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Wizards radio play-by-play man Dave Johnson’s schtick requires him to sound extremely, well, excited after every dunk. But Johnson’s arousal while calling a Kwame Brown slam in the first half of the team’s opening-night game seemed genuine.
Anybody rooting for Abe Pollin in his divorce from Michael Jordan, which should come as naturally as rooting for Lyle Lovett after he and Julia Roberts parted, could also have found Brown’s move stirring. In a blink, the third-year forward flashed the quickness and power he’d been hidingwith some help from Jordan and his beholden coach, Doug Collinsduring the past two seasons and launched the young Wizards to an easy win over the Chicago Bulls.
Sure, subsequent first-week losses to New Jersey and Toronto served as reminders that the Wizards’ climb to respectability post-Jordan Era could be a long, hard slog. But even if another season in Stinkville is its destiny, this year’s squad will be the easiest Wizards team to cheer on in memory. Some part of the attractiveness is the Wizards’ youth: The team that whupped the Bulls had a first-year head coach and the NBA’s least-experienced starting lineup: a rookie (Jarvis Hayes), three players with two years’ experience (Brown, Gilbert Arenas, and Brendan Haywood), and 24-year-old Larry Hughes, a five-year guy whose nickname, if things work out for him, might someday be “Serviceable Guard.”
But Pollin is an even bigger reason to wish good things for the late-model Wizards. More than ever before, he thrives in comparison with the other major-league owners in town. With every passing week, Dan Snyder proves himself the Redskins equivalent of star-crossed Cubs fan Steve Bartman: a superfan who, when given a chance to control the fate of the team he idolizes, screws it up for everybody. And Ted Leonsis, long billed by the Capitals as “the most accessible owner in sports,” committed the mortal sin of ownership by blasting the fans for not coming out to watch his overpaid underperformers fold against Tampa Bay in last year’s playoffs.
This year’s Pollin fares even better when compared with Jordan Era Pollin. The unlikability of the Wizards peaked the final time Jordan appeared in uniform here. After a home loss to the Knicks, Jordan stood sort of close to Pollin on the MCI Center court looking uninterested and uncomfortable while hearing that the Wizards owner would honor Jordan’s D.C. tenure by setting up computer centers at all of the city’s public high schools. As an executive, remember, Jordan led the team to the worst record in franchise history (19-63 in 2000-2001); as a player, he puffed the record up to 74-90 over two years.
But because he didn’t buy the gazillionaire pitchman a Harley Davidson or a boat, Pollin was berated by the Jordan faithful as a cheapskate. Jordan allowed his agent and longtime Pollin nemesis David Falk to play lead whiner. In an interview with the Washington Post, Falk dubbed the computer centers, which the D.C. school board billed as costing “in excess of $500,000,” an “alleged gift.”
After ridding the organization of Jordan, Pollin became a piñata for sportswriters and sports-talk hosts.
The most repeated jibe slammed the owner for more than occasionally referencing the championship his Bullets won in 1978. Sure, a quarter-century has passed, but it’s not as if NBA titles have been lying around for other NBA cities to pick up since then. In fact, only eight teams have won a championship since Pollin brought one to Washington, so let him crow. Only two other NBA owners have taken their teams to as many finals as Pollin (four).
The Post gave Pollin bashers a forum in a two-part series on the owner that ran in July. A particularly entertaining, if bizarre, segment had a gang of marginally talented white guys haymakering Pollin over the team’s pre-MCI Center practice facility at Bowie State University:
“The bottom of the food chain,” said former Bullet Jim McIlvaine.
“A dump,” [Brent] Price said.
“Disgusting,” said former Bullet and Wizard Tim Legler.
“A bad place,” said former Bullet Rex Chapman.
(Hell, if a statute of limitations should apply to bragging about an NBA title, how long should players be able to whine about a practice court?)
Not that the franchise hasn’t made a bevy of bashable moves in its four decades on Pollin’s watch. Last week, I found a copy of the
Wizards’ 1999-2000 media guide in a pile of papers that I was supposed to throw out a long time ago. All these years later, that document serves as a far more damning indictment of Pollin’s tenure as owner than the Post series.
Ike Austin, Mitch Richmond, and coach Gar Heard are on the cover. Inside there’s the paper trail of some of the most devastatingly bad personnel decisions in NBA history. Austin, the cover boy, was obtained by the Wizards in a trade for Ben Wallace. Richmond? He came to Washington, with Otis Thorpe, from Sacramento for Chris Webber. That squad also featured Rod Strickland, brought here via a trade with Portland for Rasheed Wallace. And Juwan Howard, another Falk client, who was brought back from Miami by Pollin during a bidding war that ended with Howard getting a seven-year, $105 million contract. (Who’s cheap?)
Those players who weren’t bad were boring. The best the guide writer could come up with to describe Jahidi White is that he’s “51 points away from 100 NBA points.”
But along with being damning, the 1999-2000 media guide explains why Pollin, in the middle of that season, agreed to get in bed with a carpetbagger like Jordan, with whom he’d publicly squabbled during NBA labor negotiations.
Pollin corrected his wrong when he jettisoned Jordan during a meeting that was as brief, and about as acrimonious, as Tyson vs. Spinks. Pollin probably takes some satisfaction in Jordan’s failure to latch to with any other NBA franchise. A winning season for the Wizards would provide ultimate vindication. But regardless of how the team fares, there is a way Pollin can prove he’s the bigger man: He can make sure the computer centers, which were each to be seeded with Pollin’s gift of 15 Compaq PCs and unspecified books, are up and running soon. As of now, D.C. Public Schools cannot confirm that any high schools have set up labs with the Jordan memorial computers.
“We could use them,” an instructor at Duke Ellington High tells me. Dave McKenna