Sometimes home is far from where the heart is

March 17, 1994|By Phil Jackman

One of the vagaries of sports, often classified as the biggest in the eyes of those involved on a day-to-day basis, is the necessity of playing on the road half the time. Of course, the percentage zooms if you're a struggling team trying to make a name for yourself among the amateurs. Ask Coppin State basketball coach Fang Mitchell.

There are times, though, when a pleasant little junket through the nation's heartland or an extended trek to the high country and the Left Coast can prove a blessing. The woebegone Washington Bullets and Capitals are cited as examples of this.

After the usual surge resulting from a coaching change, the USAir Arena's hockey team had slipped back into its comfortable win-one, lose-one, tie-one mold when it slid into Pittsburgh for a contest Tuesday night.

Jim Schoenfeld, a guy who says what he means and means what he says, had taken his swipes at the inconsistent play of his troops, seemingly to no avail.

He accused players of being along for the ride. He hinted that some might not be able to attain a 700 score on the Scholastic Assessment Test. He expressed shock at a general lack of commitment. He all but promised changes later on, if he has anything to say about it.

The players' answer to this was the customary pap: We're trying too hard.. . . . We've got to stop pointing fingers and stick together. . . . We're just not getting the breaks.

Meanwhile, after blowing several leads from mid-game on, the Caps had seen their home record fall to 13-13-8 after being winless in six games. That's hardly a suitable way for a team to perform while striving to interest the local gentry into coming out and plunking down as much as $39 to watch.

Just as bad was the team's record with the Eastern Conference: 19-25-6.

With a gutsy overtime win over the Penguins, however, the Caps grabbed a bit of breathing room in the race for playoff positions. The victory boosted the club two games over .500 as travelers (19-17), boding well for upcoming stops in Dallas and Tampa Bay.

Still, it's not as though Washington has a chance of moving to a more advantageous position in the new Stanley Cup playoffs format. The Caps currently are running seventh in the conference, miles removed from sixth, but only three points ahead of the club in ninth, Philadelphia.

And, unfortunately, once the NCAA sub-regional takes leave of these parts Sunday, the team plays six of its next eight games in the unfriendly confines of USAir Arena.

Abe Pollin's pride and joy basketball team, the Bullets, started their five-game swing through the wild, wild West Tuesday night with a typical performance in Oakland: a 30-point loss to the Golden State Warriors. Typical because the team wins only one of every four games on the road (6-25), but that's not a whole lot worse than its overall play (19-44).

Last night was more of the same: a 129-94 loss to the less-than-Magic-al Los Angeles Lakers.

One of the problems with the club is, unlike its skating brothers, it has not realized the benefits of a surge in interest and wins with a coaching change as things continue to plod along under the direction of Wes Unseld.

After this most recent pummeling, Wes didn't subject himself to the displeasure of reviewing the general state of things during his seven-year tenure as coach, preferring instead to focus on immediate problems, which never seem to end.

"Now I've got [Tom] Gugliotta hurting, Mitchell Butler hurting and Pervis Ellison had to see the doctor before the game," Wes told the Associated Press. "I'm down to seven players, and I've got to find five guys to send out there. Andrew Gaze [whom the team signed to a 10-game contract last week] doesn't know what the hell we're doing."

Maybe it's about time it was asked just who does know what the hell is going on. Before he was pressed into service, Gaze, a veteran of all levels of play (amateur and pro) and 30 years old, watched a Bullets game and said, "It was pretty much up and down the court and not much halfcourt offense, so it was a little hard to pick up stuff."

Rumblings of Unseld stepping down are being heard again, and his coaching record of 197-331 suggests that they should be loud and forceful. But, as we all know, it will never happen if it's up to Pollin to make it a reality.

"I haven't even thought about next year," Wes said. "I've still got a lot of games to coach this season."

With that it mind, it almost goes without saying that the team stands to benefit from this out-of-sight, out-of-mind swing through Portland, Denver and Houston.

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