Wiz­ards’ Glass Is Half Full — if You Ask the Right Peo­ple

The Washington Post Sunday - - Sunday Morning On The Air -

A re­al­ist sees the Wash­ing­ton Wiz­ards’ play­offs hopes em­bod­ied in Gil­bert Are­nas as he limps down the hall on his sur­gi­cally re­paired left knee at Ver­i­zon Cen­ter af­ter Thurs­day’s prac­tice. He smiles hope­fully, but does not say any­thing.

The team’s other all-star, Caron But­ler, does the same, en­cour­ag­ing his mates while side­lined with a bro­ken right hand.

In this at­mos­phere, the in­jury-de­pleted Wiz­ards, 41-41 but only 2-6 since Are­nas’s sea­son-end­ing in­jury, open their third con­sec­u­tive year in the play­offs on the road to­day against the heav­ily fa­vored Cleve­land LeBrons.

Las Ve­gas odd­s­mak­ers and NBA cognoscenti give the once high-fly­ing Wiz­ards no chance to win this best-of-seven se­ries. One vic­tory would be an ac­com­plish­ment, the ex­perts say. “The play­offs are about star power,” Wiz­ards Coach Ed­die Jor­dan said. “And they have the star.”

Added TNT NBA an­a­lyst John Thompson Jr.: “How do [the Wiz­ards] lose two play­ers of that cal­iber and win a se­ries? It would be a mir­a­cle.”

So it was left to the team’s owner, Abe Pollin, the self-pro­claimed “nutty op­ti­mist,” to of­fer a pos­i­tive spin on this se­ries. “I told my play­ers it’s five-on-five and any­thing can hap­pen,” Pollin said in a tele­phone in­ter­view. “We’re ma­jor un­der­dogs with two of our best play­ers miss­ing. But I refuse to count us out.”

Pollin, 83, the NBA’s se­nior owner with 42 years at the helm, re­mem­bers his 1974-75 Bul­lets team that won the East­ern Con­fer­ence af­ter a 60-22 reg­u­lar sea­son. “We were root­ing for Golden State [48-34] to beat Chicago in the West fi­nals. Golden State won, as we hoped, then swept us in the Fi­nals. Go fig­ure that out.”

“One of the big­gest up­sets in NBA play­off his­tory,” is how one NBA fan and his­to­rian, Larry Pearl­stein, de­scribed that se­ries.

Jor­dan re­mem­bers an­other ma­jor play­off up­set. In 1980-81, his first sea­son with the Lak­ers, the team went 54-28 with Ka­reem Ab­dul-Jab­bar and Magic John­son, yet lost a three-game se­ries to Hous­ton (40-42). “Ka­reem and Magic and we still lose in the first round?”

Pearl­stein also pointed to Den­ver (42-40) up­set­ting Seat­tle (63-19) in a best-of-five first-rounder in 1994 — the fi­nal game end­ing with the mem­o­rable scene of Dikembe Mu­tombo on his back re­joic­ing. But the big­gest play­off up­set of all time? Pearl­stein said it might be the 1947 Wash­ing­ton Capi­tols, 49-11, coached by the late Red Auer­bach, los­ing to the Chicago Stags. It was the NBA’s first sea­son and 60 years later, Pollin re­mem­bered: “I went to ev­ery game [at Uline Arena]. The Capi­tols won their first 19 games that sea­son. Bob Fe­er­ick, Fred­die Sco­lari, Bones McKin­ney. Great team — big up­set los­ing to Chicago. That’s my point. Up­sets hap­pen.”

“You have to love be­ing the un­der­dog,” Antawn Jamison added. “Any­thing is pos­si­ble.”

Wake Up, Smell the Base­ball

Tom Boswell’s col­umn Fri­day was a full-fledged dose of ice-cold re­al­ity, point­ing out that through 11 home dates, the Nats, “in a frigid” spring, are av­er­ag­ing 20,052 fans a game — third worst in base­ball and 1,520 fans fewer than the Ori­oles through Thurs­day’s games. That’s a far cry, Boswell wrote, “from ’05, when at­ten­dance sur­passed 33,000 a game. Suc­cess has been kissed off for now, re­placed by re­build­ing the farm sys­tem.”

