- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 13, 2000

There are few things more important to Washington Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton than the time he spends praying with his wife, Claudette.

When the couple pray, they always emphasize the important things in life family, health, their fellow man and thanksgiving while standing together holding hands or kneeling. However, Hamilton doesn't deny that he sometimes offers up a prayer for his struggling basketball team.

"Prayer is something personal to me and I don't like to talk about it too often," Hamilton says. After a pause, he adds: "But I pray for this basketball team. For the players health and that things will get better."

Hamilton, the Wizards' first-year coach, has climbed the coaching ladder the hard way. In his 28 seasons as a college coach, he has injected life into struggling programs at both Oklahoma State and Miami. The Hurricanes were a dormant program that Hamilton took to three straight NCAA tournaments beginning in 1998. In each case, Hamilton was not the first choice for those jobs, but because of his hard work, each of those programs are better off today than they were before he arrived there.

But now he finds himself confronted with what may be his most difficult task of all: Developing the coach-killing Wizards into a playoff contender.

"I have never been involved with a basketball team that appears to be having as much trouble coming to one focus as this team," Hamilton said. "I have never worked with a group of people that can't get the most important thing accomplished, which is to lay it on the line for the time that you're in there."

It's just six weeks into the regular season and Hamilton, who signed a four-year, $8 million deal (the team has an option for a fifth year) during the summer, is coming to grips with reality: This could be his toughest test yet as a coach.

The Wizards are off to a 4-17 start and are on a seven-game losing streak, one that could very well be extended to eight games tonight after it plays Atlantic Division-leading Philadelphia. They have been beaten by 27 points at home by the Atlanta Hawks, and they lost to the Clippers at home after blowing a 19-point fourth quarter lead. Each loss cost Hamilton a night of sleep.

Even though Hamilton wasn't the Wizards' first choice to be their fifth head coach since 1998, he couldn't pass up what is considered to be one of the less attractive coaching jobs in the league. He wasn't deterred by the fact that the Wizards were the only team in the league with three players (Mitch Richmond, Rod Strickland and Juwan Howard) making more money ($36.875 million) than the $35.5 million salary cap. He also knew that it would be almost impossible to trade any of those players.

And yet, he is still optimistic that the Wizards can turn this around.

"It's extremely painful," Hamilton said of the losing. "It's an all-day every-day experience. You spend days going through the thought process of trying to get an understanding of what else you can do to make this situation better. You ask yourself, 'Where have I failed?' And 'Where have I made mistakes? What changes can I make?' But the bottom line is that you cannot exist if you are competitive and not want to do everything possible as a player and a coach to make this right. I still believe that will happen."

At Miami, where he left following a 23-11 record and a Sweet 16 appearance, Hamilton learned diligence. In his first four seasons the Hurricanes went 34-80, and on most nights the team played in front of about 12,000 empty seats at Miami Arena.

Wizards assistant Larry Drew believes Hamilton's experience at Miami helped prepare the coach for this season.

"Under the circumstances he's doing a good job," Drew said. "All this is new to him, but having gone through what he went through at Miami has made him a stronger person. He turned that program around and I'm sure he has his eye set on doing the same thing here. His energy around the players has been very positive."

One thing that Hamilton hasn't done is alienate himself from the players, something that Gar Heard did last season.

The Wizards opened with a win and then lost seven straight games last year. Heard publicly assailed the Wizards, at one point calling them "soft." It wasn't long before many of the veterans on the team stopped listening to him, and Heard was let go after the Wizards got off to a 14-30 start.

To this day, Heard says the Wizards have yet to make the changes necessary in order to be competitive.

"I'm not surprised," Heard said of the Wizards' start. "I thought they might be a little better with Mike [Jordan] energizing them. I didn't think they were a playoff team, though, and I didn't think the changes that they made were going to get them into the playoffs."

Heard said he coached the Wizards the only way he knew how. His advice to Hamilton is to do the same thing and hope that he's still around when the Wizards have better players. The current core group, which included Howard and Strickland, hasn't helped the Wizards franchise reach the playoffs since the 1996-97 season.

"The key is that he has to stick with the way he knows how to coach," Heard continued. "Eventually the personnel is going to get better and he is gong to start winning some games. But you can't go to a horse race unless you've got some horses. Right now they need to add a few horses.

"It's tough I went through it last year. You feel that you should be winning games that you are losing."

In the meantime, Hamilton will continue to work the 16-hour days, for which he has gained a reputation, and he will try to get this team to gel.

And he'll also keep on praying.

"Religion for me has always been that anchoring factor in my life," Hamilton said. "If you stay focused, believe in yourself, believe in your principles and believe that what you're doing is right, things will work out. I can't allow myself to get discouraged."

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