- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 24, 2001

One heckler labeled it embarrassing. Another dubbed it disgusting.
They were being too kind.
On a February night fit for the frigid air of sporting failure that cradles Washington in a dark, skeletal embrace, Washington Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton stands in the underbelly of MCI Center, his face a register of helpless exasperation.
It's more than halfway through Hamilton's sole season in Washington, and the Wizards have just fallen to the bottom-feeding Vancouver Grizzlies, 116-104. Distracted by their pending move to another city, the Grizzlies have nevertheless dispatched the Wizards with ease, shooting a blistering 55 percent from the floor.
Staring at a score sheet, Hamilton frowns. The cold clarity of the moment of Vancouver's statistical dominance, of Washington's lackluster play, of what will end up as a 19-win season for the Wizards is too much to take.
As a small group of reporters presses closer, Hamilton attempts to gather himself. Voice flat, eyes unblinking, he utters a halfhearted explanation one that raises more questions than answers, both for a team mired in misery and a city following suit.
"We didn't have the energy and the pep that we've become accustomed to playing with," he says. "We can't afford to have a night off like this."
A night off?
More like two years.
Jagr's here. Jordan's coming (probably). Kwame's just getting started. Marty's already begun.
Taken together, they're an athletic search-and-rescue squad, a collective stay of competitive execution. The reason for their arrival? Simple.
We are still bad. Very, very bad.
Two years ago, the Sporting News ranked Washington as the No. 19 sports city in the country better than, say, Tulsa, but far behind federal government-lacking, monument-deprived, lobbyist-and-fat-cat-free backwaters like Phoenix and St. Louis.
In response, this space argued that the magazine was being far too generous Juwan Howard-contract generous and that the reality of the situation was eminently more embarrassing.
Drawing on a wide range of empirical evidence that included (but was hardly limited to) Gus Frerotte's self-administered concussion, the city's status as the Washington Generals' namesake, the ill-conceived Petitbon administration and the Mystics' propensity for changing coaches the way Burger King changes slogans, our investigation revealed TSN's ranking to be a grievous, slanderous affront, both to the rest of the top 20 and the nation as a whole.
With Dana Stubblefield's sack totals on the brain, Jim Lewis' winning percentage in our craw and Chris Webber's index finger pressing softly against our throat, we concluded that Washington was, in fact, well below the civic Mendoza line that our beloved metropolis was a capital city of abject athletic futility, sinking ever deeper in a swamp of sheer sporting ineptitude.
In short, Loserville.
And though we tried to remain upbeat hoping against hope that United would remain United, that Nikki McCray would one day have a game as explosive as her smile, that Gar Heard would turn things around with his unique brand of no-nonsense tough love the sheer weight of local history left us less than optimistic.
In this regard, we were distressingly prescient (although, on a plus note, Albert Belle did suffer a career-ending injury).
The millennium has come and gone. Clinton is out. Bush is in. Congress has changed hands. Yet when it comes to area sports, the story remains the same.
Welcome to Loserville, circa 2001. Only the faces have changed.
L-L-L. Losing remains our lowest common denominator. Like the Jedi force in "Star Wars," it surrounds us. Flows through us. Drags our sacked carcasses across the Texas Stadium turf in the stone-age fashion of Ebenezer Ekuban.
We're Deion Sanders, picked apart by Detroit. Tyrone Nesby, escorted out by stadium security. Mia Hamm, trading notes with Chamique Holdsclaw. Hamilton, trading notes with Heard. Terry Robiskie, still waiting for our shot.
Judging from recent developments, it's going to be a long wait:
Franchise Follies
Indeed, if any lesson can be drawn from the past 730 days besides the wholesale folly of giving Rod Strickland a guaranteed contract it's that things can always get worse.
From the Redskins to the Mystics to United, we're still staring at the tunnel at the end of our collective light:
Armed with a high-powered offense, a softball schedule and a defense on sabbatical, the Redskins snap a six-year playoff drought in 1999-2000, coming within a botched field goal of reaching the NFC championship game. In response, owner Dan Snyder spends the offseason kicking around every big name save Jim Brown, signing a Who's Who of the mid-1990s NFL. Four kickers, two coaches and eight losses later big-ticket Washington is a national punch line despite the best efforts of aged football raconteur Pepper Rodgers.
The Wizards go from Heard, a coach who's never won at the professional level, to Hamilton, a coach who's never won at the professional level. Surprisingly, the team continues to lose, bottoming out at 19-63 last season.
Once-proud United falls harder than PSINet stock, failing to make the playoffs last season for the first time in franchise history; its newfound feebleness rubs off on the Freedom, who have so far parlayed preseason accolades into a disappointing 6-8-2 mark.
Despite jettisoning all but two players from their inaugural 3-27 campaign, the Mystics remain haunted by the ghost of Lewis, far removed from .500 ball.
Thirty-five miles to the north, the pricey Baltimore Orioles are finally scuttled, replacing a lousy old team with a lousy young team; meanwhile, the Ravens win the Super Bowl, throwing the Redskins' collapse into sharp relief.
Worse still, Baltimore's playoff run prompts an unseemly, embarrassing glomming-on by the local media, a treatment typically reserved for Charm City icon Cal Ripken Jr.
Speaking of which, we've said it before and we'll say it again: Cal isn't ours. Never has been.
Don't drag him into this mess.
Athlete Agony
In our previous inquiry, we determined that Washington:
1) Lacked a signature athlete with any sort of national juice, giving the city less marquee value than a triple bill of "Battlefield Earth," "Feeling Minnesota" and "Dude, Where's My Car?"
