Heard felt slam dunk coming early on

Fired coach critical of Jordan

successor reported to be Walker

January 31, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Gar Heard said he knew his days as coach of the Washington Wizards were numbered when Michael Jordan did not talk with him after taking over a little less than two weeks ago as the team's president of basketball operations and minority owner.

Heard was fired Saturday night after the Wizards beat the Cleveland Cavaliers at MCI Center. Former Toronto Raptors coach Darrell Walker is expected to be introduced today as the Wizards' new coach, according to broadcast reports.

The naming of Walker, 38, came after a snag had apparently developed in the hiring of Golden State Warriors assistant Rod Higgins, a former teammate of Jordan's during his early years with the Chicago Bulls.

Walker has ties to both Jordan and the Wizards. A former No. 1 draft choice of the New York Knicks in 1983, Walker spent four seasons in Washington before finishing his career as a member of the 1992-1993 NBA champion Bulls.

He coached the Raptors during the 1996-97 season and for part of the 1997-98 season, compiling a 41-90 record.

Though he was diplomatic shortly after hearing the news of his firing, Heard said yesterday that he was disappointed Jordan was not more upfront with him after taking over.

"If he had come in and said he was going to make a change, I could accept that," said Heard. "But don't say, `I'm going to evaluate' when there's not going to be a period of evaluation."

Heard said he also was upset after reading comments from point guard Rod Strickland and forward Juwan Howard after his firing. While not blaming them directly, Heard said it is no coincidence that two of the team's biggest malcontents share the same agent, David Falk, with Jordan.

"They were the two guys who've been the most disappointing and one [Strickland] who's been the most trouble," Heard said. "Rod said he wanted to be traded, and the minute Michael comes in, he says he doesn't want to be traded."

There were questions concerning a potential conflict of interest when Jordan was introduced at a news conference Jan. 20 in Washington. Jordan, who Saturday was in Atlanta, where he was attending yesterday's Super Bowl, was unavailable for comment.

Heard, who was hired in June and given a three-year contract for a reported $3.6 million, had clashed all season with Strickland over the veteran's less-than-enthusiastic practice habits. Howard had problems with how Heard had used him more at small forward rather than power forward.

Along with injuries to shooting guard Mitch Richmond, center Ike Austin and power forward Michael Smith, those problems helped contribute to the team's 14-30 record, the worst in the NBA's Atlantic Division.

Heard became the third coach fired by the team in the past three seasons. Admitting he felt relieved after the decision was made, Heard said the mix of players and personalities had not meshed. He also said he couldn't change a collective mind-set that had grown accustomed to losing.

"The chemistry is not there," he said. "It's going to be a rough rest of the season for whoever comes in. They'll play hard for a few games for the new guy, and then they'll revert back to what's gone on the whole year. Old habits are hard to break."

Asked if he thought anybody could successfully coach this group of players, Heard joked, "Maybe Michael."

Heard said he was not surprised to see Strickland's quote after Saturday's game.

"It's been tough around here," Strickland said. "The atmosphere hasn't been too good. It's been a lot of negativity, so put it on the players, put it on the coaches, put it on everybody -- things weren't right. It wasn't fun."

Said Heard: "He's the most negative of anybody. There's got to be a time when you're going to stop blaming everybody but yourself."

Heard said he was given the news by general manager Wes Unseld moments after coming off the court after the team's 103-98 victory, the team's second in five games since Jordan came in promising to make changes.

"[Unseld] just said, `You know what this is about,' " Heard said. "I told him I didn't. He said that Michael wanted to make a change. I asked him, if he knew about this before the game, why didn't he do it before? He said that he was going to wait [until yesterday], but the news started to slip out."

Unseld said after the game that he had input into the decision to fire Heard, but Heard took it as a sign that Jordan was clearly in charge. Heard also said he believes other front-office changes, possibly involving Unseld, will be made before the season is over. Unseld couldn't be reached for comment yesterday.

"When it's all said and done, Michael will have the people he wants in place," said Heard.

Heard said coaching the Wizards was "the toughest thing I've ever experienced in all my years in the NBA."

A former player with the Buffalo Braves, Phoenix Suns and San Diego Clippers, Heard served as an assistant for 12 years with the Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers, Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons. He also was interim coach of the Mavericks in 1992-93, winning nine of 53 games.

Heard was optimistic when he came to the Wizards, expressing confidence in the preseason that the team would make the playoffs. He had a different assessment yesterday. "Maybe the team was overrated," he said.

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