- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

RICHMOND | The day before the Washington Wizards began their first training camp under Flip Saunders, Caron Butler said he was anxious to see how things would unfold.

He never expected what awaited the Wizards at their team dinner Monday night.

Saunders, a part-time magician, brought in John-Ivan Palmer, who calls himself “The Fastest and Funniest Hypnotist,” to provide entertainment and a little team building.

Palmer, upon whom Saunders called a few times during his days with the Minnesota Timberwolves, had several players join him on stage. He successfully hypnotized Nick Young, Mike James and Gilbert Arenas but couldn’t quite get DeShawn Stevenson or Butler to fall under his spell.

At one point, whenever the lights went off, Young galloped around the room on a balloon as if it were a horse. James couldn’t remember his last name and barked like a dog every time he heard the word “defeat.” Arenas couldn’t open his hand and moved like he was using a hula hoop.

But Stevenson wouldn’t cooperate.

“He kept trying to touch my face, and it just felt weird, so I was like, ‘Get off me,’ and I started laughing. And then Caron started laughing, so [Palmer] was mad and made us get up,” Stevenson recalled with a laugh. “It was funny. It just opened everybody up. We’ve got new teammates, and this made everybody laugh and helped us bond.”

Saunders said he’ll wait to break out his magic tricks, but he did have some gifts to share. Saunders gave his players black T-shirts and caps with “Our Time” printed and stitched on them.

He also gave each of his players an iPod bearing the 250-page team playbook, video of how the plays should be run and game, practice and travel schedules. It made an immediate impression with the players - another testament to Saunders’ attention to detail and his unconventional ways of teaching.

“There’s no excuse for not knowing the plays now,” Antawn Jamison said, referring to one of the younger Wizards’ stumbling blocks last season. “You can listen to your music while you’re reading through the plays, got video of how to run the plays. We all know how much technology runs this world, so why not incorporate it in what we do for a living?”

When the Wizards walked onto the court Tuesday morning for the first of two practice sessions, they were immediately immersed in a fast-paced learning process.

“I think a lot of guys were truly anxious to get out there, and once we got out there, Coach Saunders and the coaching staff are great,” Butler said. “We got a lot of stuff done, and before you looked up, it was two and a half hours into it.”

Said Jamison: “We knew we were gonna learn a lot of things on the fly, but he don’t play around when he’s explaining something. He expects you to pay attention, and if you’re not, you won’t be involved.”

Saunders dedicated much of the morning session to installing offensive and defensive schemes and walking through them. He planned more live action in the evening session.

“The message was one of being very focused, respecting the team, respecting your abilities, respecting the organization, respecting the fans. We have expectations as individuals and teams, and you have to work to try to meet those expectations,” Saunders said. “You talk a lot about what you want, but until you get them out here together and get them running in a team type of setting and they understand the pace of the things you want to do - and the amount of offensive and defensive things you want them to comprehend - you don’t really know. But I thought the guys did well.”

The Wizards had no doubts about their coach’s message - or his expectations.

“It’s not about winning 40-something games and making it to the playoffs,” Jamison said. “It’s about taking it to another level. … He believes we can win a championship. …

“We all believe it, and if you don’t believe it, we’ll find a way to get you out of here.”