- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The city is starting to care about professional basketball again, starting to get swept up in the day-to-day doings of the Wizards, starting to think there is something special happening on Fun Street.

There is not the usual trade talk of late January. There is not the usual talk of the NBA Draft in June. There is only the talk of a young team that is emerging as a leading contender in the Eastern Conference. There is only the talk of the playoffs and the 50-win pace of the Wizards.

It is a new and refreshing kind of talk for a city accustomed to wallowing in its basketball self-pity by now, as WTEM’s Scott Jackson knows only too well as the conduit to the masses. It almost is, as the team’s radio voice Dave Johnson points out, “like being allowed to come out of the rain after a long time.”

The oft-mocked line — it was a dark and stormy night — was seemingly penned with Tony Cheng’s neighborhood in mind, if not in honor of Rod Strickland, whose nights sometimes concluded with the reciting of the alphabet backward as part of his roadside sobriety test.

There is none of that with these Wizards, at least none so far, and none of the ugly faces and lamebrain histrionics of Chris Webber, ever eager to celebrate a dunk that might put his team up 10-8.

These Wizards play the right way, in the understated manner of Eddie Jordan, who has an NBA championship from the 1982 Lakers and an ample playoff portfolio to know that one game out of 82 is but one snapshot in the photo album and no cause for contrived joy.

The city is ready to fall in love with all of it, with these Wizards, with this team’s passion and conviction and with its ability to overcome daunting deficits and make big shot after big shot in the waning minutes. The city is ready to bust loose because it has waited too long for this season. Its basketball love has been an unrequited one.

And ours is a strong basketball city, as strong as almost any, with roots going back to Red Auerbach and the Washington Capitols of the late 1940s, to the schoolboy exploits of Elgin Baylor at Phelps and Spingarn in the 1950s and later Dave Bing at Spingarn, to even coach Jordan, the even-tempered Carroll product who is making good in his hometown with Tom Young, his old college coach from Rutgers, at his side.

The Fun Street Bunch is the story of the NBA season at the midway point, even better than Grant Hill’s return or the rise of the Suns and Sonics, because Washington came to be the halfway house of the game’s hard cases for too long.

The city’s indifference was merely a self-defense mechanism implemented to assuage the disappointment.

Yet basketball forever pulls on the city at the grass roots level, in a way that football and baseball cannot amid the asphalt and alleyways of the urban core. It is the game that fills the outdoor parks and gymnasiums of the city. It is the game that merely demands a ball, a rim, bent or otherwise, and a person willing to take the first shot.

This team is perhaps perfectly equipped to repair the damage of the last generation because it has been assembled by Ernie Grunfeld to last.

Gilbert Arenas, a ruthless competitor who has become an All-Star this season, turned a mere 23 years old earlier this month. He is sometimes honest to a fault and liable to say anything in a good-natured way. In good times or bad, whether he is hitting shots or not, he plays with a determination that puts him in a higher class of basketball company than those with similar ability but less commitment.

Arenas is notorious for showing up to Abe Pollin’s playhouse in the wee hours to work on this or that aspect of his game. His is the single-minded devotion of an athlete bent on forever showing the NBA the folly of passing over him until the 31st pick of the 2001 NBA Draft. It was, to refresh your memory, the draft of Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, high school lads all.

Arenas is growing up on the court, too. He is not chasing the opposition’s 7-footer into the locker room after a game. He is not hurling a basketball into the stands in frustration. He is not becoming flustered if a referee’s call does not go his way. All he is doing is leading this team, balancing his need to score against the needs of his teammates.

The resurgence of the franchise all gets back to Arenas because he is the most talented player on the team, the purest player of them all, with impeccable skills and the requisite quickness, speed and jumping ability, who has a dash of Isiah Thomas in him, minus the phony smile.

Arenas has stepped to the fore in the absence of the injured Larry Hughes and amid the barely perceptible shooting struggles of Antawn Jamison. He also is earning the respect of the referees, no small development, as his climbing free throw numbers indicate.

It is a respect that sometimes leads to Arenas going to the free throw line around the shaking of opponents’ heads, a clear indication of his rising stock around the league. It is a respect that resulted in the Wizards shooting nine more free throws than the Pacers in Indianapolis and a startling 26 more than the Cavaliers in Cleveland.

It is a respect that is slow in coming in the national media, as the Wizards remain mostly off the national radar. Seeing, in their case, apparently is not the same as believing, despite the team’s No. 2 perch in the conference.

Remarkably, the Wizards have made their push without the full complement of able parts, notably Etan Thomas for a long portion of the season and now Steve Blake, Brown and Hughes. One constant has been the team’s capacity to slog through the muck of an 82-game season.

The team’s worrisome two-game no-show in Texas following the injury to Hughes has been corrected with a three-game winning streak, with the last two games confirming anew the qualitative stance of the team in the conference.

Not surprisingly, the city is taking notes, reveling in the long-forgotten appeal of a worthy NBA team.

Jamison makes the game-winning shot in Indianapolis, and a collective roar is heard in a watering hole along Wisconsin Avenue, the crowd fixed on the Wizards and not the other games on other television screens.

The Wizards, dregs no more, are viable at last.

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