- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

Leaning against a wall of the practice court at MCI Center, a relaxed Jerry Stackhouse nodded in the direction of the work going on inside the Washington Wizards’ locker room.

New paint was on the walls and, perhaps most importantly, a door now separates the locker room from a hallway that is usually crowded with non-players before and after games.

To Stackhouse, the renovations signal a much needed change.

“It’s more comfortable around here,” said Stackhouse, who will make approximately $33million over the next four years under a new deal he struck with the Wizards during the summer. “I think everybody has just moved on. I don’t think anybody has any type of holdover. Everybody is just moving forward. We’ve got a new system, a new GM, a new coach and a couple of new players. Our whole team is going to take on a new identity.”

That identity is being shaped by the team’s new president of basketball operations, Ernie Grunfeld.

“Look at the locker room,” said Stackhouse, indicating Grunfeld’s pet remodeling project. “He’s making it more comfortable and I think that’s his whole thing, to make sure that the guys are comfortable. Making sure that guys are comfortable so that they can go out and play better. If you have all the comforts and all the things that you need, there shouldn’t be any reason why you can’t go out and perform.

“I think that’s his philosophy. Take care of the players, and in return the players will take care of themselves. The team gets the benefit of that.”

Nobody wants to talk about the past two years, when Michael Jordan was a teammate. The players, Stackhouse included, grew tired of the verbal lashings they received from Jordan in the media. Many of them believed they were scapegoats for the team’s inability to win more than 37 games and its failure to reach the playoffs in either of Jordan’s two seasons as a player.

The resulting acrimony throughout the team resulted in owner Abe Pollin refusing to return Jordan to his post as president of basketball operations. The resulting fallout saw Jordan’s hand-picked coach, Doug Collins, and his staff dismissed in an ugly front-office purge.

During the summer, Pollin tabbed Grunfeld as the man to prevent the Wizards — a box-office success but a flop on the court — from sinking any lower. Doing so seems nearly inconceivable for a team that has gone 21 parched years since last winning a playoff series.

If anyone would seem equipped to improve the Wizards, it would be Grunfeld. When he was general manager in New York from 1991 to 1999, the Knicks notched five 50-plus win seasons, three Atlantic Division titles and made two trips to the NBA Finals. As GM of the Milwaukee Bucks from 1999 through last season, Grunfeld saw all four of his teams make the playoffs.

Those were teams that featured players such as Patrick Ewing and Latrell Sprewell in New York, and Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen in Milwaukee. Washington, with nine players 24 or younger, present a different challenge — a fact not lost on Grunfeld.

“We have some good pieces in place,” said Grunfeld, reclining behind his desk in the second-floor office that once belonged to Jordan. “But we are a young basketball team. What we’re trying to do is get a solid nucleus of talented players who can grow and learn together. At the same time, we want to be competitive and show improvement as the season progresses.

“We’ve got some veteran players who have gotten it done in the NBA,” Grunfeld said, citing Stackhouse, Christian Laettner, Larry Hughes and Chris Whitney. “Those guys are going to have to lead the way until our young guys grow and mature.”

Grunfeld talks about building the Wizards’ core of young players into a unit that will make multiple playoff runs and eventually compete for a championship, something the Wizards haven’t done since 1979.

One young player Grunfeld is not concerned about is his new point guard, 21-year-old Gilbert Arenas, who already has predicted that Washington will make the playoffs this season.

Many NBA insiders believed that the spurning of Jordan would have a horrible effect on the Wizards’ ability to pursue top-shelf free agents. After all, if they treated Jordan so shabbily, what would prevent them from doing the same to others? But those same insiders say Grunfeld pulled off a huge coup when he and coach Eddie Jordan got Arenas — last season’s most improved player — to sign with Washington instead of his hometown Los Angeles Clippers.

Not since they signed Bernard King in 1987 had the Wizards landed such a high-profile player. And the fact that they were able to lure him here 3,000 miles from his home indicates that the Wizards are not an unattractive team.

“It sends a message to other players,” Grunfeld said. “If you can get a player of Gilbert’s stature and his caliber, it shows that this could be a destination for free agents. He liked what we are trying to accomplish here and he liked where we are trying to go. Getting a player like Gilbert only enhances that.”

And though many are ready to write off power forward Kwame Brown as the worst top pick in NBA Draft history, Grunfeld laughs off the suggestion. He defends Brown, noting that his 7.4 points and 5.3 rebounds last season were better than the 4.5 points and 3.4 rebounds posted by Indiana All-Star Jermaine O’Neal in his second year.

“You have to let young players mature,” Grunfeld said. “At the same time you have to be demanding of them. That’s what we’re going to do.”

Grunfeld does not think it was a mistake that the Wizards hired Eddie Jordan first and him second. Grunfeld played against Jordan in college and has known him for more than 25 years.

“He is very respected around the league,” Grunfeld said. “When I heard that they had hired Eddie, I thought it was a great hire. And we’re on the same page with what we’re trying to accomplish. Both of us are very competitive, and we’ve both been in winning situations. Everything has been very smooth.”

And this includes the transition following the MJ era. Grunfeld says that no one in the organization is talking about the past. The page has been turned.

“I have great respect for Michael Jordan and what he has accomplished in his life,” Grunfeld said. “But that situation is behind us. All I’m doing is I’m looking to the present and the future and trying to put the best organization that I can together. There’s been a lot of change here. But we’re just looking forward in a very positive way. And frankly, I’m very excited about what the future can hold for us. This is a new beginning for everybody. What was, was.”

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