In `best interest,' Hamilton quits Wizards

1st-year coach resigns after team's 19-63 season ends with 98-92 defeat

April 19, 2001|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - In a surprise decision, Washington Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton resigned last night after perhaps the worst season in the franchise's 39-year history.

Hamilton, 52, who joined the Wizards this year after 14 years as a coach at Miami and Oklahoma State, announced his resignation after meeting with team president Michael Jordan following Washington's 98-92 loss to the Toronto Raptors at MCI Center. That defeat concluded a 19-63 season.

"I know it's in my best interest and I think it's in the best interest of the Wizards that I allow their progress to continue without me. I feel very confident that the Wizards are in good hands," said Hamilton, who walked away from three years of a guaranteed four-year contract.

Immediately following the game, which the Wizards played with only seven healthy players, Hamilton was summoned to a meeting with Jordan that lasted more than two hours. Hamilton said he did not tell his players about his decision and had only told his wife, Claudette, about his decision just moments before telling the media.

"I have no idea what's going on," said Wizards assistant coach Larry Drew after the game. "I was in the locker room walking around, thanking each player for their cooperation and I was told that Leonard had to go upstairs to meet with Michael and [for me] to come in and do the post-game [news conference]. It never happened all year. Certainly, when you're asked to do something that hasn't taken place all year, you're concerned."

Hamilton's resignation leaves the Wizards looking for their fifth coach in the past three seasons and the third coach since the beginning of last year.

In a franchise history chock-full of mediocrity, the 2000-01 season will go down as a special brand of bad for the Wizards, who avoided a franchise record for fewest wins, but still managed to set a record for most losses in a season.

But unlike many historically dreadful teams, Washington never managed to be bad the same way twice. There were close losses to New York, San Antonio, Portland, Miami and Philadelphia, all playoff teams, mixed in with desultory home setbacks to dreg teams like Atlanta, New Jersey and Chicago.

In perhaps the worst defeat of the year, with Jordan making one of his rare appearances, the Wizards blew a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Los Angeles Clippers in an 93-88 loss at MCI Center.

After that game, Jordan, who promised the club would make the playoffs, blistered the team both in the locker room and in print, saying the players didn't seem to want to push themselves to do what it takes to win.

"Maybe that's part of the problem," said Profit. "On some teams, when things go wrong, you hear about teammates that get into it or take offense to the way certain things are going on the playing field. ... Maybe we didn't hold each other accountable enough or get on each other enough. Maybe we do need to get after each other and not be so friendly when it comes to playing the game as it relates to the team."

By January, it had become clear that drastic changes needed to be made, and those changes came starting in February. Jordan dealt Juwan Howard to Dallas for a package of five players that included Alexander and forward Christian Laettner, who became key contributors in the final two months.

In March, the team waived recalcitrant point guard Rod Strickland. He had essentially stopped playing for two months, contending that he was injured and had been unfairly been made an example of after he missing a December practice and being benched for a subsequent game.

With nearly the entire lineup revamped, the Wizards , at times more resembled a CBA team than an NBA squad. Richard Hamilton, a natural shooting guard/small forward, and Profit, also more suited to the wing, to play the point for Chris Whitney, who missed most of the last month with ankle injuries.

A recurring knee injury also forced Mitch Richmond out of the lineup for the final month of the year. Richmond, the lone remaining member of the "Big Three" (with Howard and Strickland) has one year left on his contract at $10 million and is expected to be bought out this summer.

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