- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Those rows of empty seats posted all over social media at the Verizon Center Thursday night for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals between the hometown Washington Wizards and Indiana Pacers and the semi-comatose crowd criticized on the ESPN national broadcast were born four years ago — when Ted Leonsis took over the franchise.

Those empty seats and subdued fans were created when Leonsis took over the team after the death of Abe Pollin and, after more than 30 years of mediocrity and failure, did nothing to tell a damaged fan base that it would no longer be business as usual—  that this would be a new era.

Instead, he immediately embraced the dysfunction that embarrassed an entire city with statements like these, just a few months after Gilbert Arenas was suspended for bringing guns into the locker room and after the team drafted John Wall number one.

“I think John Wall will add years to Gilbert’s career,” Leonsis told Jim Rome in a radio interview. “The best way to re-bond with the fan base is to come in happy and healthy and be a really, really highly functioning trusted teammate and be very, very coachable. And my bet is Gilbert can be all of that.”

It’s one thing to try to keep up a brave front while you are trying to get rid of a toxic player who destroyed the team. It’s another thing to insult your fans with that kind of nonsense.

Those empty seats were created in 2010, when Leonsis bought the team and did nothing to show fans that the man in charge, whose personnel decisions and coddling atmosphere set the stage for the Arenas debacle, would be leaving.

It was a chance to show fans that there would be a fresh start. Instead, Leonsis embraced general manager Ernie Grunfeld.

Of the general managers who finished in the top three in voting for the NBA Executive of the Year this season, one — Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough — was in the first year of his job after three seasons as an assistant general manager under Danny Ainge in Boston. Another — Neil Olshey of the Portland Trailblazers — was in the second year on the job.

Two options for a fresh start. Two options ignored.

Leonsis either failed to recognize or chose to ignore the damage done to NBA basketball in this town from the finals appearance in 1979 to the point he took over the team, punctuated by the Arenas embarrassment that brought the lowly franchise to an all-time low.

He paid the price for that Thursday night by having the hometown crowd called out on national television.

Now, of course, some people in this town are ready to pin a medal on Grunfeld, who took 11 years — 11 years, I said — to get a team this far, the sixth game of the Eastern Conference semifinals. He is getting credit for building a roster of players that performed well, and they did. It was fun group of players to root for — which again shows the damage done here by a hometown’s unwillingness to get behind this team in its biggest game in 35 years.

He was the same general manager that built a roster of embarrassment, re-signing Arenas, drafting Andray Blatche, Nick Young and Javale McGee, but now gets credit for getting rid of his players — his players, I said.

Was that Grunfeld’s decision?

Remember, after Flip Saunders was fired, he later said he told Leonsis — not Grunfeld — to get rid of the knuckleheads. In fact, in an interview with me on “The Sports Fix” on ESPN 980, Saunders said he wanted them out from the day he arrived in 2009. Yet when he was fired in 2012, all but Arenas still were on the roster.

“I was a proponent from day one of changing that whole atmosphere,” Saunders said. “Having been in situations where we had success in both Detroit and in Minnesota, we didn’t have that. … When I was there, I made my feelings pretty well known. And actually when I left — and had meetings with Ted Leonsis when I left — I pretty much said the same thing.”

So let’s stop with the revisionist history of Grunfeld cleaning house. He didn’t do so until Leonsis heard it himself from Saunders.

Grunfeld doesn’t appear to be in any danger of going anywhere now. Some people want to hold a parade for him down Pennsylvania Avenue after this season’s results. After all, if Leonsis didn’t fire him before based on results — 312-490 before this season — he’s not going to fire him now.

So the general manager who gave Andray Blatche a $35 million contract extension will continue to be in charge of this franchise. It was the sort of personnel decision that dwarfs anything supporters would claim he should get credit for.

Speaking of credit — and blame — a Washington Post columnist once wrote the following about Grunfeld: “More than ever, it’s on Grunfeld now.”

That was in November 2008.

That’s the kind of accountability that leads to empty seats and reluctant crowds when your team gets to sixth game of the Eastern Conference semifinals nearly six years later.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.