View Full Version : Very good (long) article on Washington Decay

07-08-2003, 10:26 AM
This is the second part of a two part series. The first article is an excellent sketch of Abe Pollin, but is less basketball related (although some of the Jordan-Pollin feud stuff is amusing). Here is the link to part I: Part I of this series (the following is Part II) (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A13527-2003Jul5.html)

The following is a long read, but is provides a fascinating look at the "Culture of Mediocrity" that has ruled in Washington for nearly the last 20 years...

Pollin's Team Took a Spill, And Then Kept Falling

By Thomas Heath, Peter Perl and Greg Sandoval
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, July 7, 2003; Page A01

Abe Pollin was ecstatic. The Washington Wizards owner had just completed a long hiring search and at the news conference to announce the franchise's new coach he boasted that a "gut feeling" had led him to the perfect decision. "This one interview I had . . . he blew me away," Pollin said of the new hire. "It was a 21/2-hour interview and I was blown away."

That was June 16, 1999, and the new hire was Gar Heard, a coach who went on to a 14-30 record. He was fired on Jan. 29, 2000.

Fast forward to last week when Pollin announced the hiring of Ernie Grunfeld as president of basketball operations. Pollin boasted that "it was a little longer process than I thought. It's been kind of aggravating but I didn't give up. I got the guy I wanted."

By now Pollin is well-practiced in the art of giving news conferences to announce hirings. In the last seven years, the Wizards have gone through nine head coaches, each time promising a reversal of the team's fortunes. And each time the result has been the same.

The Wizards have failed to advance beyond the first round of the National Basketball Association playoffs in 21 years and the team's overall winning percentage during the last 15 years is the third-worst in the league. And on May 7, Pollin ended the team's association with basketball icon Michael Jordan in an ugly encounter that seems emblematic of an organization unable to break from nearly a quarter-century of losing.

How did it come to this?

Former players, coaches and other employees, as well as some agents, said bad personnel decisions, management shortcomings and shoddy conditions for players led to a culture of mediocrity that is responsible for the Wizards -- who were known as the Bullets until 1997 -- becoming one of the worst teams in the NBA.

"Once you dig yourself into a hole that deep and keep losing, it's really hard to dig out of," said former Bullet Brent Price, who played for the team from 1992 to '96. "Until they change that whole image around, they are going to continue to struggle."

Said David Falk, Jordan's agent and a Pollin adversary: "Abe wants to win desperately, but he's stuck in the '70s. We're in the 21st century. The NBA has changed. Abe is trying to win a Formula One race driving a 1978 Chevy."

Wes Unseld, who has been Pollin's confidant, coach and general manager for the better part of 20 years, said he has no easy answers for the team's failures. "We weren't good enough," Unseld said. "I'm not going to blame the organization. I would have to accept some of the blame."

'A Bad Place'

The franchise has been on a long descent since winning the NBA championship 25 years ago. At the time, the Bullets were one of 22 NBA teams and the league was near an all-time low under then-commissioner Larry O'Brien: The game's popularity was suffering, player salaries averaged about $175,000 per year, television ratings had plunged and attendance was wheezing. The public's perception of NBA players was that they were a bunch of overpaid, spoiled drug users.

David Stern took over as commissioner in 1984, which coincided with a two-decade renaissance, first powered by Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in Boston and Los Angeles, respectively. Jordan's six championships with the Chicago Bulls kept the NBA's arc rising in the 1990s. But just as the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls were going after the best players, Pollin's Bullets struggled to remake themselves following their 1977-78 championship.

"They got caught in the decline when some other clubs got very good," said Chuck Daly, who coached the Detroit Pistons to back-to-back championships in 1989 and '90. "Bird and Magic came to the league and it changed dramatically. Bird, [Kevin] McHale and [Robert] Parish in Boston. [Scottie] Pippen in Chicago, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] in L.A. The Bullets probably didn't get the magic player. At least they were competitive in those years, you could say that about them."

The team also chose during those years to spend less than most teams on player payroll. Garnett Slatton, who was the Bullets' president from 1986 to '88, said the team barely broke through the minimum league payroll requirement some of those years.

Bob Ferry, the general manager from 1973 to '90, said the team's "so-called jinx" started in 1988 "when it was decided we would not re-sign Moses Malone and we would rebuild" by saving Malone's salary and investing in draft choices and younger players. "It was something I didn't agree with," because the team had made the playoffs for 15 of the previous 17 years with a more veteran lineup, he said.

