The Wheels Come Off the Wizards’ Season
Hell Week for the Washington Wizards began innocently enough on March 30. The Wizards held a three-point lead over the Toronto Raptors at Verizon Center with 3.8 seconds left when forward Michael Ruffin caught Anthony Parker’s long pass near the three-point line. Ruffin threw the ball into the air to use up the final seconds on the clock. But the ball slipped out of Ruffin’s hands to Raptors guard Morris Peterson, whose desperation heave went in, tying the score.
Toronto won, of course, in overtime.
“When I threw it, it kind of slipped off my palm,” Ruffin said afterward. “I didn’t get a good grip on it.”
Six days later, Ruffin’s mistake seems like an afterthought. On Sunday, Caron Butler, the team’s third-leading scorer (19.1 points per game) broke a bone in his right hand trying to block a dunk by Milwaukee’s Ruben Patterson in a 121-107 Wizards win. Scratch Butler.
On Wednesday — one night after being routed by the lowly Bobcats in Charlotte — the Wizards returned home with Gilbert Arenas benched for missing that morning’s shoot-around. One minute 51 seconds after Coach Eddie Jordan inserted Arenas in the first quarter, Charlotte’s Gerald Wallace fell into the side of Arenas’s leg after the Wizards star converted one of his patented layups.
Arenas limped off the court — a prelude to yet another loss to the Bobcats. The even worse news came the next morning: Arenas had torn the lateral meniscus in his left knee, ending what had been the 25-year-old all-star’s greatest season (28.4 points per game).
So what had been a highly successful, exciting campaign for the Wizards dissipated into a scramble to the playoffs with a makeshift lineup headed by Antawn Jamison (19.5) and a supporting cast of lesser stars assembled by Ernie Grunfeld. “We still have some very capable players,” Grunfeld said, ruefully adding, “If we had a choice, we’d have everyone healthy.”
“Nobody is going to feel sorry for us,” Jamison said as the Wizards prepared for their final two weeks with the hope of making the playoffs for a third straight year. “This is hard to swallow because of the year Gilbert was having and the fact we were on the brink of doing something special.”
Jordan, the eternal optimist, said “this could be a shining moment” for players the Wizards need to step up. That would be Antonio Daniels, Donell Taylor, DeShawn Stevenson, Darius Songaila, Jarvis Hayes, Roger Mason and Andray Blatche. “We’ll stay in the system we’ve been running,” Jordan said, “because you can’t invent the wheel in April.”
And Ruffin: “You never know what will happen in this game. Crazy stuff happens all the time. What happened to me last week was just one of those things.”
D.C. cab driver John Shelton, informed of Arenas’s season-ending surgery, was left to ask, “Who is pitching for the Nationals tonight?”
Capitals Limp Home
While injuries have left the Wizards contemplating their playoff strategy, the Capitals will slip into the offseason with a third straight absence from the postseason. The Caps came into the final weekend with only 70 points — 14th among 15 teams in the NHL’s Eastern Conference.
Owner Ted Leonsis’s strategy of rebuilding the team with young players to complement Russian stars Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin and veteran goalie Olie Kolzig worked for nearly three months until injuries and inexperience caught up with the team.
“After Christmas, we did not have the depth to overcome the injuries,” said Kolzig, who missed nearly a month with a knee injury. “We have a good core of young guys, but we need some more veterans to teach these kids how to win.”
Added GM George McPhee: “We have to grow what we have while adding a couple of veterans to help the kids.”
I have written that Leonsis has been too quick to trade vets for draft picks, but the Caps’ owner said recently he will be active in the free agent market this offseason. We’ll be watching to see if last year’s top pick, center Nicklas Backstrom, leaves Sweden for Washington, and who else gets added to a payroll that ranks last in the NHL.
E. Robinson Did It All
Eddie Robinson, one of America’s coaching greats, died Wednesday in Ruston, La., at age 88. Robinson, who had been suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, was the head football coach at Grambling from 1941 to 1997, compiling a record of 408-165-15.
More than any of the coaching greats — the late Paul “Bear” Bryant, Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden, to name three — Robinson did more with less. From making sandwiches for his players because they couldn’t get served in segregated restaurants to publicizing his own team (he used to call The Post when his team was coming north to play in hopes of getting someone to write a story on the Tigers), to lining his own field, Robinson overcame many obstacles to make his small Louisiana school the power of historically black colleges. More than 200 of his players made it to the NFL.
“Coach Robinson was our model,” said my friend Willie Stewart, the head coach at Anacostia High for the past 27 years. “He opened so many doors — for players and coaches like Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith. He was the first to show the world blacks could coach.”
Stewart said he met Robinson 15 years ago at a clinic in D.C. The lesson learned? “Attack, attack, attack. Use the run to set up the pass. And make sure your players go to class in the spring so you can field a team in the fall.”
K How’s that Nationals-Orioles partnership working out for the Peter Angelos-controlled MASN TV network? Wonderful, if you own the O’s and see that ad on the bottom of The Post’s Sports section on Friday front hyping the O’s-Yankee series and ignoring the Diamondbacks-Nats weekender. Some partnership. K My friend who has multiple degrees from Ohio State has been reduced to paying off lunch bets to his Florida friend in the company cafeteria. K Redskins Update: Is linebacker Lance Briggs still a Bear? Did LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell do the cherry blossom thing this week? How are those Miami workouts going for Sean Taylor and Clinton Portis? K “Friday Night Lights” Update: Questions to be answered before Wednesday night’s season finale for the Texas high school football championship:
If Dillon Coach Eric Taylor doesn’t reject the offer from the state university in Austin, isn’t that the end of the show and his marriage?
Don’t you just love it when running back Smash Williams refers to himself in the third person?
How come you can’t find a good bagel and whitefish salad in Dillon? Have an opinion about what the Redskins should do with the sixth pick in this month’s draft? Reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Nobody is going to feel sorry for us,” Antawn Jamison said after Gilbert Arenas, above, and Caron Butler suffered season-ending injuries.