hoosiers locker-room clap and that "band of brothers" confab in Henry V. Ariza, a key part of the Lakers' 2009 championship team, and Harrington had been in Wall's ear for weeks, plumping his confidence, pushing him to improve his diet and sleep habits, and he had been nothing but receptive. The veterans knew he was ready to listen. Every player spoke, but the key moment was when Nen√™ gave Wall the floor and asked him to detail, one by one, what he expected from each player.
"They gave me the keys," Wall says, "and were like, 'You tell us what everybody's role is. What do you think everybody should do? What do they contribute to this team that you would like to see?' And at first I was, like, Me?"
It was a brilliant veteran move, if only because Wall wasn't going anywhere. But now he wouldn't be able to have it both ways, couldn't defer to older teammates while holding all their fates in his hands. By translating the clout endowed by status and contract into pure basketball terms, by explicitly ceding him leadership, Wall's teammates made him assume the full responsibility of stardom for the first time.
"It let him know that everything is on him—the good, the bad, the ugly," Harrington says. "We thrust him into an uncomfortable position of ... talking—and telling us exactly what was on his mind and how he felt. Because at the end of the day, everything is going to be his fault. And he's taken on the challenge ever since."
Wall put up career highs in points (19.3), assists (8.8) and steals (1.8) during the regular season, and he did hit individual targets like making his first All-Star team. None doubted that he was capable of all that. What's new is what came after the meeting: The Wizards won seven of their next nine, good enough to prompt Gortat to publicly predict that they'd win 50 games this season. While the Hammer didn't quite hit the nail, Wall wouldn't even have been satisfied if he had.
"We could've easily been a 55-win team," Wall says. "We let 15, 20 games go into overtime or everybody was not coming out and playing right away. And it all starts with me: Some nights I didn't bring it all. I think one thing that's letting me focus on and understand what I can do on a nightly basis is how this first round of the playoffs went. If I'm having a bad night, there's the defensive pressure you can bring to the game, or those little things to help our team improve."
Indeed, Wall shot just 36.4% against Chicago—and what's new, lastly, is that it didn't matter. He forced almost nothing. He was happy to run the pick-and-roll with Gortat and Nen√™; he scrambled to set up shots for Beal's hot hand; at times, he downshifted his high-octane pace like a Formula One driver, an adjustment some thought he'd never make, and patiently feathered his teammates into the flow. And when, in Game 5, it became necessary, he hit the gas and flattened the Bulls with a 24-point, seven-rebound, four-assist performance in a 75--69 victory.
"He'll start a game and say, 'I'm going to get 10 assists'—and he will get the 10: He has that much control right now," Harrington says. "That's why his ceiling is ... well, we don't know where it is yet."
The prospect of such potential can be intoxicating, but the Wizards and Wall keep insisting that they are a "hungry" and "humble" team. Credit Nen√™, Wittman and the team's personal Wall Whisperer—assistant coach Sam Cassell, the former championship guard—for the public restraint, but make no mistake, Washington knows what it means to be peaking while the Pacers struggle, knows it is dangerous, knows that anything is possible as long as Wall remains his newfound gabby self. So does he.
"Ever since that meeting I've had to be that way," Wall says. "It's about being mentally stronger, focused, locked in and having the confidence. When you have confidence, you can do whatever you want. Anytime."
LEONSIS CALLS his team and market the NBA's "sleeping giant," but we'll have to take his word for it. With every free bed in the DMV (District-Maryland-Virginia) bunkhouse filled these days by some also-ran college program or underachieving pro team, with the Redskins, Nationals and Capitals issuing mostly thunderous snores and the stray flatulent blast, it has long been easy to forget that the area's NBA team is even there. The occasional winning streak or lottery pick could prompt the stirring of that beast over in the corner, wrapped in a 1978 title banner and dreams of Wes Unseld and the Big E. But always, after murmur and sigh, the poor thing rolled over and resumed its endless snooze.
Still, maybe, just maybe, it's time to wake. Lord knows, no franchise in town has tried harder to be a good citizen. As the flagship of founding owner Abe Pollin, the closest D.C. ever came to a civic saint, Washington voluntarily changed its tin-eared name—ahem!—from Bullets to Wizards in 1997--98 and, reversing the usual trend, moved from the burbs with Pollin's Caps to anchor his new MCI (now Verizon) Center and spark a boom downtown. And with the knucklehead quotient seemingly gone, with Nen√™ grinning and Beal bombing and Gortat screaming 300 quotes ("Give them nothing but take everything!") at his teammates, you actually feel something approaching, yes, joy in their play.
"It took me by surprise," says Georgetown coach John Thompson III. "You see a trust, a bond, a belief in each other that wasn't there prior. And that's what it's all about. This group has each other's backs—and that's why they've had success."
How long will that last? Ariza and Gortat will hit unrestricted free agency at season's end. "I still hate the roads here in Washington," Gortat says. "It's the capital and, I mean, every street's got literally holes that you can crack your whole freakin' car. It's just ridiculous. Somebody's got to do something about it. But at the end of day, I really like this city. I'm not saying I'm loving. I like it."
And he hasn't even experienced, for good and bad, Washington sports in full manic flower. The most refreshing—no, lovable—aspect of this Wizards playoff run is the way the team outpaced all hype. That alone, in the DMV, is remarkable. Because in recent years, championship fever surrounding the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, the Nationals' Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper and, of course, the Redskins' Robert Griffin III, has spiked expectation to an all-but-unbearable degree.
"This town has a problem with that: People anoint stars and leadership before they've really accomplished anything," says Stu Vetter, who coached local high schools for 37 years and sent more than 150 players, including Kevin Durant, to Division I programs. "They expect young players to come in and be leaders and over people who might be 10 years older than they are. That's very difficult to do."
Indeed, the Capitals just missed the playoffs, and last month Leonsis canned coach Adam Oates and longtime general manager George McPhee. Last year Nats manager Davey Johnson declared "World Series or bust," and his ball club busted; Harper, who was benched last month for not hustling, is on the disabled list, and at week's end Strasburg had won 31 games since being called up four years ago. Griffin's sophomore slump, meanwhile, led to the Skins' worst season since 1961 and the ouster of coach Mike Shanahan.
Exactly no one, though, was predicting great things this season for the Wiz. Grunfeld's pickup of Gortat for the injured Emeka Okafor caused little excitement, though as the center produced strong numbers in anticipation of free agency, it became clear that, in the long run, ol' Ernie might just have made his most hideous error pay off.
"That we were able to trade Gilbert Arenas for Rashard Lewis, then for Rashard to get Okafor and Ariza—and then from that one end up with Gortat?" Leonsis asks. "We have Gortat and Ariza, two starters, for Gilbert Arenas, who's been out of the league for several years. And that trade was unbelievably criticized. Why? We got two starters!"
If that sounds like revisionist crowing—and a ringing endorsement for Grunfeld?—so be it. Leonsis, Wall & Co. have earned a bit of giggle room. Soon enough, the potholes will need to be filled. The real hard work, in fact, begins right about now.