"I hate seeing what this franchise has gone through for so many years, and I honestly don't believe it had to be," Ferry said. "It's sort of self-inflicted" because the team was "relying on coin flips" to win great players via high picks in the NBA draft lottery. Getting rid of Malone, a Hall of Fame center, was a decision made by Pollin, longtime team official Susan O'Malley and former star player Unseld, then the team's coach. "I disagreed with all of them," Ferry said.

As the draft picks expected to resurrect the franchise failed with Unseld coaching them, the team brought in veterans near the end of their careers, such as Bernard King.

"That didn't work," said Kevin Grevey, a member of the 1978 championship team and an admirer of Pollin's. "Then they brought in draft picks. They were building young and stayed committed to building young, but a lot of things imploded on them, [such as] Chris Webber."

One of the biggest problems, however, was the team's practice facilities at Bowie State University, where there was a single court, with old, wooden backboards that had creaky rims on the side of the courts. Dingy. Hot. Dark. Players recall tiles occasionally falling off the ceiling and windows covered with paint or soot, blocking out the light. There was an auditorium stage, which players joked was there for a production.

"The bottom of the food chain," said former Bullet Jim McIlvaine.

"A dump," Price said.

"Disgusting," said former Bullet and Wizard Tim Legler.

"A bad place," said former Bullet Rex Chapman.

Legler, who was with Washington from 1995 to '99, recalls the court at Bowie State being so small that there was no room to maneuver, and once it resulted in a wrist injury that caused Legler to miss a game. The worst part, players said, was a locker room in which 14 players had to share four showerheads, then three, then finally one working showerhead and its squeaky handle. The drainage was so poor that the water from the shower would fill up around the players' ankles. Because of the shortage of showers, players operated on a seniority system. In the 1987-88 season, for instance, Malone would shower first, forcing the others to wait up to 20 minutes for a chance to clean up. Many players would give up and go home, braving the winter weather while still sweating from practice.

Players said their complaints were looked into, but nothing really changed until the new arena was built.

"To me, it's a classic case of management missing the forest through the trees," former Bullet Mark Alarie said of the atmosphere surrounding the team when he played from 1987 to '91. "You don't want your players getting sick. You don't want your players grumbling because it's all part of creating an atmosphere of winning. Even though players are millionaires or multimillionaires with guaranteed contracts, they are still people and they need to be treated in a manner that any employee would want to be treated."

O'Malley said things have changed dramatically for the better since MCI Center opened in 1997, with its new practice facility, state-of-the-art locker rooms, player's lounge, baby-sitting service and other amenities -- some of which weren't added until Jordan demanded them when he became president of basketball operations -- that smooth the edges of the players' lives and allow them to focus more on winning.

"There is a difference between playing at the Capital Centre and playing at the MCI Center," she said. "In comparing Bowie State versus here, [Pollin] showed incredible commitment to the players. . . . Abe spent a lot of time finding out what other arenas did well for players. When he put the practice court in the building, [that] was a late addition. And parking, and security for players. That's all because Pollin personally looked around at what other arenas were doing."

But before MCI Center, when the team's reputation as a loser was being solidified, Washington veterans said they had to pay about $10 a week to have their practice uniforms laundered, and say they remember washing their official uniforms in hotel bathrooms on the road and spreading them out near a heater in the hope that they would dry before the next game.

"When I first got there you paid a certain amount of money to get your practice gear laundered," Chapman said. "You had to sign a release saying, 'Yes, take it out or I will do it myself.' "

McIlvaine (1994-96) said he refused to sign the release.

When asked why players were forced to pay for cleaning their practice uniforms, Unseld said the team has always paid to have players' uniforms laundered but that some players chose instead to have a Bowie State employee wash their clothes, a policy that he ended.

Money Doesn't Buy Happiness

After John Nash succeeded Ferry as general manager in 1990, the Bullets started spending more money on salaries; according to internal figures, the franchise has spent at, or above, the league player payroll average in eight of the last 12 years, a process that began after 1991-92, when the team had the third-lowest average salary in what was then a 27-team league. When Nash resigned under pressure on April 30, 1996, Pollin again turned to Unseld, naming him general manager the following day. Under Nash and Unseld, the club had signed Chris Webber, Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland, with the three earning a total of around $30 million per year among them, and the team's payroll was the league's sixth highest during the 1996-97 season.

When the Bullets were swept by Jordan's Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs that season -- the team's first postseason appearance in nine years -- Jordan proclaimed the Bullets "a young, hungry team . . . a team of the future."

