- The Washington Times - Friday, October 25, 2002

The Wizards have been laughable, lovable and lamentable in the last generation, not to mention the Bullets, the moniker that fell to political correctness in 1997.

"I'm going to shoot you," Bernard King said at a January practice session in 1993, to coach Wes Unseld.

The Bullets could drive anyone nuts, employees and supporters alike, although King never made good on his threat. He was suspended, then released, and so ended another attempt by the franchise to be vaguely competent.

This was the days of a franchise as a halfway house, a place for the almost old, the definitely old and the infirm.

God rest Pervis Ellison's aching knees.

Frank Johnson broke his foot three times.

Jay Vincent barely broke a sweat.

Gus Williams was a paragon of cool while here but consigned to playing on memories and fumes. Moses Malone could have those nights when he still could play volleyball on the glass, as he did in Philadelphia, but not with the same consistency.

It always was something with the organization, either bad joints, bad heads or bad luck amid a self-preserving mantra to watch the budget.

As it turned out, Juwan Howard nearly broke the budget, and a lot of frustrated hearts, after the organization was granted a contract negotiation do-over by the league office. It was his fate to be the team's ball and chain, the provider of boohoo to the boos.

Hope was a relative commodity, usually spent by the second month of the season.

Robin Ficker, the team's former serial heckler, was emblematic of the times, part mascot, part clown, part distraction who endured in part because of the on-court listlessness. Ficker was nowhere near as huggable as Tiny Too, the wiener dog, just loud and obnoxious from behind the opposition's bench at the old arena in Landover.

Ficker eventually exhausted his 15 minutes as an NBA footnote, thank goodness, coinciding with the franchise's move to Tony Cheng's neighborhood in 1997, to the new facility on Fun Street. The move, however pleasant and lucrative, failed to purge the culture of losing that had become endemic to the organization.

That was an impressive mural of Chris Webber's likeness on the side of a building in Chinatown, one side of a face inclined to be a police mug shot.

Some fault-finding personalities never change. Webber was only the franchise's most recent curse, though hardly the first.

John Williams could have been somebody. He was 19 years old the night the Bullets selected him with the 12th pick in the 1986 NBA Draft. He was a good guy, a fun guy, though not the brightest guy, talented, tough, with Magic Johnson-like skills. The poor guy. He blew out a knee, then blew up in the waistline, and became Hot Plate Williams, as opposed to Hot Rod Williams, and ended up in Europe.

Williams was the hors d'oeuvre to Dinner Bell Mel Turpin. Some guys have a big heart. Turpin just had a big appetite.

It has been a long haul, a series of messes, really, since the franchise won a playoff series in 1982, when the Beef Brothers, Jeff Ruland and Rick Mahorn, represented the future. Like so much in the years following Unseld's retirement in 1981, that, too, was a false promise, waylaid by the premature rebellion of Ruland's knees. He was done as an effective player before his 28th birthday, just when he should have been appearing in one All-Star Game after another.

Who knew that was merely the beginning of a franchise's descent into irrelevance?

So who knows now, really knows, except this time it looks and feels different before the start of the 57th NBA season next week?

There are hints in the preseason, a 5-2 record, no less, and even a bullish scouting report from NBA commissioner David Stern stoking the flames of enthusiasm. Much of the team's offseason maneuvering was made to complement what looms as Michael Jordan's last season as a player.

The recent signing of the long-toothed Charles Oakley was completed with the season's immediacy in mind, a now-or-never decision intended to soften a possible overreliance on Kwame Brown.

The Eastern Conference, the second conference of the NBA, beckons all the dreamers, the one-shot-and-out types, since Jordan packed up his gear in Chicago in 1998.

Unseld, Jordan and coach Doug Collins have done the math with the Nets: 26 wins in 2001 and 52 wins and a trip to the NBA Finals in 2002. Why them? Why not us?

A 50-win season seems reasonable enough for the local contingent, coming off the 37-win effort last season and the offseason acquisitions of Jerry Stackhouse, Larry Hughes, Bryon Russell, Oakley and two adequate rookies.

So much after the season is uncertain, starting with Stackhouse's financial needs and how those needs will be evaluated in relation to the season and to the Tim Duncan sweepstakes.

That is then, and this is now, and now, for once, there is this rare feel-good aura around the team.

You are permitted to laugh or cry. Finally. Yes, finally.

This is the potential payoff to the long wait, the shenanigans and the abbreviated experiment under the Big Top, with Mutt and Jeff, best known as Manute Bol and Tyrone Bogues.

You probably have tried to block out the time A.J. English was forced to play in a Champion-provided jersey with his last name misspelled as E-n-g-i-l-s-h on the back of it, perhaps the first sign that English was being deemphasized in the nation's public schools.

Or the time Rod Strickland played a quarter with his shorts on backward.

Or the time Rex Chapman came down with the "flu'' after his sister's ex-boyfriend threatened to eliminate him.

You probably have tried to trivialize Ralph Sampson's 10-game career with the team, easy enough to trivialize given the condition of his knees by then.

That turned out to be three games more than Mark Price's plantar fascitis-riddled stint with the team a few years later.

Someone always was dropping into town, saying enough was enough, until the first loss and the losses that soon followed.

The last time the franchise won at least 50 games in a season was in 1979, the year after the franchise claimed its only NBA championship. It is easy to forget just how good the Bullets once were, in the '70s, when they made four appearances in the NBA Finals in nine seasons.

Since then, it has been one rebuilding project after another, a slump that somewhere along the way was transformed into a way of life. All the faces. All the names. All the losses. Don't look now, but there's Tom McMillen, all elbows and knees, swinging every which way, wearing more padding than a football player.

Ruland slammed his fist in disgust against the padded support underneath the basket after missing a shot during a game against the Nets in the '80s. There went the wrist on his shooting hand, and there perhaps was an omen, for him, for the franchise and for those who wanted to believe.

What happened all those years?

Ruland happened, then Williams, then Webber.

An NBA franchise gets only so many chances to have a player who can make a genuine difference, and it just so happened the franchise's three best chances in the last generation went belly-up.

Even Jordan, a special case, couldn't hold up to whatever it is that hangs over the franchise. He broke down last season, and the team closed with a whimper.

Let this, in a way, be a warning to Stackhouse, the team's latest best chance.

Watch your step out there.

Allow Washington to savor this rare joy.

Maybe this is the season.

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