- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2008

Eddie Jordan is impervious to the inevitable ups and downs of the NBA’s 82-game season.

His is a strength that allows players to better absorb the blows to their psyches.

There are destined to be awful nights, when the players have lost their legs at 35,000 feet after playing on the road the previous night and landing in a city at 3 a.m.

There are destined to be mini-dramas in the locker room. There are destined to be injuries that threaten to rip out the guts of a team. There are destined to be bad calls and noncalls by referees that inflame passions.

Jordan, the third-longest tenured coach in the NBA, accepts the cruel twists of a season. He does not rue that which cannot be undone. He transfers that focus to his players. With Jordan, it is about the next possession, the next defensive stance, the next quarter, the next game. What’s done is truly done.

The better teams in the NBA usually adopt pieces of a coach’s personality. And so it is with the Wizards.

  • Outlet: Series starts Saturday in Cleveland

  • They have remained steadfast in the absence of Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler and inured to the slumps and tough losses that might have dispatched another team to the lottery.

    And it was not merely the injuries to Arenas and Butler. Etan Thomas has not played a game this season after undergoing heart surgery. Oleksiy Pecherov started the season in street clothes, which, along with a language barrier to overcome, undermined his maturation as a rookie.

    Antonio Daniels also missed 11 games after wiping the floor with his body one too many times. That left the Wizards with no natural point guard and shaky ball-handling pairings in the backcourt.

    And still the Wizards persevered and won games that only they believed they could win.

    A game in New Orleans with no Arenas and Butler? It was doable. DeShawn Stevenson scored 33 points, including a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

    Washington defeated the Hornets at home six nights later. The Wizards also swept the Mavericks, took three out of four games from the Celtics and split four games with the Cavaliers, their first-round opponent in the playoffs.

    The Wizards achieved the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference with a threadbare roster that often was only seven to nine players strong, which resulted in creative practices of three-on-three drills or five-on-five sets that involved assistant coaches Mike O’Koren, Phil Hubbard and Wes Unseld Jr.

    Theirs was a season built on resilience, faith and competitive grit. It is a feel-good story that has gone largely unnoticed beyond the D.C. region.

    Butler and Antawn Jamison, two-time All-Stars both, refused to let their teammates acquiesce to the emotional setbacks and the tedium of a season. They refused to wallow in self-pity and doubt.

    They embraced Jordan’s exhortations and stayed within the system, which set a standard with their teammates.

    “I’ve said it over and over again,” Jordan said this week. “Our leadership has been impeccable. Antawn, Caron and Antonio, they’ve been really solid. DeShawn and Darius [Songaila], in their way, have been solid as well. We just have a professional locker room, and that has been the difference. After Gil had his surgery, I think some of it was, ‘This is it, guys.’ Our players understood that it was on them to get us through it and that no one would be coming to the rescue.”

    That is typical Jordan, always quick to deflect praise and note the contributions of others. At various points in the interview, he cited the work of his assistants: O’Koren, Hubbard, Unseld Jr. and Randy Ayers. And he lauded both Ed Tapscott and shooting guru Dave Hopla, Brendan Haywood’s savior at the free throw line.

    “My staff has been the key,” Jordan said. “You have to believe in your staff.”

    Predictably enough, the 53-year-old Jordan has not merited an outpouring of NBA coach of the year consideration. His peers around the NBA have acknowledged his grace and equanimity in the presence of apprehension, but the coach of the year fervor is reserved for Doc Rivers, Phil Jackson and Byron Scott. Jordan falls into the “others” category of Stan Van Gundy, Rick Adelman, Jerry Sloan and Maurice Cheeks, not bad company at all.

    “A lot of coaches deal with the same things that we’ve had to deal with this season,” Jordan said. “Other teams have survived without their best player. Look what Mo Cheeks has gone through in Philadelphia. I am humble and realistic about the circumstances all coaches go through at one time or another.”

    O’Koren, who has known Jordan since their brief time as teammates with the Nets in 1980, left his native New Jersey because of his loyalty to Jordan.

    “He wouldn’t let us die,” O’Koren said. “It’s that simple.”

    O’Koren knows the Jordan persona during timeouts.

    “He’ll have that look in his eyes, and you will see the wheels turning while [the coaches are] putting in our observations,” O’Koren said. “That’s where he is so good. He has a feel for a game before we might. He does his due diligence. That mind of his never stops. He just has a good way about him. His blood pressure does not go up.”

    Team president Ernie Grunfeld points out that of the 15 teams in the conference, only the Wizards and Pistons have made the playoffs the last four seasons.

