Wizards now are cast in a mold not built on Air

November 12, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

WASHINGTON - Things are sure different here in Wizardsville. New general manager. New coach. New players. New attitude.

Heck, they've even patched over that secret door in the floor of the Wizards' locker room, the one where a basketball god named Michael Jordan would mysteriously appear and disappear, confounding teammates and support staff who tiptoed around, nervous and scared.

Over the course of last season, Sir Air turned into the Wizard of Oz - all bluster, anger, ego and unchallenged power - before he was exposed.

What was all that dissension, heartache and putrid chemistry about? Oh yeah: getting Jordan into the playoffs, one last time, even though this was a Wizards franchise he had been charged with rebuilding. Instead, he flogged the horses until they brayed and bucked.

Kwame Brown snapped. Jerry Stackhouse deftly navigated murky waters, trying to respect his elders but make a case for increased work load. Tyronn Lue didn't know what to do.

It's still a shame Jordan's finale disintegrated into one of the most fractious NBA team meltdowns on record. But happy days are here again, even if MCI Center sellouts will be rare this season.

It's understandable, but too bad. The Wizards may lack a superstar, but at least they now have players. Waves of players.

Let's start with last year's NBA Most Improved Player Gilbert Arenas and Georgia rookie Jarvis Hayes - a tremendous young tandem.

Arenas scored 36 points last night in the Wizards' loss to Philadelphia, which dropped Washington's season record to 3-4. Arenas is talking playoffs in the anemic Eastern Conference and he seems determined to make good on his word.

Follow with running and gunning Larry Hughes, Christian Laettner, Brown, Jared Jeffries, Etan Thomas, Steve Blake and Juan Dixon.

That was a veritable shootout last night against Allen Iverson and the Sixers. The Wizards are all energy and all eager, just as new general manager Ernie Grunfeld said.

It seemed like a silly marketing campaign, the Wizards' promise of "Pure Energy" in new ads that now can't bank on the luster of Jordan. But it's absolutely the right call. It's also a refreshing change, after all that standing around, that half-court, slow-it-down style so Jordan could position himself as the focal point of the offense.

It may only be seven games into the season. New head coach Eddie Jordan may be predicting bumps in the road ahead, but it sure seems as if Wizards owner Abe Pollin made the right call last May.

In his stunning decision to elevate and dunk on a legend, Air Abe cleared the suffocating air out of the wayward franchise. It wasn't all Jordan's fault how rotten things have been for so long, but Jordan did not do what he set out to do.

It always came down to him, his need to start, his need to score, his need to lead the way, even when he steadfastly professed it was about him showing the kids the way you win. Only Stackhouse, Brown, Hughes and everyone who wasn't Charles Oakley were stifled by Jordan, whom they resented and saw through.

But now it's different.

Look at Stackhouse as he cruises around the MCI Center, shaking hands with everybody, mooching guest passes off Dixon and Jeffries. Look at Stackhouse smile.

It's the look of relief - at least until he comes off the injured list and sees he's got serious competition for touches and shots from Arenas and Hayes, who can carry this team.

Look at Brown spinning in the low post and flushing the ball through the hoop. Listen to Brown confess how his confidence is restored and boosted.

"I definitely feel a lot better. I can make or break myself now. All I ask is the opportunity to play in the NBA," Brown said.

Look at Blake and Dixon out on the floor together - a Terps tandem unselfishly exchanging a half-dozen passes on a breakaway. A rookie and a sophomore getting minutes, contributing, not afraid of making a mistake, getting yanked, ruining Jordan's night, his season, his fantasy.

Look at Hughes and Laettner, both starters now, playing with the ease and confidence that comes from feeling part of the action, not like afterthoughts.

Look at Eddie Jordan, the Wizards' coach who doesn't have to tap dance around the greatest player ever, the way Doug Collins had to do last year with You Know Who running the show.

Now the Wizards' coach can do what the Wizards have long needed a coach to do: teach and build a team that is all about developing draft picks and aiming for the future, not getting Sir Air money games in May by any means necessary.

The new Jordan said there's only one carry-over effect he's had to reverse.

"We had to build up a lot of guys' confidence. The team that was here before I got here - the four or five guys who aren't here and I don't want to name names - it wasn't up to the players [who remained] to make the play. They were the second or third starters. Now they're responsible to make the play," Jordan said.

The new Jordan Rules are tougher, better.

Saturday in Cleveland, Jordan benched Arenas, the team's $64 million free agent coup, for the third quarter. Arenas is a prolific scorer, as evidenced last night by the 18 he scored - in the first quarter alone.

The Wizards lost to Cleveland, with the coach willing to sacrifice his best player to make a point. There's a right way to play and one sheriff in town. Everyone else is equal.

The players were thrilled to see the equal-opportunity discipline.

"Rules are rules. I understand," Arenas said.

"It lets you know it doesn't matter what stage you are on the totem pole," said Brown, who flailed under the "tough love" of Collins and Jordan last year.

Now, the young Wizards are in this thing together. They're more fun to watch - and probably a lot more promising.

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