- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2000

About a decade ago, Leonard Hamilton took over a University of Miami basketball program that inspired many adjectives, none of them flattering. Said former Georgetown coach John Thompson: "It was a patsy."

Hamilton was hired yesterday as coach of a Washington Wizards team that might provoke the same description based on last season's 29-53 record, years of futility before that and the difficulty of making personnel changes because of salary cap restrictions.

Of course, Michael Jordan refuses to indulge in such negativity.

"This is a new beginning," the Wizards' director of basketball operations told a large media gathering during Hamilton's introduction at MCI Center.

Jordan promised things will get better and even said the team will be good enough to make the playoffs. He is investing a good deal of his reputation in Hamilton, who transformed Miami from a patsy to a power that made the NCAA tournament the past three seasons.

A 51-year-old native of North Carolina, Hamilton signed a five-year contract worth about $2 million a year. The first four years are guaranteed. It was necessary for Hamilton to agree to pay Miami a $1 million buyout because he signed a seven-year, $5.5 million extension just two months ago.

Hamilton repeatedly expressed his attachment to the Miami program but said he could not pass up the opportunity.

"After talking with Michael, it didn't take long to get a clear understanding that, with his competitiveness, he wants this basketball team to be extremely successful," Hamilton said. "I'm excited to be part of rekindling the spirit of the Washington Wizards."

Jordan called Hamilton's record "impeccable." Citing Miami's turnaround, he added, "That's no different from what we expect from him in Washington."

Hamilton's courtship lasted about three weeks, or immediately after St. John's' Mike Jarvis, another Big East coach, rejected Jordan's overtures.

"Sure, it's not the first choice I had, but I wasn't the first pick of the draft either," said Jordan, who was taken third by the Chicago Bulls in 1984.

Added Hamilton: "I was my wife's second choice, and we've been married 31 years."

Asked why he likes college coaches despite their questionable record in the NBA, Jordan cited discipline, fundamentals and a desire to bring someone in with a "new perspective." Hamilton chuckled every time the subject came up, which was often.

"What I'm gonna do is bring a tremendous work ethic to this organization," Hamilton said. "And I'm sure over a period of time I'll earn the respect of [the media] and the players… . Give us a little time."

In contrast to his predecessors, time apparently is something Hamilton will have. Gar Heard, hired June 16, 1999, lasted until January, shortly after Jordan took control of the club. Interim coach Darrell Walker generally received good grades as Heard's replacement but was moved from the bench to the front office.

The team's last coach to survive more than three continuous years was Wes Unseld, now the executive vice president/general manager, whose last season was 1993-94. Hamilton is the fourth coach since then, not counting two interim ones. The club has made the playoffs only once since 1988 and has had just two winning seasons.

Coaches, players and management types have come and gone, but the one constant remains Abe Pollin, who has owned the franchise since 1964, when he bought the Baltimore Bullets. Pollin gave Jordan full hiring authority, and expressed his delight with the choice. Then again, Pollin has expressed similar delight before.

"He's a very hard worker and there's no substitute for hard work," Pollin said of Hamilton. "He has taken a situation that was really negative and turned it into a positive… . That kind of thing impressed me. Obviously, we have been down, and we need to turn it around."

Heard couldn't do it, nor could those who came before him. Hamilton said he likes a challenge; he has one here. Then again, if the Wizards' collective talent and drive matched their payroll Rod Strickland, Juwan Howard and Mitch Richmond have huge contracts and are practically not tradeable Hamilton would still be at Miami. He said he is confident he can make a difference. Many believe him.

"The times that I have called Leonard, the only two things I have heard him say he was gonna do was, he was coming from church or that he was working," said Thompson, who coached against Hamilton in the Big East. "I think the fact that he's a workaholic is extremely important. Very few people in this league or any other league will outwork him. And I think that's very significant."

Hamilton, who is working with Jordan on putting together a staff, said he will "create an atmosphere to allow [the players] to utilize their talents."

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