- The Washington Times - Friday, December 21, 2001

The Wizards' PR staff was kept busy passing out notes to the media during Wednesday night's 103-76 win over the Atlanta Hawks. There were notes about the last time Washington did this, or did that won eight in a row, or had a .500 record nearly one-third into the NBA season.

At this rate, the Wizards are going to have a guy to do nothing but just be "the last time" guy, because this franchise is entering territory that it hasn't seen for a very long time. You need to be a historian to cover the Wizards these days, because it is not the same story that has been written year after year after year.

You need the perspective of history, both recent and beyond, to fully appreciate the impact of what coach Doug Collins said after his team's win its seventh straight over the Hawks at MCI Center. "This may be the most fun coaching situation I've ever had," Collins said.

I'm surprised the power didn't go out at MCI after that statement. I'll bet a chill went up Leonard Hamilton's spine wherever he is when Collins said that.

Not only is it fun these days to coach the 12-12 Wizards, who are on the verge of going over .500 tonight against an Orlando team without Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady, it's fun to watch, too. It is a far different team than the one that began the season 2-9. They play defense. They hustle for rebounds. They move the ball around and find the open man. "We are doing a better job of finding guys when they are in the rhythm of the game," Collins said.

Michael Jordan was in the rhythm of the game Wednesday night. He had 16 points in the second quarter and finished with 23. And he only played 27 minutes. "That was probably the best rhythm I had since early in the season," Jordan said. "If I can get that back, I'll feel good."

But even he can't fully appreciate what is going on here. How could he get excited about .500 after winning six NBA titles in Chicago?

"We haven't won anything other than getting ourselves to a .500 record," Jordan said. "We are playing better, competing harder, and trying to be smarter as a team. We're not going to jump the gun and say we're one of the elite teams in the East. We're just trying to play solid basketball, and work our way into some kind of identity."

Every word of that quote is remarkable in the context of the history of this franchise over the past 20 years.

"We haven't won anything other than getting ourselves to a .500 record" the last time the Wizards were .500 in a full season was 1997-98, when they went 42-40. That was four coaches ago.

"We are playing better, competing harder and trying to be smarter as a team" better, harder, smarter. When's the last time you heard those words associated with a Wizards team, without being accompanied by the words, "I wish they were …"

"We're not going to jump the gun and say we're one of the elite teams in the East" if anyone had ever uttered those words before about the Wizards, the only thing anyone would have done with a gun is shoot them. Now it is entirely plausible, with the traditional East powerhouses like the Knicks and the Heat collapsing, to consider the possibility the Wizards might make the playoffs this season.

"We're just trying to play solid basketball and work our way into some kind of identity" not that the Wizards didn't have some kind of identity before. They had plenty of identity: doormat, laughingstock, pathetic, take your pick.

This kind of identity, though a winning one is a bigger switch than Clark Kent into Superman.

This franchise has been the elephant graveyard of the NBA, where basketball careers come to die. It was a force that so gripped the team that Jordan could see no matter what he did from the front office, it wouldn't be enough to change the atmosphere that had consumed professional basketball in Washington. He was going to have to change the identity of this team by putting on a uniform and playing.

He is doing just that. MCI Center has sellout crowds, not ones disguised as empty seats either. People are coming and watching and standing and cheering and thinking, "Hey, this is fun."

Before each Wizards game, as they do the introductions of the team, they play some sort of music that sounds like something out of the film, "The Omen." It is entirely appropriate, because what we are witnessing with this transformation is a battle of the forces of nature and beyond.

"Our guys are starting to get a real feel for winning," Collins said.

That's like saying they've discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls.

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