- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

Gilbert Arenas made one thing clear about the approximately hour-long, players-only, soul-searching session the Washington Wizards conducted yesterday.

“Players only means players only,” Arenas said.

Rookie Jarvis Hayes was equally secretive, vigorously shaking his head when asked to divulge what had been discussed.

But veteran Mitchell Butler, who was responsible for gathering the struggling Wizards (8-21) following practice, was more than willing to share.

“It was really about us,” Butler said of the Wizards, who are tied with the Orlando Magic for the fewest wins in the league. “Lets just lock arms and lets develop a link. We have to understand that we are only as strong as the weakest guy in the chain.”

Translation: The Wizards have to stop being their own worst enemies.

The short-handed Wizards have collapsed at the end of their last three games, extending their losing streak to five games, their longest this season.

The Miami Heat held the Wizards without a field goal in the final 7:37 of a 92-84 loss at MCI Center on Dec.26, then the Chicago Bulls demoralized them with a late 23-3 run the next night. Finally, Washington was held without a field goal for more than nine minutes in a loss to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday.

Disasters like those against teams with a combined record of 31-65 caused coach Eddie Jordan to say for the first time the Wizards played with less than full effort. And there have been signs of disunity in the locker room recently.

The 33-year-old Butler is the second-oldest player on the roster behind Christian Laettner (34). However, no Wizards player has appeared in fewer games (six) or averages fewer minutes (9.2).

Still, Butler has seen the Wizards a tight-knit group of optimists early in the season develop some bad habits to which players have become unwilling to own up. Although he did not name names, Butler said some Wizards have ignored the responsibility of telling teammates when they have stepped out of line.

“We have to understand that as a group we are accountable to each other. We should be able to come up to a guy and confront him and say, ‘Hey, youre not pulling your weight or ‘you can give us more, youve got to give us more,” Butler said. “That is what the winning teams do.

“I think weve done it, but guys have tried to defend themselves and become defensive,” Butler continued. “Sometimes you have to look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are really giving all that you can give. It doesnt matter if you are playing two or three minutes a game like I am or 30 or 40 minutes like Gilbert and Larry.”

Butler, Jerry Stackhouse and Arenas did most of the talking, but every player spoke up, according to Butler. And while the meeting was the first of the season without the coaching staff, Butler and other players said there was no schism developing between players and coaches.

“Not at all,” Butler said. “We hear from them every single day. We needed to know what was going on in each individuals mind. We did. We hashed it out.”

Overall, the reaction to the meeting was positive.

“I think its going to pull us together,” Kwame Brown said. “We are just trying to get that trust back.”

Said Arenas: “We had to clear our throats; there was no bashing. We need to find out what we need to be better players. This was a step in the right direction.”

Stackhouse, who hopes to return from off-season knee surgery that has forced him to miss all 29 games, was more realistic.

“Its not about a meeting,” he said. “Its about everybody going out and performing to the best of their ability. And right now, for whatever reason, thats not happening.”

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