Wizards bring on Hamilton as coach

Deal believed to be $10 million, 5 seasons

Pro Basketball

June 15, 2000|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Precedent is no friend of Leonard Hamilton, the 51-year-old North Carolina native who was announced as the Washington Wizards' head coach yesterday during a news conference at MCI Center.

College coaches with no professional experience tend to come into the NBA with much fanfare but often struggle.

Hamilton has built a sterling reputation over 28 years as a coach - the past 10 as the head man at the University of Miami - but none at the pro level.

Nonetheless, Hamilton had teaching credentials that fit the bill for Wizards president of basketball operations Michael Jordan, who met him while a high school player in the late 1970s. Hamilton, then an assistant at the University of Kentucky, tried to recruit Jordan.

"I had no shot trying to get him away from Carolina," the coach recalled.

Hamilton signed a contract believed to be worth $10 million over five seasons, with four years guaranteed.

Before moving to the Wizards, he came to an agreement with Miami to gradually pay back $1 million of the $5 million the school was set to pay him over the next seven seasons.

"This is a big step in the progression of getting the Wizards back to where we want to go," said Jordan, who called Hamilton about the job three weeks ago after talks with St. John's coach Mike Jarvis fell through.

"He understands where we are and where we want to go."

Despite efforts to the contrary, Washington shares company with Dallas, New Jersey and the Los Angeles Clippers as the NBA's most troubled franchises. The team has what Jordan described as three All-Stars - Mitch Richmond, Rod Strickland and Juwan Howard - but missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

Five coaches (Jim Lynam, Bernie Bickerstaff, Jim Brovelli, Gar Heard and Darrell Walker) have guided the team since its previous playoff appearance - faint evidence of the franchise's futile wriggling to become a factor in the NBA again.

"It's been a combination of a lot of things," Wizards owner Abe Pollin said of his team's cold streak."But I think we have the talent, and with the right leader, I think we're going to turn it around."

Jordan said he was aware of how poorly a dip in the collegiate coaching pool had worked out in recent years for the Nets (John Calipari), the Portland Trail Blazers and Golden State Warriors (P.J. Carlesimo) and the Boston Celtics (Rick Pitino).

But since joining the franchise at the beginning of the year, the former Chicago Bulls star had seen a group every bit as listless as the ones before, sauntering to a 29-53 record and a last-place finish in the Atlantic Division.

Jordan said he didn't feel the need to make any personnel changes, but in looking for a coach, he was looking for more of a teacher than someone with NBA coaching experience.

"At this point, this team needs discipline, fundamentals, a new beginning," Jordan said. "We needed someone who was going to bring in a whole new perspective, but with the same focus of winning."

Hamilton was, in essence, the fifth choice. After Heard's dismissal Jan. 29, Jordan pursued Golden State assistant Rod Higgins, who was under contract. Then there was Walker, then former Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens, then Jarvis, who wanted too much money. None of this bothers Hamilton, who boasted, "I was my wife's second choice, and we've been together 31 years."

Indeed, Hamilton takes only the hardest cases. As an assistant at Kentucky, he could have taken a better job than Oklahoma State. In 1986, he went to Stillwater anyway, and his four-year tenure there set the stage for what Eddie Sutton has done with that program since.

After a pair of NIT appearances at Oklahoma State, the job of taking on a barely resuscitated Miami program shouldn't have been on his radar in 1990, either, but Hamilton leaves south Florida with three straight NCAA appearances, including a trip to the Sweet 16 this past spring.

"Miami was a patsy," said former Georgetown coach John Thompson, whose teams played Miami in the Big East Conference. "But it wasn't for long."

So Hamilton moves to Washington, continuing a pattern he said he has tried to follow since he was a young man growing up in North Carolina. He said he appreciates the Wizards' struggles. As for dire predictions of another lousy season for the Wizards, that's fine with Hamilton.

"I hope you guys put that in big letters," he said. "Those are the things that get you excited about doing something no one thought you could do. I like being a part of rebuilding, of new beginnings, accepting challenges that no one feels you can be successful in."

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