Antawn Jamison knew things were different when he heard the word "championship" come out of Flip Saunders' mouth. The two-time All-Star power forward did a mental double take.
Championship? Saunders used the word during a conversation with Jamison early in the offseason while discussing his goals and expectations for his new team. During his five previous seasons in the District, Jamison knew the goal was to win, but he had never actually heard a coach come right out and say he intended to guide the Wizards to a championship.
It further ignited the hunger inside Jamison. The 11th-year NBA veteran has put together an impressive resume. He received an all-rookie second-team selection in 1998 and was named sixth man of the year following the 2003-04 season. He came to the Wizards and blossomed into a two-time All-Star. He represented the United States at the 2006 FIBA World Championships in Japan and boasts career averages of 19.9 points and 8.0 rebounds.
But Jamison has never come close to sniffing a championship.
Saunders has. Close but not quite.
In his two previous NBA coaching stops, Saunders guided teams to the conference finals four times. He did it once in Minnesota, where he reached the playoffs in eight of 10 seasons. And he took the Pistons to the conference championship in all three of his seasons in Detroit.
The failure to get over the hump caused Pistons president of basketball operations Joe Dumars to fire Saunders in 2008. And so last season, while the Pistons struggled to a first-round playoff exit, Saunders spent the year watching a lot of basketball across the league. He studied players, strategies and coaching styles, and he came away convinced his methods, philosophies and concepts were right.
Wizards president Ernie Grunfeld hired Saunders late last spring and charged him with the task of taking a 19-win, injury-riddled squad and transforming it into an elite team - which is exactly what Saunders intended to do.
He went to work immediately, traveling to players' homes in the offseason, familiarizing them with his philosophies, learning their personalities and what made them tick. And when he wasn't face-to-face, he used every communication method possible to continue to indoctrinate them.
On the eve of training camp, Saunders gave each player a T-shirt and cap bearing the slogan "Our Time," then stressed his expectation to establish a true winning tradition.
"It was to give them a sense of urgency, that every game is important and every game you have to go out and play," Saunders said. "You don't go out to play to win. You go out to play well because if you play well, you have a chance to win. If you don't play well, you don't have a chance to win in this league. You're not going to play bad and win games. Just isn't going to happen."
The Wizards performed well in training camp and even had the previously inconsistent members of the team carrying themselves with professionalism.
But the preseason has had an all-too-familiar theme: injuries to key players (first center Brendan Haywood, then to Jamison) and sickness to others (Gilbert Arenas and Mike Miller) - all of which disrupted the Wizards' progress - and the perennial problem of defensive shortcomings.
A few hours before he and his team flew to Dallas to tip off the season against the Mavericks on Tuesday, Saunders guessed his team was "probably right between where we might be and where we thought we might be" thanks to the setbacks and continued chemistry building between holdover players, members returning from injury and the offseason acquisitions.
With their leading scorer and rebounder (Jamison) out for at least the next three weeks, the Wizards could be in for another of their traditional slow starts. But the coach's confidence has not wavered. Saunders believes he's working with championship material. And his players, feeding both off his confidence and previous body of work, believe as well.
"It gives you a surge of confidence," Caron Butler said. "Somebody... with a proven track record, somebody that the young guys are definitely going to listen to and respect and the older guys listen to and respect. ... It's a renaissance, a rebirth, the beginning of something different. ... It's time to start from the basics and work our way back to where we were once at, at being one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference."
Saunders is well aware of the knocks against him, that he "can't win the big one." But rather than go out and try to prove his critics wrong, he's simply focused on putting the Wizards back on the winning track and taking them a step or two or three further.
"I don't have anything to prove. I just want our team to win," Saunders said. "If we play at the level I think we're capable of playing, then all the proof and all the naysayers will take care of themselves. My thing is to get us playing at a level we're able to play at and at a consistent rate, and everything will take care of itself."
And so the Wizards are on board. Ready to put playoff shortcomings and injury woes far behind them, they're following Saunders' lead.
"We have a new captain of the ship, and I hope with the injuries out the window, the ship starts sailing a little more smoothly," Jamison said. "But he's the captain of the ship. We believe in him. He's definitely doing what we expect of him as a coach. Now we have to go out there and get the job done as players. I love it."