- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 28, 2007

The mere thought is enough to boggle many minds, but guess who the Washington area’s most exciting basketball team is these days? That’s right, the Wizards, who haven’t made much of an impact on this hoop haven’s collective consciousness since 1979, when Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes got them into the NBA Finals for the third time in five years and current superduper Gilbert Arenas wasn’t even a glint of a gleam in his daddy’s eyes.

In those days, of course, the team was called the Bullets, so in one sense the Wizards have never gotten anybody excited except upcoming opponents. Oh, there was a flurry a few years ago when Michael Jordan unretired, yet his star-sudden presence only reiterated that basketball is a team game and Mike wasn’t exactly an ideal team player.

Now, though, the Wizards definitely are a team, one that’s good enough to go deep into the endless postseason. Another Jordan is in charge, and tough guy Eddie is a welcome relief from insipid predecessors like Doug Collins, whose main function seemingly was to lick clean the sneakers of His Airness before every game.

In fact, Doug Collins could have sipped a Tom Collins on the end of the bench during combat and nobody would have noticed. Except perhaps Kwame Brown, whose shaky confidence was utterly destroyed by Collins and Michael Jordan before he was mercifully traded to the Los Angeles Lakers.

Despite a 22-point licking by the awesome Phoenix Suns last week, the Wizards still lead the Southeast Division at 25-17. In some precincts, such a record hardly would be cause for dancing in the streets, but we’re talking about a franchise that has managed only a handful of winning seasons and playoff appearances since Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

To reach the NBA Finals, the Wizards might have to dispatch such Eastern Conference foes as the Orlando Magic (23-21), Miami Heat (19-25), New Jersey Nets (21-23), Detroit Pistons (24-17) or Cleveland Cavaliers (25-18). Nobody in this group exactly conjures up memories of Larry Bird’s Celtics, Magic’s Lakers or Jordan’s Bulls. Heck, you and four guys off the street might take a run at a conference title this season in the pathetic East, or almost.

I’m not saying the Wizards will win the East, you understand, only that they could unless Arenas’ head gets as big as his scoring average (29.6). Which seems unlikely given that Gorgeous Gil seems to have unusual poise and common sense for a 25-year-old.

Surely, no one deserves a championship more than 83-year old Abe Pollin, one of the really good guys among owners in pro sports. For more than 40 years, Pollin has cared deeply for his team, his city and his fans — with only one NBA championship as a reward. Look at how he built Verizon Center, enabling the Wizards and Caps to return downtown after decades in the suburban wilderness. Look how he hugged Unseld and called him “my son” back when Wes was bullying nearly ever opponent he encountered in the paint. Look how he changed his basketball team’s name because he felt “Bullets” was an inappropriate moniker in a town with one of the nation’s highest murder rates.

It doesn’t quite have the panache of the old Notre Dame football hero’s supposed utterance, but maybe someday the Wizards could win one for the Abester. Ever since Lefty Driesell came to town and awakened Maryland’s slumbering program in 1969, colleges have dominated the basketball scene hereabouts. The Georgetown men (1984), Maryland men (2002) and Maryland women (2006) collected national championships while their pro counterparts mostly floundered. And how about George Mason’s miraculous march into the men’s Final Four last spring?

This time around, however, the college kids look less imposing. The Maryland men are 16-5 but a crummy 2-4 in the ACC. Likewise, Georgetown isn’t scaring anybody, and Jim Larranaga’s George Mason team is on a bad trip back to reality. Even the awesome Maryland women lost the No. 1 spot in the polls when they were drubbed by Duke recently.

Elsewhere on the pro front, the picture isn’t encouraging either. The Caps are under. 500, and the Nationals and Redskins appear likely to leave their fans more than disgruntled in 2007.

So perhaps all we can hope for is that the Wizards will move onward and upward. Once that would have seemed like grasping at straws, but no more. They could give us our best chance to cheer for a big winner this dreary winter.

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