- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2004

LOS ANGELES — At this point, the Washington Wizards have to be wondering, what if?

That players change teams in the NBA, whether by trade or free agency, is a simple fact. But the Wizards probably can’t help but notice that three members of the starting lineup of the Eastern Conference champion Detroit Pistons began their careers in Washington.

Guard Richard Hamilton, the Wizards’ first-round pick in 1999, was dealt after his third season for Jerry Stackhouse. The Pistons have won 104 games since the deal, compared with the Wizards’ 62.

Forward Ben Wallace was hand-delivered to the then-Bullets as a free agent, not by their scouting department but by former journeyman center Terry Davis. But to make the dollar figures work, Wallace was thrown into the deal with Orlando in 1999 that allowed the Wizards to acquire center Ike Austin, a player whose whereabouts are unknown. Wallace, meantime has been named to the All-Star team twice and was crowned defensive player of the year in 2002-03.

Center Rasheed Wallace, selected with the fourth pick overall in 1995 and traded a year later for a significantly older Rod Strickland, rounds out the triumvirate of former Washington players who will start for the Pistons tonight as they try to take a 2-0 lead over the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

Even though they have put their experiences in Washington behind them, their play since leaving the city — and the fact that all three had not reached their primes before the Wizards dealt them away — shined an unwanted spotlight on a franchise that hasn’t won a playoff game since 1987 and hasn’t won a playoff series in 22 years.

Hamilton, the Pistons’ leading scorer in the playoffs at 21.0 a game, reportedly was placed on the trading block when rumors began to circulate he was going to ask the Wizards for a maximum contract approaching $90million.

That doesn’t seem logical now, especially after he signed a seven-year deal last summer for approximately $62million.

“I wanted to stay there; I didn’t want to go nowhere,” Hamilton said yesterday. “I loved the city and everything.”

Hamilton said he was told he and Kwame Brown would be the centerpieces of the organization for years to come.

“It kills you for the simple fact that they tell you that you are the franchise player and that they want you to be there,” Hamilton said. “Then they turn around and don’t want to do the things that they said they were going to do. It kills you inside. The crazy thing is they trade guys right when they are on the verge of doing something special.”

One of the more affable players in the league — a potential NBA poster boy who said he can run the way he does because he followed his father’s advice to stay both drug- and alcohol-free — Hamilton said he has no regrets.

“It’s been a blessing in disguise,” Hamilton said. “To be in the situation I’m in now and seeing what I went through my first couple of years in the league, I wouldn’t replace it for anything.”

The Wizards weren’t the only team to blow it with Ben Wallace. After all, the Magic promptly packaged him to Detroit a year later in exchange for Grant Hill, the one-time star who may never play again.

Still, he got his first chance in the league with the Bullets because Davis, who attended Wallace’s alma mater, Virginia Union, talked Washington into giving him a tryout. That Wallace never cracked the starting lineup and was never more than a bit player on bad Washington teams from 1996 to 1999 still mystifies players.

“The minute he stepped on the floor you could see that he had special skills and athleticism that few people have,” said ESPN analyst Tim Legler, who, incidentally, was part of the trade that sent Wallace to Orlando. “Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, they all saw it. We all talked about it.”

The Pistons are a close group, one that seems confident it can derail the Lakers and end the five-year stranglehold on the NBA title by the Western Conference. Many of the players attribute that to coach Larry Brown, who is regarded as among the best in the game along with Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson.

However, Ben Wallace called Rasheed Wallace the missing ingredient that has the Pistons just three games away from what would be their first championship since 1990.

Labeled incorrigible after seven seasons in Portland that included, among other gaffes, a marijuana arrest, Ben Wallace said Rasheed Wallace has emerged as a leader in Detroit. Wallace was dealt twice this season before the trading deadline, first to the Hawks, then to the Pistons.

“He’s been in a lot of tough situations,” Ben Wallace said. “He knows a lot about this league and a lot about this game. When he’s out there he just constantly talks to everybody, making sure everybody knows the plays and is in the right position. The leadership qualities that he brought to this team definitely help us a lot.”

Meanwhile, Los Angeles’ Bryon Russell and Detroit’s Darvin Ham are little-used reserves these days, rounding out the number of former Washington players in the series at five.

Russell opted out of the final year of his contract with the Wizards following the 2002-03 season. He left of his own volition, but as he prepared for tonight, he shook his head wondering how the Wallaces and Hamilton ever got away from Washington.

“I don’t know. Maybe they just made bad decisions,” Russell said. “Look at them now. Look at what they might have had if they had stayed. Who knows?”

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