But on Jan. 20, 1998, Webber was stopped for speeding on his way to practice by Prince George's County police. Webber was charged with resisting arrest, second-degree assault and possession of marijuana. Pollin and Unseld wanted him gone, and on May 14 he was traded to Sacramento for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe. Richmond, an all-star with a $10 million-per-year price tag, was soon past his prime, and Webber -- who was acquitted on Dec. 2, 1998 -- blossomed into one of the best players in the league.

Howard, meantime, had performed brilliantly during his first two seasons and was named an all-star in 1996, but the Bullets bungled a chance to sign him during the season to a long-term contract in what became an expensive comedy of errors. Instead, Howard became the object of a bidding war between the Bullets and the Miami Heat. Howard signed a seven-year contract with the Heat for $100.8 million on July 17, but on July 31 the NBA rejected the contract on the grounds that Miami had exceeded the salary cap. The Bullets, who had previously offered Howard $84 million, were forced to give him the biggest contract in franchise history on Aug. 5, 1996: seven years, $105 million.

But Howard never played up to his paycheck, which was the fifth-highest in the league at that time, and was transformed from a fan favorite to an object of scorn. He was traded in 2001 for journeyman Christian Laettner and four other Dallas Mavericks players.

"They were headed to be one of the top teams in the East, then it kind of fell apart," Daly said.

Unseld said the team's chemistry didn't work with Howard, Webber and Rasheed Wallace all wanting to play power forward and no one willing to play center.

"Mr. Pollin realizes we don't have choirboys, but there comes a point when if it's not working, you just make the changes," Unseld said. "We weren't very successful with some of these guys. We backed into the playoffs [in 1997]. We weren't necessarily making the turn."

During Unseld's seven-year stewardship as general manager, including 18 months with Jordan as team president and two years with him as a player -- the team went 226-316 (42 percent), and recorded only two winning seasons (1996-97 and 1997-98) and the one postseason appearance in 1997.

Pollin's longtime lawyer, David Osnos, acknowledged that his client "makes mistakes, sometimes overtrusting people and sometimes being overly skeptical."

"Abe has looked at Wes's overall performance and would regard it as pretty good. Did he make mistakes? Yes," Osnos said. "But they weren't all of his own making. Eighteen years ago, we drafted Kenny Green instead of Karl Malone. Two of [Pollin's] advisers disagreed. One of those two people said, 'You already have two great big men in Ricky Mahorn and Jeff Ruland. Then he said, 'Kenny Green will be the next Dr. J [Julius Irving].' That proved to be wrong."

By 1999, the Wizards' payroll spending would be among the top five or so teams in the league, although the franchise has dropped some since in an effort to free up salary cap space. Prior to Jordan's arrival, the Wizards appeared to get by with fewer resources than some other teams. The team relied on two full-time scouts, Chuck Douglas and Wes Unseld Jr., to evaluate talent. The team would sometimes hire people around the country on a part-time basis to scout prospects in their regions. By comparison, the Mavericks, one of the biggest spenders in the league, have three full-time college scouts, a director of scouting and an assistant coach who supervises the talent scouting operation in both the United States and Europe. The team also has an NBA advance scout to check future opponents.

"They didn't have nearly enough scouts," said agent Steve Kaufman, who represents former Wizards Ben Wallace and Chris Whitney. "You didn't meet anyone from the Wizards on the road or see them. I mean they just didn't have anyone. . . . We didn't know anybody from the Wizards. I'm probably talking about a broad period, maybe the last 10 years or longer . . . most of the teams have a good number of scouts. "

Wes Unseld said the team has always been adequately staffed, including scouts.

"Dallas has 12 assistant coaches. Do you need 12 people to do the job? No, you don't," said Unseld. "You don't need anywhere close to that. I don't know what they all do. Hiring every friend you want is what happens. For what? Last year, we had four assistant coaches on the bench. We only have 12 players. That's five suits [including the head coach] and 12 players. How many assistant coaches can you listen to?"

Critics argue that one of the franchise's biggest problems has been its inability to adapt to the salary cap and free agency, which has drastically changed the way players move in the league. Players are wined and dined in an elaborate recruiting process during free agency, something the Wizards are loath to do.

"Abe is from the old school," Kaufman said. "It's been like that for a long time. That's how many of us look at him. It's just not the same talking to them as other teams. As the [salary] cap has changed and salaries are deadlocked, it's been more important [for teams] to recruit players. But dealing with the [Wizards] isn't a real warm experience."

