Hamilton faces loftiest challenge in lowly Wizards

NBA: Leonard Hamilton's immense skills as a coach and team builder will be put to the test in his new job as coach of Washington's floundering franchise.

June 28, 2000|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

Eight months ago, Leonard Hamilton stood under a heated tent behind the Auburn House at Towson University, telling a story about his days as an assistant coach for Kentucky's men's basketball team.

It was the story of how fans delirious over the team's 1978 national championship lined the road from the state line to Lexington to welcome the Wildcats home.

That was possible at Towson, too, Hamilton told boosters at the fund-raiser who had seen their men's basketball team win only 14 games over the previous two seasons. One glorious day, he said, Towson fans might line I-95, then the Beltway, all the way back to Baltimore County.

"That was appropriate for that situation," Hamilton, a friend and former boss of Towson coach Mike Jaskulski, said recently. "Sometimes people don't realize the potential, but anything's possible, if only you believe."

Surely, some people in the crowd at Towson thought it was a pipe dream.

It was easy enough for Hamilton, 51, to say, as the head coach at Miami (Fla.), coming off two straight NCAA appearances, but how about trying something difficult. He's getting his chance right now, preparing for tonight's NBA draft as the new coach of the Washington Wizards.

He's trying to add another "you, too" story to his list, because he has tried a few difficult things and succeeded as a coach. He helped Austin Peay gain brief notoriety with NCAA bids in 1973 and '74, handled the pressure of being the first black assistant at Kentucky, then rescued programs at Oklahoma State and Miami.

Then, four weeks ago, Michael Jordan called his fellow North Carolina native with the opportunity to perform another rescue, this time in the NBA. Hamilton jumped at the challenge.

"I like being part of rebuilding, of new beginnings, accepting challenges that no one feels you can be successful in," Hamilton said. "Most coaches, at any level, would love to be the coach of an NBA franchise."

`New perspective' needed

The franchise he is joining is certainly a challenge. No matter what the club does, it seems to turn out badly, and it has had just one playoff appearance since 1990.

High draft choices haven't helped, nor have trades, free-agent pickups and coaching changes. Not even bringing in Jordan as president of basketball operations last season could keep the team - with three possible All-Stars in Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond - from sliding to a 29-53 record.

Jordan said the team needed something more than it had been getting from the former coaches. "It desperately needs some discipline, some fundamentals, a new beginning," he said. "We needed someone who would bring a whole new perspective with the same focus of winning."

So he called in Hamilton, who lets out a low, raspy, terse, "Coach Hamilton" when he answers the phone, a far cry from the energetic presence he assumed at Towson in November, or at the news conference that announced his hiring as Wizards coach two weeks ago.

Who can blame him for being tired? The draft meetings go on continuously. Hamilton, Jordan, general manager Wes Unseld and others must figure out who might be around when their only draft pick comes up at No. 35. The new coach also needs to meet with returning players and evaluate them, and interview candidates for the assistant coaching positions that are still unfilled, save for Tree Rollins.

Hamilton also has camps to run back in Miami and has former players who need stewarding through summer school. He is house-shopping for himself, his wife, Claudette, and his daughter, Allison. He's also looking for another church similar to his Bethel Full Gospel Church in southern Dade County, where he's scheduled to participate in a youth conference tomorrow.

"Obviously, I have obligations to my church and other organizations in Miami," he said. "Anytime you're somewhere for 10 years, you just don't leave in abrupt fashion without trying to maintain relationships"

One relationship he has maintained is with Jaskulski, on whose behalf Hamilton made the trip north last fall. Jaskulski was an assistant at Miami from 1993 to 1997 and got to witness firsthand the work ethic that makes possible the type of juggling act Hamilton is trying to perform.

"No one will work harder," Jaskulski said, adding that others took Hamilton's 16- to 20-hour days for granted. "I'd be in the office late at night, and it became apparent that those calling in at 11 expected him to be there."

One of nine children, Hamilton grew up in Gastonia, N.C., with football as his best sport, but switched to basketball when sickness kept him from trying out for a college team.

After graduating from Tennessee-Martin, he learned to take on heavy loads. In his 20s, he and Claudette adopted four of his siblings and a nephew while he was a graduate assistant and then full assistant at Austin Peay.

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