- The Washington Times - Friday, April 20, 2001

"We've had a very interesting year," Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin said yesterday.

In six words, Pollin thus uttered perhaps the biggest understatement of his 37-year run in professional sports.

The Wizards sought yesterday to close the book on their highly troubled 2000-01 season and begin looking forward with the hiring of coach Doug Collins. No wonder. During the six-month regular season, the Wizards endured five player arrests, countless tirades and tantrums, the loss of the team's three best players, tens of thousands of empty seats at MCI Center and a franchise-record 63 losses.

"Obviously we didn't achieve what we set out to," team president Michael Jordan said.

The chaos of the year reached yet another level Tuesday night with the unexpected resignation of coach Leonard Hamilton following the season-ending loss to Toronto.

Jordan said yesterday the coaching change had been in the works since the beginning of last week. But it was news to all of the Wizards' assistant coaches, players, lower-level executives and even Hamilton's wife.

"I kept this close to the vest," Hamilton said while addressing the media after a 140-minute closed-door meeting with Jordan.

The scene left plenty of unanswered questions. Why did Jordan send Hamilton out alone to announce his departure? Was Hamilton forced out? Was Hamilton offered any portion of the $6 million that was remaining on his contract? Why was there such an urgent need to have a new coach in place literally minutes after the Hamilton meeting ended?

Yesterday shed little light on those questions. Jordan took only a limited number of questions at the news conference, perhaps saving some thunder for NBC's two-part interview with him this weekend.

Jordan insisted Hamilton left of his own volition and that hiring Collins so quickly was critical for moving the franchise forward. But beyond that he remained vague.

"It was against all odds for Leonard," Jordan said. "We admittedly put him in a very difficult position."

Hamilton's difficult position was made even tougher by Jordan's bold preseason predictions of a .500 record and a playoff berth. What made Jordan say and believe that also remains a secret. The Wizards entered the season as a rapidly aging team with just two winning seasons since 1987. The team was widely predicted to have the woeful record (19-63) it ultimately posted after starting the season 5-25.

The season's nadir came midway through when point guard Rod Strickland essentially refused to play for Hamilton. After Strickland had missed dozens of practices and team flights and had a stint on the injured reserve list, Jordan arranged a contract buyout and released him Feb. 28. He quickly joined the Portland Trail Blazers, his former team. Guard Mitch Richmond, the third of the team's three stars, missed much of the season's second half with a knee injury and also likely will be bought out.

Other lowlights include Strickland's January arrest for driving while intoxicated, his third such violation in three years, and similar trouble for forward Michael Smith.

Another sign of the season's strangeness came Feb. 22, when Jordan traded forward Juwan Howard considered the team's best player to Dallas for $3 million and five players, including talented guard Courtney Alexander. Shipping out the underachieving Howard relieved the Wizards of $56 million of salary obligations, creating much-needed cap room.

"This is a move that creates some flexibility for the organization," Jordan said. "Hopefully, we can work hard as an organization and try to find ways of turning this opportunity into something good."

While Jordan, Collins and the rest of the basketball staff begin planning for the 2001-02 season, the team's business side must do the same. Not only does the team face the unenviable task of selling season tickets after a 63-loss season, club seat contracts at MCI Center are up for renewal for the first time.

The team claimed an average attendance of 15,577 this season, 4 percent better than a year ago. But between the massive no-shows and numerous ticket giveaways, the level of actual support for the team stands much lower.

"We want to create some excitement and give something special to the fans," Pollin said. "Hiring Doug, we think, is a big step in that direction."

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