- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 2, 2006

Given the vagaries and challenges of travel, officiating and partisan crowds, along with a disconcerting unfamiliarity with different surroundings, the road is a strange and unfriendly place for all NBA teams. For so far this season for the Washington Wizards, it is more than that. It is downright dangerous.

They might be off to an inconsistent start overall, but not on the road, where the results have been maddeningly steady. The Wizards are 6-2 at Verizon Center and 0-7 everywhere else. A loss tomorrow in Chicago would tie the 1986-87 franchise record of eight straight road defeats to start a season.

“If you have a veteran team like we have, there’s no excuse,” forward Antawn Jamison said. “We know what to expect. We know what the road is all about. The environment’s gonna be different, the calls don’t normally go in your favor. Those are the things you expect to happen. So when they do happen, it’s nothing out of the ordinary.”

The homecourt advantage, and the resultant road disadvantage, is a fact of life in sports. With scant exception, teams play worse on the road.

“It seems like every time we go on the road, something happens,” Orlando Magic forward Dwight Howard recently told reporters, referring to his team’s past road woes.

But that has changed. Orlando won three straight road games. The Wizards would love to turn things around, too. But first they must adjust their mind-set.

The road futility “does kind of creep in once in awhile, I guess, because we’re all human,” coach Eddie Jordan said. “I would think it’s in your head a little bit.”

The players say it is just a matter of time before they correct the problem.

“I don’t think it’s so hard to play on the road,” forward Caron Butler said. “I just think we haven’t got things clicking. Not yet. But I think it’s gonna happen.”

Said guard Antonio Daniels: “We have confidence knowing that what we’re going through is temporary.”

Some of the losses have been close. The Wizards lost each of their first two road games by three points. But they lost four of their next five by 20, nine, 27 and 15 points. They are shooting 48 percent at home and 39.6 percent on the road.

No one has typified the Wizards’ home-road difference more than All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas. At home, Arenas has shot 49.1 percent (although he has been well below 50 percent in four of his last five home games) and averaged 33.1 points a game. On the road, he is shooting 28.3 percent and averaging 18.7 points. Part of this might be frustration with the officials, which he has been known to vent on the court. But it seems to go beyond that.

“You just don’t have the comforts of home,” he said. “Different locker room, different bed, different food, different weight rooms, everything. It’s just harder to play on the road than at home. The crowd is against you. Everything is against you. It’s not easy.

“When you’re playing at home, you get the benefit of the doubt. Little things seem to go your way. You get the breaks. On the road, you have to make your own breaks. It’s us against everybody else, and we have to adopt the mentality that we need to get it done together.”

Sometimes, though, it’s just a bad night. Arenas has had a few at home, too.

“They come and they go,” he said.

It’s hard to win with the kind of offensive disparity Arenas and his teammates have shown, but a good defensive team can help make it up. Even though Jordan has been trying to make the Wizards a more defense-oriented team since the start of training camp, they are not there yet.

“We’ve made a much better effort to play defense, which is one key to winning on the road,” seldom-used center Calvin Booth said. “Our team is constructed in such a way that it’s more of an offensive team and those [teams] always have to play a little bit better on the road. Because when you’re a defensive team, you always know it’s gonna be there.”

Butler said the Wizards’ defense is improving, calling it “a work in progress.”

One team that plays solid defense, San Antonio, had the best road record in the league last year and started this season by winning their first seven road games. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich attributed that to having “an experienced team that knows what it’s like to play well on the road.”

He also said, “I guarantee we’re going to lose some games. We just happened to play well on the road in the beginning.”

No sooner did Popovich utter those words than the Spurs lost at Golden State on Monday. Then they lost again at Utah on Wednesday — their third road game in four nights. Although Utah owns the best record in the league at 13-4, such a travel schedule can unravel any team, even the league’s elite.

But road trips aren’t as taxing as in the old days, before the advent of team planes equipped with cushy, reclining seats, restaurant-quality food, sofas, LCD screens and other comforts. (The Wizards fly in a 56-seat Boeing 727).

Bill Walton, who has bad feet and stands 6 feet, 11 inches tall, has noted how he always requires an aisle seat when he flies. He used to make the same request when he played.

Players now can stretch out and relax in what amounts to a flying hotel. But with time zone changes and post-game flights that end up with players going to bed late with a game that night, it can still be a grind. The Wizards lost three road games last week, playing at Dallas, Houston and Memphis in four days. After last night’s home victory against Charlotte, the team was to immediately fly to Chicago, arriving well past midnight.

“This is something that’s so difficult to talk about, because of the amenities you have,” Daniels said. “I’m not here to say, ‘Oh the travel is so tough.’ You know, when you’re getting out of your nice car, getting on a nice plane where you don’t have to walk through the airport, your meals are served and you’re laying back on a La-Z-Boy, it almost preaches to the whole spoiled athlete thing and I don’t want to fall into that.”

Still, he said, “Traveling does take a toll on you. When you get settled at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and you get up and play that day, that kind of wears on anyone. You’ll definitely feel it, regardless of what you do.”

Gradually, however, playing on the road in the NBA has become more equitable, if not easier. In 1976-77, road teams won just 31.5 percent of the time. During the 2005-06 season, it was 42.6 percent. Four years ago, 18 teams lost at least 10 more games on the road than at home. It dropped to 10 teams the following the season and was 12 last year.

Travel has definitely changed over the years, but different arenas and hostile crowds have remained constant.

What else might be different? The officiating?

Players, coaches, fans and the media always have wailed against the apparent homecourt bias displayed by officials. It is taken for granted that, as Arenas noted, you get the benefit of the doubt at home. The homecourt advantage still exists, but did the NBA send out a directive ordering games to be called more squarely?

“Absolutely not,” said NBA supervisor of officials Ronnie Nunn, who attributes any improvement by road teams to “the guidelines of the game and parity in the league creating more competition.”

Nunn said that such guidelines, like establishing more stringent rules regarding hand checking and post play, among others, have created more consistency in officiating. Not surprisingly, he calls the concept of “home-cooking” a myth.

“The bottom line is that players play better at home,” he said. “The homecourt has to do with the familiarity of being at home and players being more comfortable.”

Jordan would like to see the Wizards establishing some sort of comfort level on the road.

“We should be strong enough to know that there’s got to be a point where you’ve got to fight through it and bear down and get it done,” he said.

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