- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Wizards lost Larry Hughes to free agency, had no choice but to give up on Kwame Brown and now grapple with the news that their top draft pick this summer was shot in the chest in an attempted carjacking Sunday morning in Alexandria.

Andray Blatche, a 19-year-old native of Syracuse, N.Y., who received favorable reviews for his play with the team in the summer league, is lucky to be alive, much less in stable condition.

His complete recovery goes to the top of the wish list of the Wizards.

“First and foremost, our primary concern is with Andray’s well-being,” team president Ernie Grunfeld said yesterday.

The well-being of the franchise will take precedence soon enough as the team opens training camp in Richmond next week.

This has been the least encouraging offseason of the franchise since Grunfeld landed on Fun Street in the summer of 2003.

Grunfeld pulled off the signing of Gilbert Arenas five weeks after joining the Wizards. Last summer he orchestrated the Antawn Jamison-Jerry Stackhouse trade that turned out to be a heist on a number of levels.

Grunfeld not only acquired an All-Star who is a quality citizen in Jamison but also was able to purge the malcontent personality of Stackhouse and the dead weight and contract of Christian Laettner.

The maneuvering allowed the Wizards to forge a 45-37 record and make their first playoff appearance in eight seasons. Improbably enough, they advanced to the round of eight after eliminating the Bulls in six games — their first playoff series triumph since 1982.

That was in May. The news since then has been mostly unsettling, although not unexpected in the case of Brown.

Where could you go with a player who puts his failings on Michael Jordan, Doug Collins, Eddie Jordan, Grunfeld, the fans who took to booing him, Halliburton, big oil and FEMA? How could you salvage a player who quit on his team in the playoffs?

Though Brown’s send-off was inevitable, the loss of Hughes sent a jolt through the ranks of the team’s faithful, all too conditioned to expect the worst after a generation’s worth of ineptitude.

The worthy additions of Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins in the Brown trade failed to temper the notion that the magic of last season was gone, forever lost, and the giddiness that enveloped Tony Cheng’s neighborhood on the night of the termination of the Bulls was an aberration.

And now the team is rocked with this — this senseless shooting.

Although Blatche was not in the team’s immediate plans — he is only a few months removed from prep school in Connecticut — this startling development tempers what is supposed to be an expectant time of the team.

The vibes are all wrong.

What’s next — Arenas gets bitten by a rabid dog?

Or Etan Thomas re-strains his abdominal muscle while reading a poem with power and fury?

Grunfeld has scrambled to maintain the 45-win capability of the Wizards since the departure of Hughes. Yet he has been unable to make a splashy move that restores the sense of a resurgence.

The Wizards go into training camp with the realization that the Eastern Conference is destined to be stronger, deeper and more competitive this season.

The Wizards could wind up in the unappealing situation of merely trying to maintain their position in the hope that an upgrade can be found next summer with the money that was not burned on Hughes.

And salary-cap space may be the long-term payoff of losing Hughes.

Yet that won’t help the team’s difficult stretches during the season go down any easier.

The Wizards were the unexpected joy of the city last winter.

That joy is more restrained now, mixed with a creeping sense of anxiousness.

Here it is a week before training camp, and the Wizards have the unimaginable health concern of a player recovering from a gunshot wound.


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