Said Grevey: "The game has changed, and the people at the top [of the Wizards] haven't. I'm sure Wes got disgusted with this crowd. Each one of these [players] is like a rock star. Wes probably thought, 'Why should we prod and push these guys? They get paid a lot of money.' Here's a guy [Unseld] that has the DNA of that franchise, and it starts with character, loyalty, discipline, which is instilled in the employees. That's who Abe Pollin is comfortable with."

Unseld seems to confirm that impression: "Players think they are rock stars, and they are not. They don't understand that winning comes through how they play every night and not how many pieces of fluff [they are] going to get as a player."

Image Is Everything

Former players credit Pollin for building MCI Center and greatly improving conditions, but the Wizards have been unable to compete with new owners such as Mark Cuban of the Mavericks, who has spent millions upgrading locker rooms, buying jets and paying lavish salaries.

"Players want to come and be a part of a winner . . . all the little perks that I felt Houston and Sacramento had that I didn't feel in Washington and Vancouver," Price said. "You felt you were in an old organization. I felt like they wanted to win, but they didn't want to put out the money to do what it took to win. It was pretty cheaply run."

Said Chapman (1992-95): "I don't think it has a reputation for being a place free agents would want to come, not like some others in the league that are attractive for other guys.

"Take Dallas. [Cuban] has taken a team that was not attractive for [players] to go to, and through word of mouth, it has become a place that guys want to go to. From word of mouth, I'm sure if a guy was a free agent and asking some of his fellow players, I don't know that guys would give Washington a ringing endorsement."

There were a few exceptions. Legler fondly recalls that after he announced that he would put his $20,000 award for winning the 1996 NBA All-Star three-point competition toward his daughter's college education, Pollin threw in another $2,000.

Or as Slatton put it: "Mediocre people are attracted to a mediocre culture. Excellent players are attracted to winning teams."

Unseld rejects those criticisms, saying players are trying to find someone to blame for not making the team a winner.

"All players think you have to be like Mark Cuban," Unseld said. "That's what they think is important, and that's the problem. They see all the fluff, the hype and they think that's the way it's got to be. If they stay in the Taj Mahal instead of the Ritz-Carlton, they think it's going to make them a winner. It's all about 'me.' Winning is not about 'me.' "

When asked for an example of a culture of mediocrity, one former employee recalled being embarrassed by team stationery from the mid-1990s that still had the letterhead of a 1978 championship. The employee said he feared the stationery was a reminder of the team's lack of success.

O'Malley said Pollin's image is unfair.

"He can't shake that tag of being cheap, which shocks me because even when he sold [the National Hockey League] Caps, he had a high payroll," she said. "He had, I think, the fifth-highest payroll when Jordan got here. He spends money on players. We don't lose players over money. How cheap can the guy be? At 72 years old, the guy built a brand new arena in a city where a football team couldn't get it done."

Pollin made what appeared to be a grand gesture at Jordan's April 14 MCI Center farewell: the donation of hundreds of Hewlett-Packard computers in Jordan's name to Washington high schools. But a large share of the gift was actually paid for by Hewlett-Packard, which gave $250,000 worth of the machines to the schools in exchange for at least one year's use of one of the vacant luxury suites at the arena, according to a company spokesman.

Such exchanges are common; major corporations often receive tickets, suite access and promotion space when they sponsor a team. But for critics of the team's ownership, the decision to not simply buy the going-away gift outright for one of the most famous players in franchise history is emblematic of a dysfunctional culture.

"The alleged gift was embarrassing," Falk said. "They think small. It's consistent with a team where image, not substance, is everything."

O'Malley defends the team's gift, saying Pollin "wrote a check" for the computers but would not say for how much of the total cost.

Alarie said he likes and admires Unseld, who stepped aside to let Jordan run things as president of basketball operations in January 2000. Jordan's involvement represented a team at the height of its business success optimistically looking forward, even if Jordan's management of the basketball end was unsuccessful.

But Jordan's departure, and the abrupt way it was done, seemed troubling from outsiders who followed it from media reports.

"There's still a nagging problem, and the Jordan incident accentuates it," Alarie said. "Communication is missing between management and employees. [The Wizards are] not a situation that players feel optimistic about. You're sort of waiting for [the team] to fail. That's really it. It's what causes the players who are on the team to say, 'I'd rather be somewhere else.' "

McIlvaine said it might be time for Pollin to step aside. A similar power shift helped put the perennial loser New Jersey Nets into the NBA Finals the last two years.

"[Washington] probably needs some fresh people in there and a new approach," McIlvaine said. "Maybe Abe needs to hand over the keys to somebody else and get a different perspective on it. You have to do something after losing that much for that long."

Researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.

2003 The Washington Post Company