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What a long, strange trip it’s been

- The Washington Times - Friday, April 22, 2005

The Wizards have pushed through a generation's worth of dark history this season.

The Wizards of Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes and Antawn Jamison can't possibly appreciate the impact of their accomplishment, this securing of the franchise's first playoff berth in eight years, with the promise that the team's best seasons are ahead. They can't possibly know the murky depths of the past. They can't possibly understand the horror of it all.

They don't know something as basic as the following: Pervis Ellison was driving to the eyesore in Landover from his upscale digs in Fort Washington one evening while wrestling with a pregame meal of fried chicken.

This was one multi-task moment that he came to regret as his hands became slick from the chicken's grease and he lost control of his vehicle and wound up in a ditch.

Result: Strained neck. Out of the lineup.

Ellison, perhaps the only player ever to be felled by greasy fried chicken, was a likeable person with a serious ditz streak in him.

He once missed a game because of a sore back.

The reason: He had spent all afternoon raking leaves at his home.

His home was impressive, too, excluding the lawn furniture he plopped in the rooms.

That is how it was back in the bad old days of this franchise.

Stuff happened. Funny stuff. Crazy stuff. One-in-a-million stuff. Stuff that drove you nuts.

Chris Webber once said Wes Unseld could not relate to him, because Unseld did not know what it meant to be young and talented. Webber's observation came as news to anyone who recalled Unseld's unthinkable achievement in 1969: selected as both NBA Rookie of the Year and MVP.

Ah, yes, there always was a clownish element in the locker room.

The sight of Webber dunking the ball in the first quarter and then going into his ugly-face, bad-man pose is indelibly etched in the minds of the faithful. Webber never could grasp the emptiness of celebrating an 18-16 lead in the first quarter. Of course, you could not find Webber with a search party in the last five minutes of a game.

They could have put a tent over this franchise at one point and stationed a barker in front of the arena's entrance, and not just because of the carnival-like element of the tallest (7-foot-6 Manute Bol) and shortest (5-4 Tyrone Bogues) tandem in the 1987-88 season.

Jay Vincent, who fashioned himself to be a real-estate tycoon, refused to ride a stationary bike to stay in shape after rupturing a tendon in a finger.

"I can't do that," he said. "If I grab the handle bars too tightly, I could hurt my finger again."

The aptly dubbed Dinner Bell Mel Turpin, who was granted a personal trainer and nutritionist by the team in an attempt to beat back the bulge, showed up to the gym one day, stepped on the scale in private, then grabbed his things and left, never to be heard from again.

The team received the news from Turpin's agent by telephone, as thusly: Mel did not make weight, knew there would be serious repercussions with Unseld and so he has decided to retire to Ohio.

Oh, yes, the franchise has had its share of the horizontally challenged: Dinner Bell Mel, Hot Plate Williams, Ledell Eackles, Kevin Duckworth and Ike Austin.

The incredible expansion of Hot Plate hurt the franchise the most, for he could have been a star; could have been a franchise player.

The guy could play, could play all five positions. He was Magic Johnson Lite until he was injured and lost his battle with the all-you-can-eat salad bar. So sensitive was the topic that he had his agent stick a clause in his contract stating that he could be weighed only in private.

Rod Strickland had a lot of Babe Ruth in him. He could party all night and then, hung over or not, take apart the opposition's point guard the next night. Like the Babe, he was a sucker for a good hot dog, sometimes just before tip-off, whereupon the hot dog would come up sometime in the first quarter.

Strickland had a million issues, as it is said, starting with putting his shorts on backward and not realizing it until the game was in progress.

Strickland was lousy with time, which resulted in the usual assortment of missed flights and being late to meetings and practices. He was the consummate unprofessional who somehow made it work once the ball was jumped.

Otherwise, he exhausted the area's police officers, as he became known as Roadside Rod, forever being asked to recite the letters of the alphabet backward after handing over his driver's license and vehicle registration card.

On one occasion with a police officer, Strickland uttered one of the classic lines in franchise history: Do you know who I am?

And, of course, the officer did know who he was. He was the guy who had just made an illegal U-turn and had a brewery in the back of his vehicle.

Give Strickland this: He was tough, as Tracy Murray discovered after wondering aloud with a female acquaintance about Strickland's dating habits.

The female acquaintance raced to Strickland with the news, and Murray ended up playing a couple of games looking like Petey, the dog with the black circle around one eye in Spanky and Our Gang. As was Strickland's habit, he just wanted to put the incident behind him.

Bernard King was a diva of a different sort: well-read, articulate, impeccably attired, with varied interests, who was waived after he threatened to fill Unseld with lead.

"I'm going to shoot you," King told Unseld at a January practice session in 1993.

His was not the only death threat in those years.

The irrepressible Rex Chapman, the one-time Mr. Kentucky, hid in the locker room during one home game, listed as having the "flu," after his sister's ex-boyfriend, a former defensive back with the Bengals, threatened to kill him.

This is how it was, and seemingly how it always was destined to be with the organization, unchanged even by the arrival of the once-great Michael Jordan, last seen in Washington two springs ago pulling out of the belly of the playpen in Tony Cheng's neighborhood, the hood of his vehicle down and the steam rising from his bald pate.

It is said Ernie Grunfeld and Eddie Jordan have reversed the franchise's culture of losing. That is putting it mildly.

Consider these two details: The last time the franchise won a playoff game was May 4, 1988, nearly 17 years ago. The last time the franchise won a playoff series was in 1982, and it was a best-of-3, first-round series at that.

The rest of the trail in that period is littered with bad breaks, bad heads and bad times.

Frank Johnson broke the same foot three times.

Jeff Ruland slammed his fist against the padded support underneath the basket after missing a shot and popped his shooting wrist.

And on and on.

The city endured too many false starts with this franchise, from the Beef Brothers of Ruland and Rick Mahorn to the Thunder and Lightning of Moses Malone and Gus Williams, from the Michigan pairing of Webber and Juwan Howard to the North Carolina pairing of his Airness and Jerry Stackhouse.

What a long, strange trip it's been, as Jerry Garcia said, from Landover to Fun Street, from the Bullets to the Wizards, from the creaky knees of Ellison to the plantar fasciitis of Mark Price, and losses galore.

For too long, Washington's NBA team did not even rise to being the Clippers of the East.

At least the Clippers made the playoffs in the 1992 and '93 seasons under Larry Brown and won two games each time.

How about the time A.J. English played in a jersey that spelled his last name Engilsh?

Or the time Don MacLean wore the same ugly green suit each day of a 10-day road trip, only to have it lead to a Bad Green Suit Promotion Night at the old arena?

Or the time Stackhouse made "contact" with a female realtor at a beach resort after refusing to vacate the premises on the appointed day?

How about the woman from Connecticut who had a "situation" with Webber and Howard?

How about the one-season coaching stint of Leonard Hamilton, who was absolutely lost at the pro level after being the pick of the previous Jordan, presumably by cell phone?

Doug Collins knew the game; could talk it forever; could talk it until his eyes started to roll up in the back of his head, a sure sign that one of the players was about to be deconstructed.

Gene Shue. Kevin Loughery. Jim Lynam. Bernie Bickerstaff. Jim Brovelli. Gar Heard. Darrell Walker.

They all succumbed to the bad karma of the organization.

But now, finally, there is light: a 45-win season, a No. 5 seeding in the playoffs and a genuine sense that the Wizards could upend the undermanned Bulls.

Washington finally has begun purging the gloomy spirits of yesteryear.

Let their second season begin.