As Anthony Peeler tries to break down Juan Dixon just beyond midcourt, the cat-quick Gerald Fitch comes over from his defensive assignment unnoticed, swipes the ball from the 12-year veteran and cruises in for an uncontested layup.
Minutes later in the Washington Wizards’ open scrimmage at MCI Center yesterday, Fitch knocks the ball from the hands of Laron Profit, a fellow free agent trying to make the club. It looks and sounds like a clean steal — with only about 2,000 in attendance, it would be easy to hear whether a hand is slapped — but Fitch is whistled for a foul. That brings booing from the afternoon crowd.
Wizards coach Eddie Jordan, sitting courtside, shakes his head in disbelief, the way he does when he disagrees with a call in the regular season. Wizards assistant Mike O’Koren voices his displeasure to the official who made the call.
Sure, these are little things in a scrimmage, but the little things are what the Wizards coaches and front office want to see from the 22-year-old rookie free agent guard, who is making a push for a spot on the 15-man roster.
“I like a lot of things that I see from him,” says Jordan, who talks glowingly about the former Kentucky player, a first-team All-SEC selection last season. “I like his ball pressure and energy on the floor. He’s always putting pressure on the ball. He comes to practice, and he stays late. We all can see that he has potential to be a point guard.”
The 6-foot-3, 188-pound Fitch improved in each of his four seasons at Kentucky. Coach Tubby Smith trusted him enough to play either guard position, something that caught the eye of the Wizards. The Wizards brought him in for a pre-draft workout, and when he didn’t get drafted, they invited him to training camp.
“Sacramento and Houston both called me and expressed an interest in me,” says Fitch, who averaged 16.2 points as a senior. “But the Wizards seemed like they were the most interested in me. I thought that there was a good opportunity there.”
Steve Blake, who shined for the Wizards in the summer, was pegged as the backup point guard, mostly because he was the only true point guard returning. However, Blake had surgery to remove a chipped bone in his right ankle and is expected to be out until at least early December.
The Wizards could use Dixon, who is playing well in the preseason, at the point, but he is more of a combo guard.
“There is a real opportunity here for me,” Fitch says. “That’s all I can ask for.”
And Fitch has made a big impression with Jordan. The coach talks about the rookie — unprompted — after most practices. For instance, yesterday the coach says Fitch “has a very real chance” of being on the roster when the team begins the regular season next month.
Jordan is surprised by Fitch’s toughness, but Smith says that comes from dealing with greater hardships than playing basketball. In 1998, Fitch’s older brother George was shot and killed in Miami, a murder that remains unsolved. A year later, the grandmother who raised him died suddenly.
“I know that has always motivated him to be the type of competitor that he is,” Smith says when reached by phone. “That is always with him. He’ll do whatever is asked of him, and he’ll never stop fighting. ”
Says Fitch: “That’s my motivation to this day. My family, we’re real tight. His death is with me every day, all the time. I’ve just tried to make something positive out of it. The way I see it, I’ve been through the worst.”
And maybe the best is yet to come.