- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

NEWSMAKER INTERVIEW:

Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin says he is ready to dig deeply into his own pocket to win the NBA championship that has eluded him for three decades - even if it means incurring stiff financial penalties by exceeding the league’s salary cap for the first time.

“I’m sure [team President] Ernie Grunfeld and his staff will make sure that we take advantage of any potential opportunity that presents itself during the offseason,” Mr. Pollin, 85, said in an interview conducted this week via e-mail.

“With that said, I also believe NBA teams need to be financially responsible and the luxury tax is a well-designed penalty/reward system. The penalties are severe. While I will say that I don’t want to go over the luxury tax threshold, I also will not rule it out.”

NBA teams are penalized dollar-for-dollar for the amount they spend over the limit. The limit this season was $71.5 million. The Wizards, by re-signing stars Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison this past offseason, left themselves about $1.5 million under the salary cap to spend on additional players. Because Mr. Pollin remained firm that the team not exceed the luxury threshold, Washington couldn’t match the Spurs’ two-year, $7.3 million offer to Roger Mason Jr. Thus the Wizards’ most improved player took his services to San Antonio, where he has started 59 of 67 games, averaged 11.9 points and hit four game-winning shots for one of the NBA’s best teams.

The Wizards, meanwhile, have experienced a free fall, going from the fifth best team in the Eastern Conference to the second worst in the NBA in less than a year. Instead of vying for playoff seeding, the Wizards own a 16-53 record and are in a race for the top pick in this summer’s NBA draft.

Mr. Pollin, who was setting up his franchise to contend for an NBA championship this season, instead has seen little return on his investment from the offseason, when he signed franchise cornerstones Arenas and Jamison to contracts totaling $161 million.

“It’s been a difficult year for all of us,” Mr. Pollin said. “We certainly had high hopes for this season, but injuries to key players have made it nearly impossible for us to have any consistency. This has been as frustrating as any season I can remember.”

The frustrations began even before the preseason. In September, Arenas - who two months earlier had signed a six-year, $111 million deal - underwent his third knee surgery since April 2007. He has yet to return. In training camp, starting center Brendan Haywood tore a ligament in his right wrist, underwent surgery and remained out.

Last season, Washington - fueled by Jamison, forward Caron Butler, Haywood, backup point guard Antonio Daniels and Mason - overcame Arenas’ absence and reached the playoffs. But Haywood’s injury and Mason’s departure left the Wizards severely short-handed.

After a 122-117 loss Nov. 22 to a New York Knicks team that dressed only eight players, the Wizards dropped to a franchise-worst 1-10. The team fired coach Eddie Jordan - who only two months earlier had received a one-year contract extension.

“It was very difficult for me to make that decision,” Mr. Pollin said of firing Mr. Jordan, whom he hand-picked in June 2003, 11 days before he hired Mr. Grunfeld. “Any time you develop a relationship with someone over a period of time, it’s very difficult when that relationship ends. Eddie was always an outstanding representative of our team and has conducted himself with class and dignity. I will always consider him my friend.”

After Mr. Jordan’s departure, director of player development Ed Tapscott took over as interim coach, but little has changed. Two more players - center Etan Thomas and guard DeShawn Stevenson - have gone on the injured list and are likely done for the year. The young replacements have been erratic. The Wizards are on pace to tie the franchise’s worst record in the 45 years that Mr. Pollin has owned it.

Still, Mr. Pollin said he has no regrets about dismissing Mr. Jordan.

“I don’t think you can have regrets,” Mr. Pollin said. “It’s not easy making tough decisions, but someone has to make them. Having been in this business 45 years, I’ve made my share of tough decisions.”

Although he has a rare disease, progressive supranuclear palsy, is in a wheelchair and generally comes into his office at Verizon Center only once a week, Mr. Pollin remains heavily involved in the team’s operations. He regularly speaks with Mr. Grunfeld, and he hasn’t allowed the illness to diminish his desire for the franchise’s second championship and first since the 1977-78 season.

“I do want to win a championship, and I’m not going to leave this business until I do,” Mr. Pollin said. “And I know our players, coaches and staff want to win more than anything else.

“I know how anxious everyone is to have our full team on the floor, and it has been a long, long time since we played a game with all of our players at full strength,” Mr. Pollin later added. “I think our fans realize that what they have seen this year is not indicative of what kind of team we really have.”

Mr. Pollin said he thinks Mr. Tapscott “has done the best job he could under the circumstances.”

“And he would be the first to tell you that this season has not gone the way he - or any of us - wanted it to go,” Mr. Pollin said.

But the owner declined to comment on whether Mr. Tapscott will return as head coach next season. “We will make our decision regarding the head coach position for next season when we’re ready,” Mr. Pollin said, “and I don’t feel it’s fair or appropriate to comment more at this time.”

Does Mr. Pollin have complete confidence in Mr. Grunfeld?

“Yes, absolutely,” he replied.

The Wizards will enter this offseason facing the challenge of freeing themselves of hefty salaries to be able to sign what likely will be a top-five draft pick. Thomas and point guard Mike James, who are scheduled to make $7.3 million and $6.5 million, respectively, are rumored to be prime targets to move.

Jamison and Butler have publicly stated their hope for the acquisition of a key veteran or two - in addition to the return of Arenas and Haywood - to help the Wizards improve their chances of contending next season. The likelihood of that happening while remaining under the spending limit is slim, however.

During occasional timeout breaks at recent home games, the team has aired videotaped speeches from Jamison in which the team captain thanks fans for their support and promises better days ahead. After the speech, the slogan “Determined to Deliver” appears on the screen.

Sticking steadfastly to that phrase, Mr. Pollin predicts a dramatic turnaround next season.

“My message to our fans is that we will return to the playoffs next season,” Mr. Pollin said, “and we will continue to do everything we can to put the best team possible on the floor.”