Eddie Jordan began his Monday morning by handing out holiday turkeys to the poor. Before 9 a.m., he was among the unemployed.
The head coach of the Washington Wizards and his wife, Charrisse, stood outside the Verizon Center at 7:30 a.m. to take part in one of the team’s community-outreach programs, a typical holiday effort to provide food for the less fortunate.
About 45 minutes later, Jordan was fired by team President Ernie Grunfeld, who cited a need for change in the wake of the Wizards’ 1-10 start to the season - a mark that matched the club record set in 1966, when the team was located in Baltimore and known as the Bullets.
Ed Tapscott, the team’s director of player development, will replace Jordan for the remainder of the season.
“Our record is 1-10. That’s an unacceptable record, obviously,” said Grunfeld, who also said he wasn’t aware that Jordan was doing community work for the team just before he fired him. “We felt a change needed to be made, that we needed to do some things a little bit differently. … We have two All-Stars and some talented young players and some savvy veterans, and we have to get them to play at a higher level, so I felt like we needed to make a change.”
The Wizards have been without two of their key players. Gilbert Arenas, the All-Star guard whom the Wizards in July signed to a six-year, $111 million contract, underwent a third surgery on a knee and has not played this season.
Brendan Haywood, the team’s starting center, injured a wrist in training camp and will miss most, if not all, of this season.
The short-handed Wizards lost to an even more short-handed New York Knicks team on Saturday night that was playing back-to-back games, and Grunfeld had seen enough.
He said that the team was headed in the wrong direction and that things “had grown stale.”
Tapscott was completely caught off-guard by the firing of Jordan.
Tapscott reported to the Verizon Center on Monday morning, planning to break down game tape and help Jordan run practice. Then came word that Grunfeld wanted to speak with him, and in their meeting, Tapscott was told Jordan had been fired and that he had been promoted.
“Because I’ve known Ernie for a long time, he allowed me to give my global view and what I thought,” Tapscott said. “Then he said, ‘Here’s what I want you to do, and I think it’d be foolish to pass up an opportunity of a lifetime.’ So, I said, ‘OK, if that’s what you want me to do, I’ll do it to the best of my abilities.’”
Tapscott, a D.C. native and a former coach at American University, served the past two years as the Wizards’ director of player development. He previously held executive positions with the Charlotte Bobcats and New York Knicks.
Jordan, also a D.C. native, who was in his sixth season with the club, guided the team to its fourth straight playoff appearance last season despite the absence of Arenas, who missed 69 games because of knee surgery.
The Wizards fell in the first round of the playoffs for a third straight year, losing in five games to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Still, the string of playoff appearances marked a vast improvement for a franchise that had reached the playoffs only once in the 15 seasons before Jordan arrived.
Grunfeld responded this summer by picking up Jordan’s contract option for a sixth season, extending him through the 2009-10 season.
Despite being fired, Jordan is still owed a little more than $8 million over the rest of this season and next.
The contract extension came four days before the team reported to training camp in September and was unprompted by the coach - Jordan had not discussed his future with Grunfeld or team owner Abe Pollin.
“Eddie has done an outstanding job and has been instrumental in making us a perennial playoff team, so we are pleased to reward that success by picking up the option on his contract,” Grunfeld said at the time. “We are very excited about the upcoming season and feel that this team is ready to progress to another level under Eddie’s leadership.”
But this season got off to a difficult start, thanks in part to the knee surgery that will keep Arenas out until January and the wrist surgery that sidelined Haywood.
The All-Star tandem of Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler at forward played well, averaging 20.3 points and 9.1 rebounds and 20.2 points and 6.8 rebounds, respectively. Only second-year guard Nick Young also averaged double-digits in scoring.
Otherwise, Jordan had only a collection of hobbled and underachieving veterans and slowly developing young players at his disposal. He drew strong efforts from his players, but he just couldn’t find a way to win.
“Not in our wildest dreams did we ever think we would be 1-10,” Jordan said after Saturday’s loss. “But we don’t have losing habits. You respect the game, you play hard, you help your teammate, you protect your teammate, you play with confidence, you understand what the coaches are telling you, try to follow directions. We have all that. We just haven’t won.”
Grunfeld cited the team’s poor execution on defense and inability to close games as a big reasons for the change. He didn’t blame Jordan completely for the woeful start, but he said he is confident he made the right decision.
In Tapscott, Grunfeld has someone he trusts greatly because of his experience and extensive basketball background.
Grunfeld in 1991 hired Tapscott as one of his front-office assistants when he was general manager of the Knicks. Tapscott went on to hold interim president and general manager duties in New York and served as the president and chief executive operating officer of the Charlotte Bobcats from 2003 to 2006.
“He’s a very respected basketball man, has been in basketball close to 35 years, in the professional ranks close to 16, 20 years,” Grunfeld said. “He’s an outstanding communicator, very good motivator, understands X’s and O’s, and I feel he’s going to do a very good job for us.”
The players also were shocked by the news.
“I don’t think any of the players saw it coming, even though we weren’t playing well,” Haywood said. “Right now, we’ve been decimated by injuries, and that has a lot to do with the situation Coach Jordan was put in. It’s surprising that Eddie’s no longer here, but we understand this is a business of this game, and a lot of times these things happen. As a team, we have to see what’s going on and move past it.”
Said Jamison: “The players are 1-10. The coaching staff did a great job of getting us prepared. We just didn’t get the job done.”
Tapscott now must cram for his first game as head coach. The Wizards play host to the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night, play again Thursday night at home against the Orlando Magic and on Saturday against the Atlanta Hawks.
For Tapscott and the players, at least, that marks the chance for a new start.
“As players, we take the responsibility as far as needing to go out there and get the job done, and we didn’t get the job done,” Jamison said. “Unfortunately, they got rid of coach. It wasn’t my choice, but you guys know me. Whoever is in that locker room, they’ll have 110 percent of me, and I’ll do everything I can to do my job.”