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THE INSIDE TRACK | Commentary

Wizards' Hamilton Looking for an Inch Here and There

November 05, 2000|MICHAEL WILBON | WASHINGTON POST

A coach can make himself sick, literally, trying to negotiate the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations of the Washington Wizards. The enormity of it has overwhelmed more than a few good men. This is where having built two programs from nothing should serve Leonard Hamilton well in what will probably be his most difficult start from scratch. Everywhere he's been as a head coach, he's had to start out just like this: head down, pressing forward inch by inch, looking for the smallest imaginable signs of encouragement, paying no attention whatsoever to the big picture, working to convince his players that this is the right way.

The Wizards lost a disappointing season opener Tuesday in Orlando, then won impressively on the road Wednesday in Charlotte. Based on the past 15 years of this franchise, a 1-1 start is reason for celebration. But on Day 3 of this NBA season, the eve of a Friday night home opener against the New York Knickerbockers, Hamilton isn't into overanalyzing Orlando's loss or Charlotte's victory. He's looking for those inches, for those small and subtle signs other folks may miss or misinterpret.

"You know what I'm standing here thinking about from" the Charlotte game? Hamilton said after Thursday's practice. "The body language was good. The play was unselfish. The spirit I think you have to have in tough times was evident. As important as the athleticism is, those things probably have to come first. They are as important as the athleticism or the basketball considerations. That's what my focus is right now."

It's the job of club executives, from Abe Pollin to Michael Jordan to Wes Unseld to Rod Higgins, to assess the big picture, to look down the road and around the corner. Hamilton, at 11:45 Thursday morning, wasn't yet ready to deal with noon. This is how, at both Oklahoma State and the University of Miami, he was able to go from A to C while rarely backsliding to B. What he's been trying to find out since the beginning of training camp, and what he's trying to determine in the opening days of this season, is who wants to play, who is willing to sacrifice, to listen, to run the plays to the letter, to trust his teammates.

Plays? Assistant coach Johnny Bach knows more plays to run than Hamilton, Jordan and Unseld put together. Offense and defense are a lot easier to fix than state of mind. It's been 42 months, since April 1997, that this franchise fielded a real basketball team, and Hamilton is trying to find the nuts and bolts to construct one again. And the stuff like body language and spirit, the little stuff, is to the builder the brick and mortar.

"At basketball and football combines everybody measures quickness, speed and agility," Hamilton said. "I'm trying to assess the ingredient that allows you to get the most out of what you can do not just each and every day, but each and every possession.

"I feel like I might be 'Joe College' right now," Hamilton said of his upbeat, relentlessly positive manner, an approach cynics say can't move a bunch of pros. "But I see signs of things developing. It won't happen overnight. That certain level of trust never does. I just want to be a little bit better tomorrow than today. To do it, I don't even worry about the end of today."

Will it work? Will Hamilton see something or try something that will serve this franchise better than Gar Heard or Bernie Bickerstaff or Jim Lynam or the interims I've lost track of? Who knows? It's still a players' league, and the Wizards don't have anything approaching a great one. Hamilton is working every day with a bunch of guys who don't know how long they'll be here, who don't know whether they're part of the long-range plan.

Even so, Juwan Howard said Thursday: "You know what I'm impressed with? He has his heart in it. Coach cares. . . . From what I'm seeing, guys appreciate it and respect it. And once a coach gets that from his players, it makes the workplace happier, it makes being on the floor more exciting, more fun."

This is a 180-degree turn in relationship-with-the-coach for Howard, who was oil to Heard's water.

Rod Strickland offered an even more frank assessment: "I think we're on the same page, for the most part. But look, everybody's frustrated with the past. I think I see signs of guys wanting to come together and get this done, wanting to turn this thing around. We're trying to learn we can win."

They're going to have to do it by making the whole greater than the sum of the parts, which isn't much. "We're going to have to have a lot of guys involved," Hamilton said. "We have to win games by committee," which is exactly what happened in Charlotte. To that end, the really good thing Jordan, Unseld and Higgins did in the off-season was make this team as young as possible, with 12 guys under 30.

The offense through the first two games emphasized a lot of motion and passing. What could help the Wizards tremendously is the state of the Eastern Conference. It's dreadful. Most of us have predicted the Wizards will finish at or near the bottom of the conference, but there's hope in the fact that there simply isn't that much difference between top and bottom in the East.

Beating the Knicks would enable Hamilton's program to march another inch forward, which, for a team that has been sliding the wrong way for years, is a bigger leap than it sounds.

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