- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2014


There was Earl the Pearl, and Gus Johnson, but those franchise legends never belonged to Washington. They remain the emotional property of Baltimore Bullets.

There was Wes and Elvin, the foundation of the glory years of this franchise shortly after the team moved to Landover in 1973 and became the Capital Bullets, soon to be the Washington Bullets — the teams that went to three NBA finals and came away with the only NBA title in franchise history in 1978.

Now there is simply “Nene.”

Notice there is no Agent Zero. This Wizards team, up 2-0 over the Chicago Bulls in their opening round matchup in the NBA playoffs, with Game 3 Friday night at the Verizon Center, has done one thing already — provided proof that the Gilbert Arenas era was nothing more than an illusion, more Harlem Globetrotters than NBA playoffs.

This may be an illusion as well, given the fragile nature of the budding franchise legend it is built on in Nene. But the game is real. The game is good.

Those Arenas teams from 2004 to 2008, with Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, only won more games than this Nene team once, in the 2004-2005 season, going 45-37, winning one more game than this current squad, which went 44-38.

Those Arenas teams only got beyond the first round once, again, in that 2004-05 season, beating, ironically, the Bulls in the first round 4-2. After that, three straight first-round exits, and then came the Arenas implosion.

Those were not good times, even though they seemed to be. Those teams were never, ever going to go beyond their results, because general manager Ernie Grunfeld had manufactured a fantasy to appease the starving masses, who had only witnessed their basketball team in the playoffs once in nearly 20 years.

Those teams treated defense as a novelty. Jamison was a terrible defensive liability, and, as we saw from the gun incident in the locker room and what unfolded after that, Arenas was mentally unbalanced and a destructive virus that ran throughout the organization — injected from the top by Grunfeld.

There may be no truer cliché in sports than defense winning championships. Playoff teams that can’t play defense fall by the wayside quickly.

This Wizards squad is led by a player with a brain, heart and conscience. Unfortunately, it’s all contained in a fragile body, and may mean very little toward the future success — or lack of it — of this franchise.

This is an enjoy-the-moment situation. They have been rare.

Maybyner Rodney Hilario — who legally changed his name to Nene in 2003 — is the heart and soul of this Wizards team. The flash may be the young backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal, but this team isn’t up 2-0 on the Bulls without Nene, who set the tone in the opening game with 24 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and one block.

He followed that up with 17 points, seven rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block in the Wizards’ Game 2 win over the Bulls, but put Chicago away by hitting several short-range fall-away shots to start the overtime and put the Bulls in a hole early.

He is the smartest player on the court, and it’s clear that this team — one committed to playoff defense, unlike the Arenas teams — takes its cues from Nene.

The problem, as well are all familiar with, is Nene is 31 years old with a body that has been breaking down on him ever since his right knee was destroyed in 2005. He hasn’t played a full NBA season in four years, missing 29 games this year with a sprained ligament in his right knee.

Denver traded him in 2012 even though he was clearly their best player, and they had just signed him to a five-year, $65 million deal, because they had little faith in his ability to survive times such as these over the course of that contract extension.

Right now, though, he is healthy and the best player in this series. He has a high basketball IQ, and a veteran presence that a coach like Randy Wittman can use to keep his team playoff-focused and not fixated on individual glory. Eddie Jordan never had a player like Nene.

It’s only two games of an opening round, but you can argue that Nene has done more for this franchise than the self-destructive illusion of Arenas. He has done more than Michael Jordan and his misguided two seasons. He has accomplished more than the Chris Webber-Juwan Howard illusion of 1997-1998.

This, though, is as real as Nene’s body will let it be.

Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 radio and espn980.com.

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