- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 19, 2005

John Bach, a basketball coach in one form or another for more than 50 years, prepares the Chicago Bulls’ scouting reports on opposing teams. Bach still had his report on the Washington Wizards in hand after they beat the Bulls at MCI Center last week. Under Larry Hughes’ name, the word, “LEADER” jumped out in big letters.

Imagine that.

Larry Hughes, drafted eighth overall by Philadelphia in 1998 after one year of college?

Who clashed with then-76ers coach Larry Brown over his practice habits and defense?

Who drew unfavorable comparisons to teammate Allen Iverson?

Who eventually forced the Sixers to trade him after just two seasons?

Who spent the next 21/2 years sulking in obscurity, i.e., Golden State, doing little to alter a persona viewed as non grata by much of the league?

Asked what he remembers hearing about Hughes back then, Wizards coach Eddie Jordan gave his own scouting report: “Selfish. He wanted to be like Allen. Too cool. Not caring about winning.”

And now?

“Larry’s been our most important leader.”

This is rather high praise, considering the Wizards are in the playoffs for the first time in eight years.

“I call him my second coach,” said forward Antawn Jamison, who played with Hughes and Gilbert Arenas at Golden State. “He’s out there calling defensive plays, getting guys in the proper position. Offensively, his game has evolved, not only as a scorer but getting the ball to the open man or the guy who’s feeling it.”

A slender, 6-foot-5 guard, Hughes always had talent. Score, dribble, pass, defend and rebound — he is the equivalent of baseball’s five-tool player. Jordan noted how one of Hughes’ many tattoos, the one that reads, “Silky Smooth,” sort of sums it up. Now he has added another element to his game.

“He’s being a lot more vocal,” Jamison said. “Anybody who knows Larry, before he didn’t say two words. Now he’s in the huddle talking. Pregame, halftime, after the game he’s talking. He’s really stepped up to being a leader of this team.”

There it is again, the L-word.

“It started last year,” said Hughes, who frequently wears one of his collection of St. Louis Cardinals baseball caps as an homage to his hometown and is as soft-spoken as advertised off the court. “My teammates are looking up to me to make the right decisions for the betterment of the team. I’m not a real vocal guy, but I do get my point across, and I know how to talk to people.”

Coaches are people, too, and Hughes spoke up to Jordan a few weeks ago when he felt the fast-paced offense had slowed down. Jordan explained it was because interior players Etan Thomas and Kwame Brown were returning from injuries and the team needed to establish some post offense. Also, Jamison, the third component of the Big Three, was out. Jordan wanted another scorer. The dispute, such as it was, “was mild compared to a lot of other scenarios,” Jordan said.

“He’s got this cool personality,” the coach said. “He’s got this, I like to say, cool, hip-hop personality. Which is fun and exciting, yet he’s so laid back. To see him so laid back yet compete on the floor … how can he do that? It’s like a calm river, and all of a sudden there’s a waterfall.”

Hughes knows all about his reputation in Philadelphia and Golden State and accepts much of it. He took the jabs about his practice habits, withstood accusations of being an Iverson wannabe because of his extensive body art, jewelry and fashion sense (modern baggy). He calls Brown “a great coach” but does not downplay the tension that existed between them (lots of company there) — nor does he sugarcoat his feelings about his time with Golden State, where “people forget you’re in the league,” he said.

“For the most part, all young guys, in any field they go into, are kind of hard-headed,” Hughes said. “They want to do things their way. Some people succeed like that. Some people fail. You’ve got to find a median in-between. I think it’s worked for me because I’ve been able to tone it back a bit. Yeah, I was hard-headed. Stubborn. I was all those things. That’s part of where I was from and what I was used to.”

At 26, Hughes is finishing his seventh year in the league. Times change. So do people.

“As they say, everyone grows up, and it takes some longer to do it,” said Bach, who as a Wizards assistant was part of the Michael Jordan-Doug Collins regime that signed Hughes as a free agent in 2002. “I think [Hughes] heard the talk, but I think he found a coach, an offense, a system in which he not only thrives but makes people better. And in doing so, he has shed some of that selfish or individualistic attitude. It’s still a five-man game, and he has materially helped this team.”

The coach is Jordan, the offense and system one that promotes equal opportunity. Hughes has teamed with Arenas to form the most potent backcourt combination in the league. Each defies typical point guard/off-guard labeling, yet each have thrived in his own fire and ice way.

The animated, excitable Arenas was an All-Star. Hughes might have been, except he broke his thumb in December and missed 20 games. Arenas, who leads the Wizards in scoring and assists, is the more explosive scorer. Hughes, the better defender, is second in both categories and rebounding, too, and leads the league in steals.

They got to know each other with the Warriors, where Arenas was the brash rookie, Hughes the disenchanted veteran and both couldn’t stand the losing and the constant coach-shuffling. They have since built a solid relationship based on mutual respect and, at last, winning.

“We both know when we want the ball. We both know who’s better at which plays,” said Arenas, who is averaging 25.7 points a game to Hughes’ 22.2. “They call a play, and I’m on fire and I know that it’s his play? I’m gonna let him do it. And if it’s a play [for me] and he’s on fire, he knows I’m gonna run it. He stays on one side of the floor, and I stay on the other. On defense, if he gets beat by his man, he knows I’m gonna help him. I’m looking out for him, just to let him know I have his back.”

Hughes entered the NBA at 19 after his freshman year at Saint Louis University so he could support mother Vanessa and brother Justin, who underwent a successful but angst-inducing heart transplant at the age of 11 in 1997. Now 19, Justin is healthy and attending school in St. Louis. Meanwhile, the Larry Hughes Foundation promotes organ donation.

Hughes said his father, who never married Vanessa and who he never really knew, is “incarcerated” somewhere in Illinois or Texas.

Re-signing Hughes, an unrestricted free agent after the season, is among the Wizards’ top priorities. The demand will be heavy.

“We have every intention of having Larry back here,” said president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld, who has worked hard to get the team to this point.

Said Hughes, who lives with wife Carrie and three children in Vienna: “I like what we’re doing here. I like the organization. I like my teammates, and I wouldn’t have any problem playing here until I’m done.”

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