- The Washington Times - Monday, October 27, 2003

The Wizards are back where they were before Michael Jordan dropped into town for a therapy session.

They have a couple of players and a lot of questions, plus a sinking feeling going into the 82-game season.

They showed themselves to be careless with the basketball and among the dregs of the NBA in the preseason. The carelessness has fomented an irritability in the new Jordan and prompted a remedial math class. As shocking as it may be to the peach-fuzz brigade, there is a finite number of possessions in a 48-minute game.

The dread is worse than the team’s 2-6 record in the preseason.

Jerry Stackhouse, who used to be an All-Star, is out of commission until December, perhaps longer, depending on how responsive his right knee is to rehabilitation.

Stackhouse is not inclined to rush himself back into service, a fair approach around what promises to be an incidental point on the calendar, whether December or January. In either case, the Wizards are apt to be hunkered down by then, trying to ward off the mental fatigue of a 25-win march.

Abe Pollin, the old owner thought to be out to eternal lunch, responded well to the old Jordan’s nameless hit men last spring.

Pollin hired a competent general manager who was willing to work and live in Washington, took a chance on the fashionable assistant of the moment, lured a 21-year-old potential star from the West Coast, re-signed Stackhouse and perhaps found a gem in the draft in Jarvis Hayes.

Pollin made enough good moves to put the Wizards in playoff contention, as playoff contention is loosely defined in the summer months.

The first snapshot of the Wizards shows the team looking younger than feared and the leading scorer on crutches.

The curse of the Wizards may not rise to the weepy level of the Bambino in Boston and the goat in Chicago, but it is real enough, going back to the abbreviated careers of Jeff Ruland and Hot Plate Williams in the ‘80s and the legal difficulties of Chris Webber and Rod Strickland in the ‘90s.

The Wizards have not been to the playoffs since 1997 and have not won a playoff series since 1982. Neither streak appears in jeopardy of ending this season.

This is assuming that Kwame Brown’s maturation process remains less filling. The keepers of the old Jordan’s flame already have stuck Brown in the company of LaRue Martin, arguably the worst No.1 overall pick ever in the NBA Draft.

This is hardly fair, but fair was hardly part of the process the last two seasons, with Jordan hoisting jumpers from afar and Doug Collins swooning after each attempt.

Brown was not gritty enough for Jordan’s tastes, as those tastes were refined in Chicago by Charles Oakley, Horace Grant and Dennis Rodman.

Brown’s personality makeover was destined to fail, and it was Jordan’s failure between tee shots going into the 2001 NBA Draft. A bogey can be distracting.

You can’t teach grit. Or hands, for that matter.

Both Brendan Haywood and Jahidi White are still around to confirm the latter.

There is a distant hope, either next season or the season after that one, if patience is exercised with the team’s core. Brown, Gilbert Arenas and Jared Jeffries are 21 years old, Hayes is 22, Haywood is 23 and Etan Thomas and Juan Dixon are 25.

Not all these players are destined to stay together the next couple of seasons, of course, but the foundation is genuine enough to imagine the Wizards eventually overcoming a generation’s worth of false promises.

That prospect requires a healthy Stackhouse, who is 28 but possibly going on 38 in knee years.

The Wizards were bound to be fragile this season following the self-centered vision of the old Jordan.

The hint of encouragement was dependent on the good health of Arenas and Stackhouse, the team’s two leading players.

Two is sometimes enough in the Eastern Conference, as the Celtics demonstrated the last few seasons.

The Wizards, alas, almost typically, are minus one, which puts yet a greater burden on Brown to deliver a quality season.

That is asking too much even now, in season No.3 for Brown, the first two, in hindsight, best managed with cotton stuffed into his ears.

We now go from cotton to possibly blindfolds, another useful accessory if the season turns ugly.

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