- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

We all knew Larry Hughes was having an All-Star season before he fractured his right thumb Saturday night.

But who knew he was the second coming of Larry Bird? Who knew he was the glue, gel, plaster, tape, heart, soul, liver, lungs and kidneys of the Wizards?

The Wizards have looked awful in his absence, just awful, and perhaps that is being overly kind following their two-game no-show in the Big Hair State.

Two mid-game scores reflect the sudden anemia of the Fun Street Bunch: down 21-2 in San Antonio and 77-40 in Dallas. The road trip was, in a way, almost over before the team jet landed in Texas. It was over about the time the news of Hughes being on the shelf four to six weeks began to put his teammates in a catatonic state.

Gilbert Arenas scored a career-high 43 points against the Mavericks, and it was the softest, emptiest, most meaningless 43 points you are liable ever to see in a basketball game. The Wizards never came within smelling distance of the Mavericks.

The comments emanating from the locker room reveal a sense of fragility that is being transferred to the floor. The Wizards are starting to have the aura of Marlon Brando’s Terry Malloy. They could have been a contender. They could have been somebody, instead of bums in Texas, which is what they were, let’s face it.

We know this season was previously destined to purge a generation’s worth of bad actors, bad characters and bad breaks. Now we do not know what this season is slated to be, except to note the obvious: don’t print those playoff tickets just yet.

With the going getting tough — at least for now — the Wizards are curling up in the fetal position. They are burying their faces in their hands and, in borrowing the immortal whine of Nancy Kerrigan, saying, “Why us?”

What a turnabout in a week. Hughes goes down, and the team goes into the free-fall mode without a parachute.

A week ago, the city was examining the 50-win prospects of the Wizards. Now the city is saying: Uh-oh. Not again.

The city knows this part of the script all too well: Key player succumbs to injury; team goes down the tubes.

The city has endured this scenario with Jeff Ruland, Hot Plate Williams, Pervis Ellison, Chris Webber and Michael Jordan, to name a few past luminaries. The city is accustomed to lead in the water, political chicanery in the air and at least one player anchored to the ground in a full-body cast.

The Wizards recently defeated the Sonics, Timberwolves and Suns, among others. That seems like a different season. It certainly was a different team.

Panic time? Who said that?

It is way too early to panic. However, it will not be too early to panic if the Wizards lose at home tonight against the irrelevant Raptors. The Wizards travel to Indianapolis tomorrow night and play in Cleveland on Monday night — two road games that suddenly appear to be out of their feeble reach.

Yes, yes, yes. To quote the coach’s manual on cliches intended to inspire, it is a long season, there is still a lot of basketball left, and anything can happen after two teams lace up their shoes.

Well, we know what is happening to the Wizards. They are wallowing in self-pity while embracing the rollover philosophy of Webster Hubbell. They are holding a candlelight vigil in honor of their fallen teammate. They are carrying around the basketball card of Hughes and, with heavy hearts and a single tear trickling down their cheeks, showing it to their family, agents and entourages.

All this lamenting undoubtedly is counterproductive. Good teams learn to absorb the hits of an 82-game season.

The Wizards, alas, are just not in the mood yet. They miss their Larry.

We get the message. Now get over it already. And lace up those sneakers like you mean it. And recall the words of Knute Rockne before the 1928 Army game: “Fight, fight, fight, fight, fight. What do you say, men?”

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