My high school basketball team gathered around our coach during practice one day as he recalled a game from his own high school days. In a contest against one of his school’s biggest rivals, a player from the opposing team committed a hard foul on one of my coach’s teammates. Coach responded by getting right in the face of the offending player, standing chest-to-chest with him until referees separated them.
My coach did not tell us this story because he wanted his squad of scrawny, acned teenagers with mediocre basketball skill to crush our opponents’ skulls every time we stepped on the court (at least I think he didn’t). What he meant to convey to us was the importance of backing up our teammates, of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the guys we sweat and bled with every day.
You might ask why I’m telling this story now. Yesterday, four members of my beloved Washington Wizards — including star center Nene — were suspended for one game after leaving the bench during a skirmish in Monday’s game against the Bulls.
While the altercation may seem minor, and all the more so because it occurred during a preseason game, it had the potential to conjure up some not-so-great memories from the not-too-distant past in the minds of tortured Wizards fans, we lucky few. The Wizards of the 2000s never quite had a moment like the Malice in the Palace, the infamous melee between the Pacers and Pistons that ended with players brawling with spectators in the stands.
But the Wiz certainly provided its fair share of hijinks over the past decade, especially during the reign of the notorious Gilbert Arenas. At first, Agent Zero endeared himself to Washington fans by making himself exceptionally accessible for a professional athlete and by perpetrating all sorts of antics that found their way into the D.C. sports media. He reportedly used to fill teammates’ bathtubs with instant coffee during road trips and emptied their cars’ tires when at home. Best of all, he admitted to defecating in then-teammate Andray Blatche’s shoe during the forward’s rookie season (in fairness, he later revised the claim, asserting that he merely placed “dog doo-doo” in Blatche’s sneakers).
Gilbert was an immensely likeable guy, a perfect star for a city that desperately needed one. Perfect, that is, until he took his pranking one step too far, bringing guns into the team locker room in response to a quarrel with teammate Javaris Crittenton. Ever the joker, Gilbert used his hands as mock-guns during warm-ups just days later, earning an indefinite suspension from the league. He eventually served time in a halfway house due to a conviction stemming from the locker room incident, and that baggage, coupled with a number of knee injuries, derailed his professional career.
Although I wouldn’t trade those years watching Gilbert for anything (well, maybe a championship), he eventually showed his true colors, an immature player not suited to serve as the face of an NBA team. And while the gun incident marked his personal nadir, it also underscored the most damaging aspect of Arenas’s leadership: the effect that he had on the team’s youngest members.
Blatche was eventually booed out of Washington after an illustrious time in the city, during which he had been benched for being out-of-shape, solicited a prostitute and inexplicitly seemed to think he was best utilized as a point guard. Nick Young, now a Laker, seemed to try his hardest to avoid earning assists, an odd tactic for a guard. Center Javale McGee, now with Denver, racked up goaltends as if they were a prized statistic.
Perhaps these guys were all knuckleheads of their own volition, and Arenas may simply have been a prime example of what immaturity can do to an NBA team and career. But regardless of the immaturity’s source — and regardless of how many laughs it provided my brothers and me over the years — Wizards fans learned a valuable lesson during the Arenas era and its aftermath: In order for a professional basketball team to be successful, it must be, well, professional.
This brings me back to the suspension of the four Wizards yesterday. As I said, perhaps it was minor, a simple case of teammates reacting in the heat of the moment. But I know some Wiz fans must have shuddered.
This team is supposed to be different. It is led by young guards and future superstars John Wall and Bradley Beal, affectionately titled the Wiz Kids. Washington provided an exciting and surprising run to the second round of the playoffs last spring. Yet is this preseason fight the sign of things to come? Are these Wiz Kids just plain old, kids?
I might be a homer, but I don’t think so. When I think about Monday’s fight, I don’t think about Gilbert’s Wizards. I think instead of my coach’s words in a high school gym several years ago. These Wizards are known for their work ethic, their competitive spirit and their professionalism. These Wizards fought not out of immaturity, but for a different reason. Like my coach wanted us to do, the four suspended players instinctively backed up their teammate. This wasn’t a sign of immaturity; this was a sign of solidarity, of kinship and of brotherhood.
I can’t wait for the season to begin.