- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 20, 2005

DENVER — Ernie Grunfeld, the Washington Wizards’ president of basketball operations, has said repeatedly Antawn Jamison’s willingness to sacrifice his overall game for the good of the team last season in Dallas that truly impressed him.

Turns out Grunfeld wasn’t the only one who noticed.

Phoenix point guard Steve Nash, the league leader in assists this season, spent the last six seasons in Dallas before signing with the Suns over the summer. When Jamison, a first-time All-Star, was traded from Golden State to Dallas, he found himself on a roster deeper at power forward than any other team in the league.

“We already had Dirk [Nowitzki], and we added Antoine Walker,” said Nash, a three-time All-Star. “All of them are great players. But somebody was going to have to make a huge sacrifice.”

That somebody was Jamison, 28, the Wizards’ seven-year veteran who tonight will make his first All-Star Game appearance as an Eastern Conference reserve.

“He never, ever complained about the situation, but I know it had to be tough on him,” Nash continued. “He’s a starter anywhere [else]. Look at how he’s playing now. A lot of people in Dallas were impressed with the way he handled the situation.”

The rest of the story is well known: Jamison came off the bench for the Mavericks and went on to earn the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award last season.

Jamison has admitted the transition wasn’t easy. But he went into the situation knowing the Mavericks would make the playoffs, ultimately giving him his first taste of the NBA postseason.

And from that situation that required selflessness, Jamison is now providing the Wizards with the essential leadership that has made them one of the NBA’s biggest surprises.

“You have a lot of egos in this league, a lot of guys with chips on their shoulders,” Jamison said. “If you want to win games and make it to the playoffs there are going to have to be guys who sacrifice for the sake of the team. I just wanted to win games and make it to the playoffs.”

Despite a three-game losing streak heading into the All-Star Game, the Wizards’ have the fourth best record in the Eastern Conference (30-22). Credit for this could go to many sources. After all, Jamison and teammate Gilbert Arenas, another first-time All-Star, give the Wizards their first duo in the game since Jeff Malone and Moses Malone in 1987.

And it could be argued guard Larry Hughes was playing better than any other member of the Wizards before he suffered a broken thumb last month against Phoenix.

Whatever the reason, this much is certain: Last year at the All-Star break, the Wizards were 16-30 and Jamison, acquired in a trade for Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner, is the only new face in the starting lineup.

“I thought they were headed in the right direction before the season,” said San Antonio Spurs and Western Conference coach Gregg Popovich. “They have talented players. But I think people wondered who would emerge as the leader. I think it’s clear that person is Antawn. He commands respect, he works hard. No question he’s the glue there.”

A Wizards captain, Jamison has had better statistical seasons than this one (20.8 points, 8.1 rebounds). In his third year in the league with Golden State, Jamison averaged 24.9 points and 8.7 rebounds. And in his final season with Golden State, Jamison averaged 22.2 points and 7.1 rebounds.

But those teams went 17-65 and 38-44, respectively. Jamison, averaging 20.8 points and 8.1 rebounds this season, said those seasons hammered home the importance of putting the team’s success ahead of individual numbers.

“You get older and you realize that stats play a small part in all of this, but it’s not all about stats,” Jamison said. “It’s about making your teammates better; making a difference as a leader on and off the court. It’s been a long time coming, but I think those are the ingredients that have gotten me to this point.”

As much as he is thrilled to appear in his first All-Star Game, Jamison said before the team was announced that he would much rather appear in playoff games in the spring than this one game in Denver. In spite of all the attention Jamison is receiving this weekend, he still feels the same.

“I’m going to soak it all in, enjoy myself and spend time with my family,” said Jamison, smiling. “It’s been seven years in the making, and this is an opportunity that I’m going to take full advantage of for the weekend. But after the weekend is over, it’s time to go back to work.”

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