- The Washington Times - Friday, April 24, 2009

The Flip Saunders era officially got under way Thursday, when the Washington Wizards introduced the 54-year-old as their new coach and stated their intention to return to the ranks of championship contenders.

Abe Pollin, the team’s 85-year-old owner, started the press conference at Verizon Center by expressing his high expectations for his franchise’s 22nd coach. Team president Ernie Grunfeld reiterated the team’s championship aspirations, then Saunders confidently predicted a quick turnaround for the Wizards, who sank to 19-63 this season, plagued by injuries and slow maturation.

“Obviously, you’ve seen me in a wheelchair,” Pollin said. “But I want you to know, that in spite of the wheelchair - maybe because of the wheelchair - I’m more belly in the button and I have more guts to win a championship again. That’s what we are going to do, and that’s why we brought a winner here.”

Said Grunfeld: “This is an exciting day for us. It’s the start of a new beginning. We identified Flip as a top priority. We were looking for someone with credibility, with an NBA background, with experience, a winner - not only in the regular season but also in the playoffs. Flip has been in the conference finals in four of the last five years he’s been in the NBA, and that’s where we want to get to - and higher than that.”

Before outlining his plans for this reclamation project, Saunders said: “I look forward to the opportunity. Mr. Pollin didn’t put any pressure on me when we met; he said, ‘Just don’t let us down.’ ”

In hiring Saunders - a 13-year coaching veteran with a 587-396 career mark, 11 playoff berths and four conference finals appearances to his resume - the Wizards landed the hottest commodity among veteran coaches on the market.

The move at last gave the franchise something to revel in following a campaign in which the Wizards tied the club mark for the worst record since the league expanded its schedule to 82 games. And the hiring put the former Minnesota Timberwolves and Detroit Pistons coach - he had been out of basketball for the past year after the Pistons fired him following a third straight Eastern Conference finals loss - in what he views as the best possible position to resume his coaching career and pursue a championship.

“This is a unique situation right here, coming off of a rough year with injuries being what they were,” Saunders said. “But when I looked at the situation, there are things here. More than anything is the commitment of Mr. Pollin to want to win a championship, the commitment of Ernie to do whatever it takes and also the quality of the team itself.

“My goal every time I come in is to win a championship, and I don’t think that’s going to change,” Saunders said. “To do it from 19 [wins], people say that’s pretty tough to do, but look at Boston a year ago. They had a terrible year and came back, and it’s a similar situation. We have some very good players coming back into the fold who haven’t played.”

Those players are franchise point guard Gilbert Arenas, who missed all but two games while recovering from knee surgery, and starting center Brendan Haywood, who was sidelined for 75 games after wrist surgery. The Wizards, who lost 367 man-games to injury or illness, also expect to get shooting guard DeShawn Stevenson back from back surgery.

Saunders got an up-close look at the Wizards last fall when he was a guest at training camp. When Grunfeld and his staff began pursuing him after Eddie Jordan was fired, Saunders showed interest.

“It was definitely something I told my guys - let’s look into and pursue, and see where it goes,” said Saunders, who also inherits a pair of All-Star forwards in Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler. “The more we talked, the more excited I got about opportunities, and it worked out.”

The Wizards last week extended an offer to Saunders, and an agreement finally was reached Tuesday for a deal worth roughly $18 million over four years. Now back among the ranks of the employed, Saunders said he looks forward to taking steps toward a return to the conference finals - and beyond.

“It makes you thirsty to want to get [to the NBA Finals] like everybody,” he said. “There are a lot of great players who never got to there, and that’s the only thing they talk about. I think it can be the same way as a coach - especially with me. When you get there four of the last five years - and each year we had major injuries that hurt us - you become thirstier.

“But you understand that getting to the conference finals is a process. It’s a process that starts today with our players in the offseason, understanding the commitment I have as a coach. And I’m expecting the commitment from the players to know what they have to do to get better.”

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