The Wheels Come Off the Wiz­ards’ Sea­son

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sports - Ge­orge Solomon

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.”

Fi­nally

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 talk­back@wash­post.com.

BY TONI L. SANDYS — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

“No­body is go­ing to feel sorry for us,” Antawn Jamison said af­ter Gil­bert Are­nas, above, and Caron But­ler suf­fered sea­son-end­ing in­juries.

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