- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The thumbs-up gesture from Gilbert Arenas is the latest sign of hope on Fun Street.

The surprising development follows the commitment of Ernie Grunfeld to be a working president of basketball operations and the encouraging performance of rookie Jarvis Hayes in the Boston summer league.

The decision of Arenas to come East was facilitated by the persuasive billfold of Abe Pollin, the 79-year-old owner who was thought to be out to eternal lunch until the day he told Michael Jordan to take his golf clubs elsewhere.

Pollin’s 11th-hour about-face is starting to salvage what many around the NBA believed was a hopeless project after dismissing the old Jordan and releasing the protective forces around him, notably his pit bull, David Falk.

It seems the initial suspicion is incorrect.

The Wizards are not the NBA pariah they were made out to be.

No one from Tony Cheng’s neighborhood convinced Grunfeld and Arenas to join the rescue mission by pointing a gun in their direction.

That would be a bad career move in the case of Arenas, who packs heat along with a 3-pointer.

So much of the background noise is intended to pump up the aura of the old Jordan, which was grossly overstated going back to his term as president of the franchise’s tee times.

One of the early tests of the old Jordan’s alleged magnetic personality was Rod Strickland, the dysfunctional point guard with the poor social habits.

Strickland was the first of many players in Washington who did not assume the kneel-down position of Ahmad Rashad. Strickland could have told Washington between hiccups that America is historically opposed to royalty.

Pollin is flashing a lot of muscle for someone who perhaps does not drive as quickly to the basket as he once did. There are plenty of ways to score points, as Pollin is showing. He is not just spending money but holding out a money-back offer for those fans still traumatized by the sight of the steam coming off the bald pate of the old Jordan as he pulled away from the arena one last time.

If only to help in the recovery of the emotionally scarred, Pollin could employ a couple of shrinks to be on duty during the team’s home games next season.

A mental-health professional could provide a sympathetic ear and the news that there is basketball life after the old Jordan, possibly even a life equal to his 37-victory output in consecutive seasons.

This team has prospects, starting with Arenas at point guard, Jerry Stackhouse on one wing, Hayes or Jared Jeffries on the opposite wing, and Kwame Brown and Brendan Haywood in the post positions. The average age of the six players is 22.5.

This is a team with a future and with enough talent to be playoff-ready in the junior varsity ranks of the Eastern Conference.

Brown, of course, is the unknown element in the mix.

His first two seasons in the NBA have been termed a bust, his work ethic called into question. Both observations are premature, fostered by the previous regime.

The rush to judge Brown provided the old Jordan with athletic cover and Doug Collins with an easy target. Their version of a Walkman, stuck to Brown’s ears in stereophonic quality, came to be an indication of their desperation, eventually overtaking their vows of patience two summers ago.

Brown now has to be mature enough to take the first step of his professional life. He can’t show up just once a month. He can’t succumb to being lost on the court. He can’t play the game as if he is wearing blinders.

Brown does not have to be an All-Star in his third season, just an effective player who is the third option behind Stackhouse and Arenas. He has to want to be a 14-point, 10-rebound player night after night. He has to want to silence his critics after floundering in the presence of the old Jordan.

If Brown manages to evolve as a player, the Wizards just might be more relevant than anyone could have thought possible going into the NBA Draft last month.

The team’s work is not done. There remains the issue of Larry Hughes, the one-time foil of Arenas who skipped out of Golden State before quitting on the Wizards last season.

The question of Hughes will be decided soon enough.

Now is the time to feel the promise of a 21-year-old player who has the potential to be an All-Star and acknowledge the countermeasures of the owner.

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