2) Acted as a sporting black hole, a spirit-crushing, talent-sapping vortex that reduces once-bright stars to dazed, burned-out husks (see Shuler, Heath).
Has anything changed in the interim? Yes and no.
On one hand, D.C.'s star quotient has improved considerably, thanks to a trio of deep-pocketed owners Ted Leonsis, Dan Snyder, that Discovery channel guy and the subsequent arrivals of Sanders, Hamm, Michael Jordan and Jaromir Jagr.
On the other hand, one has to wonder if the recent retrofitting of the Washington Monument didn't somehow poison the water. Or involve Kryptonite.
Fact is, our city remains a Star Destroyer without peer. Hamm, the greatest goal producer in women's soccer history, has struggled to score in open play. Holdsclaw can't stay healthy. Wunderkid Bobby Convey's out for most of the season. Prime Time's looking more and more like a late-night infomercial. Mitch Richmond came here an All-Star and left an old man. Jordan even cracked his ribs.
Just a thought: This might be a good time for Jagr to upgrade his health insurance.
Adding insult to, well, insult, our city has also spawned a bizarre sort of reverse Ex-Cub Effect, which, due to the inadequacies of scientific nomenclature, we will refer to simply as "C-Webb's Law." Put simply, C-Webb's Law holds that the amount of success enjoyed by a former area athlete is directly related to their subsequent distance from D.C. For example:
Supposed bad actor Chris Webber is exiled to Sacramento (2,737 miles from Washington), where he promptly leads the Kings to the playoffs, makes a run at the MVP trophy and establishes himself as this summer's premier free agent catch.
Woozy but still standing, Frerotte puts together solid seasons as a valuable backup in Detroit (519 miles) and Denver (1,666 miles), posting career-high quarterback ratings in the process.
The petulant Strickland pockets $2.5 million in walk-away money from the Wizards, then agrees to a $2.25 million deal with playoff-bound Portland (2,801 miles) for the remainder of the season.
Benched at midseason by owner's decree, Brad Johnson bails following the Redskins' Season of Promise, signing a five-year, $28 million contract with Super Bowl-contender Tampa Bay (930 miles).
Nondescript Andrea Nagy moves to New York (225 miles) and is promptly named one of Playboy.com's "Ten Sexiest Babes of the WNBA."
Given the above, it's hardly surprising that scandal-ridden former president Bill Clinton never a noted tennis buff has recently appeared at both the French Open and Wimbledon, two tournaments held across the Atlantic (4,000 miles).
Hey, the man might be shady, but he's not stupid.
Coaching Chaos
Who's responsible for our sporting stupor? Way back when, we pointed the finger with Belle's help, of course largely at Washington's coaches, a motley carnival of sad clowns, Bickerstaffian washouts and, of course, Petitbon.
Two years later, that same finger is beginning to cramp.
Start with the dearly departed Norv Turner, who, like that fat gay guy from "Survivor," managed to overstay his welcome by at least a year. Despite producing just one playoff club during his tumultuous tenure, Turner was rewarded with a $90 million-plus team last season the football equivalent of handing Robert Downey Jr. the keys to a DEA impound room.
To avoid an obscenity lawsuit, we'll skip the particulars of what happened next. (Although the paratroopers on "Monday Night Football" were a nice touch).
Turner's replacement, Robiskie, was even less effective. Though some argued that the moribund Redskins would play with renewed passion under the former passing game coordinator, the team had other ideas, rolling over to a eminently forgettable Dallas club.
Speaking of rolling over, there's Heard and Hamilton, who managed to make Washington legends Jimmy Lynam and Wes Unseld look like Red Auerbach and Lenny Wilkens. There's Nancy Darsch, who was outcoached by front-office fill-in Darrell Walker. And there's Thomas Rongen, who though technically still employed would be wise to spend less time watching game film and more time browsing Monster.com.
As for our stumbling first-year coaches, Tom Maher and Jim Gabarra? Put it this way: The jury's still out.
Measuring rope, that is.
Turnaround Time?
Though Washington has generally been to sporting excellence what China is to the humane treatment of prisoners, one team has managed to glide above the muck, a schooner on a sea of raw sewage.
Over the last two seasons, the Capitals have captured consecutive Southeastern Division titles. Better still, the recent acquisition of Jagr gives the club a legitimate chance of advancing to the Stanley Cup finals. Or at least beating the Penguins.
Their secret? Talent. Resourcefulness. Sound coaching. Measured, deliberate front-office decision-making. The ability to rally from a slow start. And a general aversion to absolute collapse.
In sum, everything our other teams lack.
In this regard, however, we have reason for hope: As of late, some of our local losers seem to be emulating the Caps.
With a stripped-down roster and no-nonsense coach Marty Schottenheimer at the helm, the Redskins should at least be fundamentally sound this season, more concerned with winning than with pocketing signing bonuses.
Plus, training camp will be free.
Likewise, the Wizards have a proven winner in Doug Collins, a No. 1 pick in Kwame Brown and possibly, just possibly, the best 38-year-old shooting guard-cum-president of basketball operations in league history.
The Mystics and United aren't so lucky but then again, Cheryl Miller isn't coming back. Neither is Pele.
Still, there's a sense of turnaround in the air. A notion that the worst is behind us. A premonition that some other bumbling metropolis we're thinking Chicago, so long as Jerry Krause and Cade McNown are involved will sink low enough to surpass us.
In the meantime, one thing remains certain.
Here in Loserville, we can't afford any more nights off.

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