- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 1, 2000

Darrell Walker earned Jahidi White's respect last week.

Walker became upset when White, all 6-foot-9, 290 pounds of him, gathered in the basketball at practice, established post position and laid the ball in. Walker, the Wizards' 6-4, 190-pound coach was furious. He figured anyone with White's size has to dunk the ball with authority in that situation.

Instead of scolding White, Walker had the Wizards run the play again. Only this time Walker replaced White in the practice. And when the ball went inside to the 39-year-old Walker, he pivoted, took off for the basket and dunked the ball.

"He told me that when I get in that situation I need to dunk the ball," White said, smiling as he recalled the incident. "He said 'Here, let me show you.' And then he dunked the ball. He was serious. He wasn't showing off or anything. I know the next time I get the ball down there that I've got to dunk the ball. Period."

That's the type of enthusiasm from Walker that has the Wizards optimistic. The team has the third-worst record in the league, it is handcuffed by the salary cap and in all likeliness it is out of the playoffs for the 11th time in 12 seasons. However, Walker is convinced things will get better.

Walker, who played with the Wizards from 1987 to 1991, has no guarantee from the organization that he won't be the fourth coach fired in the span of one year when the season ends in April. Even though the Wizards are $18 million over the salary cap and have more than $36 million in salary committed to three players next season, Walker desperately wants to come back.

"I would love to have this job," Walker says. "I would love to be able to take this team from training camp and see what I can get out of them. If I can't get it done, then Michael [Jordan] should fire me just like he would fire anybody else. And that's what I expect. I don't ask to be treated any differently. But we've got 26 more games left this year, and I haven't really even thought about next year."

When former coach Gar Heard was fired after the Wizards got off to a 14-30 start, the job almost went to Rod Higgins, a former teammate of Jordan, who became the club's part owner and director of basketball operations in January. But the Golden State Warriors, with whom Higgins is an assistant coach, wanted to alter an earlier trade in return for releasing Higgins. The Wizards balked, and Higgins remains with Golden State.

Jordan, who rubber-stamps all basketball related decisions, turned his attention to Walker, a former Chicago Bulls teammate. At the time, Walker was coaching the CBA's Rockford (Ill.) Lightning, who were 13-17 at the time. Walker had to be talked into taking that job by good friend and CBA owner Isiah Thomas. He had grown comfortable living in Little Rock, Ark., and commuting to Seattle, where he did color commentary for the SuperSonics.

"I had a great time doing that," said Walker, who led the Toronto Raptors to a 41-90 record from 1996 to 1998. "I missed the NBA, and I knew my heart was in coaching. When Isiah pushed me for the job I knew I had to take it. I wanted to get back to the NBA, and I figured this was the way to do it."

Jordan felt Walker was the perfect fit for the Wizards. He liked Walker's energy, which White saw firsthand in that practice session. But when Jordan hired Walker, he did not promise he would return next season.

"When I talked to Darrell I was very straight forward," Jordan said. "I told him that he had an opportunity to coach this team, and at the end of the year we're going to evaluate the players and coaches. If we have to make changes, we'll make changes with the coaches as well as the players. In saying that, I think it gives Darrell certainly some incentives and motivation. Hopefully, the players will have the same type of motivation. Until we get this thing back on track, I'm not going to make too may guarantees."

Wizards majority owner Abe Pollin, often criticized for some of his moves, gave his vote of confidence to Heard in December. It turned out to be the kiss of death. Heard was fired minutes after a rare Washington win Jan. 29. Pollin is keenly aware that the situation taking over a bad team late in the season is not a good one. But Pollin left it up to Jordan to give the final word on Walker's future with the team.

"It's a tough job, coming in at the middle of the season," Pollin said. "We'll consider everything. Obviously Michael will be making the final decision. But we'll be looking for a guy that is a good human being, a guy who knows the game and a guy who works hard. All those things."

Jordan was unavailable for comment yesterday, but he appears to believe the team won't get any better. Jordan also has said the "onus" for improvement is on the players, almost all of whom have grown tired of the revolving door.

The Wizards have been inconsistent in their play under both Heard and Walker this season. Under Heard they were a better offensive team, averaging 95.6 points compared to 89.1 under Walker. However, the Wizards' defense has been more stingy under Walker and is allowing opposing teams just 93.2 points.

Still, there will be a decision at the end of the season. And if team captain Juwan Howard has his way, Walker will be back and he would like to be around to play for him.

"If he's back and I'm here with him I'd love to play for him," said Howard, who grew up in the same Chicago neighborhood as Walker. "And I mean that personally. I've got much respect for him as a player and as a coach. I love playing for him. I really do."

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