Boswell also ac­cu­rately noted the Ted Lerner/Stan Kas­ten-man­dated pay­roll re­duc­tion from $64 mil­lion to $36 mil­lion was a “par­tially un­nec­es­sary gam­ble”— but which is par­tially re­spon­si­ble for keep­ing many fans at home un­til the new sta­dium in South­east opens in 2008.

Such un­pleas­ant facts have brought me close to at least con­ced­ing that Ori­oles owner Peter An­ge­los might have had a point when he said the Bal­ti­more-Wash­ing­ton re­gion was not big enough for two big league base­ball clubs. That is, un­til I sat next to Chris Ram­say on the Metro the other day as he headed home to An­nan­dale.

“I love go­ing to the base­ball games,” said Ram­say, who works in em­ployee re­la­tions for the U.S. Cus­toms Ser­vice. “Soak­ing in the at­mos­phere, lis­ten­ing to the crowd, the smells and feel­ing the pulse of the game with the fans.”

Ram­say, who is blind, said he loves walk­ing up to the box of­fice at RFK — usu­ally with his son or a friend — and buy­ing a ticket on game day. “I take my ra­dio with me. I have a great time. It feels so right. I’m very happy the Na­tion­als are here.”

Fi­nally

K Steve Spurrier, the “ol’ ball coach” now coach­ing ’em up at South Carolina th­ese past two sea­sons, rat­tled a few cof­fee cups in his state last week when he said South Carolina would be bet­ter off re­mov­ing the Con­fed­er­ate flag from the grounds of the state house. Spurrier, ac­cord­ing to the State news­pa­per in Columbia, said “the qual­ity of life in South Carolina could im­prove greatly by re­mov­ing the flag.” The for­mer coach of the Red­skins (2002 and ’03) is one of the most pop­u­lar pub­lic fig­ures in South Carolina — at least by my last count — be­fore he made his com­ments. I like Spurrier. K Wait­ing for Draft Day: With the draft oc­cur­ring next week­end, the lights have been burn­ing bright and late at Red­skins Park in Ashburn th­ese days. I know the wily front of­fice must be up to some­thing. A trade? A move up or down in the draft? Red­skins One is ready. So is the he­li­copter. Fans are be­gin­ning to mill around out­side FedEx Field in an­tic­i­pa­tion of Satur­day’s draft day fes­tiv­i­ties. The me­dia also is mass­ing. We won­der about LaVar. We hope Adam Archuleta is happy with the Bears. K If Chicago pre­vails and is awarded the 2016 Olympics by the IOC, will Ditka light the Olympic torch? I hope so. K Nice touch by the Nats, who wore Vir­ginia Tech base­ball hats Tues­day night. An emo­tional, classy act. Char­lie Manuel, em­bat­tled Phillies man­ager, also de­serves a nod for do­ing the same on Wed­nes­day. I like Char­lie. He’s old and bit­ter. That’s my kind of AARP mem­ber. K No wind: Will we ever see my col­league, An­gus Phillips, again? Phillips is cov­er­ing the Amer­ica’s Cup tri­als for The Post from Va­len­cia, Spain, where no rac­ing took place for four days this week, un­til the wind picked up on Fri­day. They ought to hold the Amer­ica’s Cup on the Ana­cos­tia — near Capi­tol Hill — where there’s al­ways wind. K I can’t get too worked up about D.C. United los­ing its first two MLS games, not when the reg­u­lar sea­son lasts un­til Oc­to­ber and 29 games re­main. United has a good team that can win its fifth MLS ti­tle. K NHL Up­date: With the Cap­i­tals out of the post­sea­son for a third straight sea­son, Sports Week’s link to the play­offs is for­mer Caps coach Ron Wil­son. Wil­son’s Sharks elim­i­nated Nashville, four games to one, Fri­day night in a se­ries Wil­son called “the most phys­i­cal I’ve ever coached in.” Can you be­lieve it’s been nine years since Wil­son coached the Caps to the NHL Fi­nals? More from Wil­son next week. K I miss “Fri­day Night Lights.” I now spend my Wed­nes­day nights read­ing Fe­in­stein. Have a com­ment or ques­tion? Reach me at talk­back@wash­post.com.

BY JONATHAN NEW­TON — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Even with two of the team’s best play­ers out of the play­offs, Wiz­ards owner Abe Pollin, right, and Coach Ed­die Jor­dan are con­ced­ing noth­ing. “Up­sets hap­pen,” Pollin said.

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