- The Washington Times - Friday, January 14, 2005

Passion has pushed indifference out of Tony Cheng’s neighborhood.

The mood enhancer goes with the newly built condos and upscale retailers jutting out of the asphalt around Fun Street.

It is perfectly healthy to care again about the prospects of the Wizards. It is perfectly normal to attend a game because of the home team instead of the stars passing through the city.

Hard as it is to believe — and it is particularly hard for those who go back to the opening season of the Capital Bullets at Capital Centre in 1973-74 — the franchise is purging a generation’s worth of ineptitude this season.

The Wizards are not just on pace to post their first 50-win season in 26 years. They are not just destined to make their first playoff appearance in nearly eight years. They are not just a one-season anomaly. This is a team with a future, a team with considerable shelf life whose best seasons are ahead.

This also is a team starting to connect with the city, starting to build a bond, demanding to be embraced with a big hug. Abe Pollin could use a hug, too, for this team is his vision.

He did what perhaps no other owner would do. He stood up to Michael Jordan and told him to hit the road after the 2002-03 season. He stood up to the game’s icon — the one who made everyone bow in his presence — and accepted the public relations fallout from it.

Pollin was blistered on the airwaves at the time. He was called a doddering old fool, a relic from yesteryear who had effectively sentenced his franchise to pariah status for seasons to come.

It was said no one of competency would want to be in his employ, either in the front office or on the basketball floor.

But Ernie Grunfeld apparently did not receive that memo. Then Gilbert Arenas flipped a coin that landed in the District’s favor, and Grunfeld replaced the malcontent presence of Jerry Stackhouse with the quality citizenship of Antawn Jamison, and so now the franchise and owner banished to the NBA netherworld are in third place in the Eastern Conference after 33 games.

Eddie Jordan, the team’s coach, is the anti-Doug Collins. He does not bare his soul in public or pick apart his players to members of the press. He says what needs to be said and leaves it at that, whether the topic is the one-game suspension of Kwame Brown or an overly exuberant Arenas dancing away on the opposition’s floor.

Jordan is even-tempered in good times or bad, a just-the-facts type who understands the vagaries of an 82-game season. If you treat each shift in a game like Armageddon, the game and the players will gnaw on you and eventually spit you out.

As Jordan said of the team’s wayward free-throw shooting in the last game: “Eighty-two games and you are going to suffer somewhere along the line, whether it’s rebounding, free throws or not making shots.”

The Wizards missed a bunch of free throws and still held off the Trail Blazers. They endured the miserable shooting performance of Jamison and still turned back a team that was draining 3-pointers from the Chinatown arch.

Those two developments tell you all you need to know about this bunch. The Wizards do not have to maximize their talent in each game to upend the opposition. In fact, the Wizards have that youthful disposition to squander leads, which is buffered by their resilience.

Now there is Arenas exchanging congratulatory slaps with the fans after making a big play and then hurling his jersey into the stands after the game. There is Larry Hughes defending the passing lanes like Phil Chenier. There is Brendan Haywood with a dunk, Jared Jeffries with a rebound and Michael Ruffin with an elbow.

A lot of good stuff is emerging with this team.

All of it suggests the sun is finally shining on Pollin’s playpen.



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