    “I don’t think we ever panicked, not at all,” Grunfeld said. “We have good character and good leadership. And our coaches did a terrific job. They kept the guys playing hard. They put the right combinations out there. When we have all our pieces, everyone in this organization believes we are a formidable team.”

    The Wizards overcame in part because of the career seasons of Haywood, Roger Mason and Andray Blatche and the energy of rookies Nick Young and Dominic McGuire.

    Daniels and Songaila were steady. Jamison was the team’s rock, and Butler, before he sustained a small labral tear of the left hip joint in an overtime loss in Milwaukee, emerged as a franchise-type player.

    Jordan presided over the ever-changing parts, the different starting lineups, the five-game losing streak at the start of the season and the eight-game losing streak in February that left the Wizards with a 24-27 record.

    It could have ended anywhere, except Jordan, with potential calamity all about him, would remind anyone who cared to listen that it is a long season and that if his players would continue to abide by the tenets of his system, their efforts would be rewarded.

    And so they were. The Wizards are tougher mentally, their fortitude unquestioned, with Stevenson eager to get into LeBron James’ face.

    Jordan’s unerring sense of right stems from his upbringing.

    He grew up east of the Anacostia River, in a part of the city where dreams sometimes die young, but he always knew he moved in the right direction. It was not about basketball being a way out. It was about the wisdom of his parents: the father who worked at the Pentagon and the mother who worked at preserving the sanctity of the home.

    “And I had an older brother to learn from whenever he got into trouble with my parents,” Jordan said. “I knew I didn’t want that to be me.”

    And Jordan understood at a young age that there was a world out there larger than Anacostia.

    “Heck, I grew up more on country music than anything else,” Jordan said.

    Country music was the genre of choice on the family’s visits to their property in the Warrenton, Va., area.

    Jordan attended what was then named Gordon Junior High in upper Georgetown before coming to the attention of Archbishop Carroll coach George Leftwich, who was “very instrumental in my life.”

    So, too, was Tom Young at Rutgers. And others as well. Jordan soaked it all in and crafted a coaching philosophy that best fit his personality.

    He has never called out a player in public. He has one word for any off-beat development involving Arenas: “Gilbertology.”

    Even when Jordan and Haywood were not on friendly terms the last several seasons, he kept his feelings in-house. Who knew from such a dysfunctional state that Haywood would develop into one of the better shot-blockers in the NBA?

    Jordan is fair-minded with players, and that fair-mindedness pays dividends. And he treats others, in and out of basketball, as he would like to be treated.

    “He’s a better person than coach, and he is a heck of a coach,” O’Koren said.

    Jordan is living out the fairy tale of the local kid who made good, who grew up to become the coach of the team he once supported as a fan.

    It is a fairytale awaiting a sappy ending.

    Even as Jordan and Grunfeld have changed the franchise’s culture of losing, they now expect more than mere playoff appearances. They know they have a team that can contend in the conference if only its most essential pieces can stay healthy. It was a team that had the best record in the conference at the All-Star break last season before injuries felled Jamison, Butler and Arenas.

    The team’s playoff nemesis is up next. It is the third consecutive playoff meeting between the Wizards and Cavaliers, the first two won by James and his teammates.

    Yet there is a quiet sense of confidence on Abe Pollin’s Fun Street that this time it could be different. The Cavaliers have yet to find a rhythm after their splashy midseason trade, and the Wizards are getting healthy just in time.

    Not that anyone in the organization is forgetting James is a load and capable of delivering playoff victories all by himself.

    “We can’t get enamored with thinking that no team beats another in the playoffs three times,” Jordan said. “And we can’t go into it thinking, ‘We’ve got to beat them.’ Let’s enjoy the experience. Let’s keep things in perspective. We have to wipe the [mental] slate clean, really.”

    That message will be passed along dutifully to the Wizards in cool, calming fashion.

    And so it was in a season fraught with challenges and dire prospects.

    It was Jordan’s season, his best piece of work yet.


    Since taking over the Wizards in 2003, Eddie Jordan has faced a number of challenges. A look at those challenges and how he overcame them:

    1. DEFENSE

    After allowing the third-most points a game in the NBA last season (104.9), the Wizards hired assistant Randy Ayers to improve the team’s defense. It ranks 11th this season, allowing 99.1 points a game, the fewest since Jordan’s first season.


    Not only did the Wizards lose Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison for stretches last season, but Arenas missed most of the 2007-08 campaign recovering from knee surgery and Butler played fewer than 60 games.


    Arenas lacks neither talent nor the flare for the dramatic. His quirks pose a unique set of challenges for Jordan. Arenas has clashed with Jordan over defense and still plans to opt out of his contract at the end of the season.

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