- The Washington Times - Monday, October 30, 2000

The anticipation along Fun Street is muted.

Michael Jordan expects a playoff berth from the Wizards. That, too, sets him apart from the crowd.

A new season usually brings out the hope in fans. The new season awaiting the Wizards is the exception.

A generation's worth of bad luck, injuries and uneven resolve haunts the franchise. Enthusiasm is one of the casualties. The last time the franchise won a playoff game was in 1988. The last time it won a playoff series was in 1982.

That is not a drought. That is a tradition, unaltered by a change in venue, from Landover to Tony Cheng's neighborhood. The arena is nice anyway.

The old faces are said to have a renewed sense of purpose. That is supposed to be reassuring.

Rod Strickland, the 34-year-old point guard who never learns, starts the season with an arrest. That follows a pattern, and not an inspirational one at that. The combination oncourt leader, offcourt screw-up is unsettling, if not incompatible, no matter the enablers in his midst.

Juwan Howard is looking to reclaim his self-esteem at power forward, and Mitch Richmond is looking to find his jump shot.

Strickland, Howard, Richmond.

That is the core that has led the team to a 47-85 record the last two seasons.

At least the Wizards reside in the junior-varsity section of the NBA, the Eastern Conference, reduced further by the loss of Alonzo Mourning.

The Pacers, the best in the conference last season, are braced to take a step back. Mark Jackson, Dale Davis and Rik Smits are gone. So is the coach, Larry Bird.

The conference appeals to the flawed, notably the Magic and Bucks. The reward is a beating from either the Lakers, Trail Blazers or Spurs next June.

As many as five teams from the Western Conference are stronger than the leading pretenders in the Eastern Conference. The five also includes the Jazz and Suns. Even the Kings, if Jason Williams ever tones down his playground act, could advance to semi-serious contender.

The Timberwolves, meanwhile, have died and gone to purgatory. The thud comes later, as the loss of five first-round draft picks bleeds the franchise in incremental stages.

Kevin McHale, the team's vice president of basketball operations caught smiling in the stands the other night, must know something the rest of the NBA does not. Perhaps he has a couple of more illegal contracts stashed away in a filing cabinet.

As bad as it is for the Timberwolves, their situation almost looks favorable compared to the one before the Wizards.

The Wizards, alas, are several rungs below flawed. Playing hard is the principal goal.

Leonard Hamilton, the team's new baby sitter/therapist/ motivator, was not necessarily desperate to reach the NBA, although he may feel desperate before his 82-game inauguration is complete.

That is assuming he lasts 82 games. The Wizards go through coaches like tape.

The long, tedious exercise precludes anyone from feeling a newcomer's pain, and Hamilton's basketball stripes from the Big East are only persuasive in the vacuum of college basketball.

Good luck is the prevailing sentiment. Hamilton accepted the assignment, and he didn't have to do that. Mike Jarvis elected to stay at St. John's, even after his ordeal with the NCAA's Gestapo last season.

The wish for Hamilton and the Wizards is a modest one: Be as competitive as possible. Given the circumstances, no one in these parts will hold you to a victory number. Those ball-and-chain contracts eventually will run out, just not expeditiously.

Until then, Jordan is left to swing itty-bitty deals and rule by aura. Unfortunately, aura diminishes over time, if the time is spent in a suit instead of a uniform.

Jordan is on the other side of the labor-management table now, limited as such, and his pursuit in Washington is not as encouraging as once thought. Losing is an awfully hard habit to break.

As it is, 35-40 victories by the Wizards this season would qualify as worthy.

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