Laettner the Wizard changes without magic

Sullen reputation disappearing with effort in Washington

Pro Basketball

January 21, 2002|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO - Stick around the NBA long enough, and things can change, like a reputation. The proof of that is in the rebirth of Christian Laettner's career.

Though he had produced solid numbers, Laettner, a 10-year veteran, was labeled as brooding and difficult to play with in his stops with Minnesota, Atlanta, Detroit and Dallas - teams that had little or no chance of winning titles.

Laettner's basketball name had become so sullied that the Mavericks essentially threw him into a deal in February with Washington, with Hubert Davis, Courtney Alexander and Etan Thomas for Juwan Howard and two others.

Laettner returned to the Wizards' active roster Saturday at United Center after a 14-game stint on the injured list with a broken fibula in his left leg. In earlier days, he might have groused through his rehabilitation.

Instead, Laettner made the most of his time off, staying in shape and working out, so as to be ready on schedule.

"Since my broken leg, I've had a charley horse and some jammed fingers, so there are other things that are hurting me more than my leg," said Laettner, who had four points and a rebound in 14 minutes in Washington's 77-69 victory over the Chicago Bulls. "My leg is fine. I just needed a good month for it to heal, and it's all healed up, so I'm ready to go."

Laettner's return to the roster couldn't come at a better time, as the Wizards, with Richard Hamilton and Courtney Alexander on the injured list, have been short of reliable scorers outside of Michael Jordan.

"More than anything, we're a good team right now," Laettner said. "We have one outstanding player, one good player with Rip Hamilton and besides that, we're a good team. We're a good squad. We know how to play. We play good defense. That's why we're around .500, and hopefully, we can play better once we get all our strength back."

Beyond his playing contributions, Laettner, who is averaging 8.3 points and 5.5 rebounds, continued to play an important role in the care and nurturing of rookie Kwame Brown, the first overall pick in the June draft, while he was out injured.

Brown, a 6-foot-11 forward who came straight to the NBA from high school, is struggling mightily in the pro game, to the point where Wizards coach Doug Collins said Saturday that he is moving extremely cautiously with the 19-year-old, to keep his confidence high.

Laettner has been helping in that regard, working with Brown on positioning and reacting, as well as the little things that come with the game, a role that Collins asked Laettner to take on.

"Anytime you're a veteran, that [mentoring and leadership] is expected from you," said Laettner, the third overall pick in the 1992 draft with Minnesota. Laettner and the Wizards return there tonight to play the Timberwolves.

"I'm just trying to help out and I've always tried to help out a little bit, especially with someone who's willing to accept it. Kwame's a good kid and he works hard."

A reporter who covers the Timberwolves expressed surprise recently when Collins said that Laettner was a solid veteran and a leader with Washington. Collins, whose son Chris played with Laettner for a year at Duke, said he knew about Laettner's reputation.

"I think Christian would be the first to tell you that he's gone through stretches in his pro career where he's been very unhappy, very moody and not been a fun guy to be around. He knows that," Collins said.

But the coach also saw growth potential in him.

"When Christian was a free agent this summer and we spoke," Collins said, "I called him and I said, `Christian, you can be a whole lot more than a player for us here. You and Popeye [Jones] can really be tremendous leaders and mentors for our younger players. We're going to have four young guys that can learn a whole lot from you. Are you willing to do that?' He said, `I'd love to teach young guys.' "

The Wizards, who supposedly took Laettner because of his expendable contract status, rewarded him with a four-year, $21 million deal that gives the 32-year-old enough security to where he can essentially train the player that may someday replace him.

"Kwame, to tell you the truth, is a little too young and inexperienced right now to replace me or whoever's playing in front of him," Laettner said. "He's only 19. But in two years or three years, we're expecting him to replace us and to be better than us and to be playing by then. But he needs to improve and he needs to keep listening and he needs to keep working hard and that will happen."

Wizards today

Opponent: Minnesota Timberwolves

Site: Target Center, Minneapolis

Time: 6 p.m.

Radio: WTEM (980 AM)

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