By DERON SNYDER
You couldn’t find many NBA coaches or situations less inspiring than Randy Wittman and the Wizards a year ago. They were evenly matched – inept coach and sad-sack team – a perfect combo deal to maintain the franchise’s status as national punch line.
Nothing about Wittman’s background, or the Wizards’ outlook under him, was the slightest bit promising.
His teams in Minnesota and Cleveland never finished within a whiff of .500. Even after the Wizards’ exciting playoff run this season, no one has coached as many NBA games (520) and produced a worse a record (.367 winning percentage).
Washington Bullets legend Wes Unseld is second on that list with a .369 percentage in 547 games.
Strangely, realizing that Big Wes had better results makes Wittman’s futility seem far worse.
But Wittman wasn’t relieved of his duties before this season and owner Ted Leonsis isn’t the type to do it now. Not after a 44-38 campaign that included a postseason berth, a series victory against Chicago and a strong challenge against Indianapolis. According to a report by Yahoo Sports, the Wizards are about to give Wittman a three-year extension.
You can say he earned it, much like he earned John Wall’s trust and respect. Wall could’ve soured on him after Wittman replaced Flip Saunders and went 18-31 in 2011-12 and 29-53 the next season. Few would’ve complained if Leonsis had cleaned house and installed a regime untainted by its link to the Knucklehead Era (Gilbert Arenas, Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, etc.).
Wittman isn’t the most exciting or alluring coach. He isn’t flashy or snazzy. But he eliminated the nonsense and instilled a gritty toughness, forging a team mindset that actually takes pride in defense.
By DERON SNYDER
Halfback Ray Rice could use a lesson from Jay Z.
And the Baltimore Ravens could use tutoring from Judy Smith, the real-life Olivia Pope of “Scandal” fame.
With more of the judgment and restraint demonstrated by the rapper earlier this month, Rice could’ve avoided arrest in February for allegedly assaulting his then-fiancee. With more sage counsel and advice from a seasoned image manager, the Ravens could’ve avoided Friday’s lame brained “press conference.”
Having Rice speak for six minutes and take no questions made the entire process a farce. Putting his now-wife, Janay Rice, on the dais to portray a sense of unity, created a portrait of dysfunction instead. And in electing to apologize to the Ravens’ owner, general manger, coach, fans, vendors, waterboys, security guards and everyone who ever set foot in Baltimore EXCEPT Janay, Rice painted himself as a Grade-A butthole.
Whoever approved the travesty made matters worse for Rice, who was trampled in the court of public opinion. Team officials didn’t fare any better, coming off as nincompoops while trying to win sympathy for Rice in cyberspace.
By DERON SNYDER
It’s good to be the king.
Or an NFL owner.
Your subjects toil long and hard to support your empire, under the threat of harsh discipline if they break the rules. Even the appearance of impropriety can bring ramifications. The presumption of innocence is applied at your whim and sparingly.
But what happens when you’re the king and you’re arrested for intoxicated driving and four felony counts of narcotics possession?
If you’re Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, nothing happens. As least not for two months and counting.
Since being pulled over on March 16, Irsay has conducted business as usual (aside from checking into an undisclosed rehab facility for an undisclosed stay, during which he might or might not have completed his treatment).
He took an indefinite leave of absence and skipped the owners’ meeting in Orlando a couple of weeks after his arrest. But there he was at in the Colts’ war room during the draft, heavily involved as always. There he was at the owners’ meeting in Atlanta this week, leading Indy’s bid for the 2018 Super Bowl. There he was in a media cluster, back in the middle of things after never leaving the loop.
“I’ve been clued into everything that’s been going on the last few months,” Irsay told reporters. “It’s good to be at this meeting and really try and focus on the Super Bowl bid.”
He shouldn’t have been at the meeting or in the war room. He shouldn’t have been involved in any team functions or league business. Commissioner Roger Goodell hasn’t held Irsay to the same standard applied to players, even though the standard for owners is supposed to be higher.
By DERON SNYDER
Michael Sam is caught between a pair of dynamic forces pulling him in opposite directions.
On one side is the NFL and his teammates on the St. Louis Cardinals, who hope the seventh-round draft pick isn’t a distraction as he attempts to earn a roster spot.
On the other side is an army of advocates and activists, who hope the league’s first openly gay player capitalizes on his role and blazes a trail.
The NFL won the first showdown last Friday, when Oprah Winfrey’s TV network put plans for a Sam docu-series on indefinite hold. In a statement, Sam’s agent Cameron Weiss said the postponement “will allow for Michael to have total focus on football, and will ensure no distractions to his teammates.
Everybody involved remains committed to this project and understand its historical importance as well as its positive message,” he said.
We’ll see how long that commitment lasts if Sam doesn’t survive final cuts.
For those who want him to blitz the establishment and mainstream media, that’s the danger in biding time. His place in history is secure, but his relevancy will plummet if he never suits up in the regular season. He can always point to the draft, which should guarantee a decent living as a celebrity spokesman – if nothing else.
But he has to make the team in order to achieve maximum impact for gay rights.
By DERON SNYDER
Hope dimmed for the Wizards after Indiana swept Games 3 and 4 at Verizon Center, putting Washington on the brink of elimination.
But then there was light (and another home game tonight).
A bulb came on, especially for John Wall and Marcin Gortat, who scored 31 and 27 points, respectively. The Wizards looked as comfortable as if Bankers Life Fieldhouse was their couch and Game 5 was a rigged NBA PlayStation.
When we had last seen Wall, he was declining to take a wide-open 3-pointer that could’ve tied Game 4 with 50 seconds left on Sunday. At the outset on Tuesday, he didn’t offer convincing evidence of being ready for the moment; he had three assists and three turnovers at the half.
When we had last seen Gortat, he was glued to the bench for the final 14:24 Sunday as Washington blew a 19-point lead. He finished with a measly two points and three rebounds. But his dominant performance to begin Game 5 – 11 points and six rebounds in the first quarter – set the tone for Wall and other teammates the rest of the evening.
The third quarter in this series had been a gaping sinkhole, with the Wizards being outscored by a combined 42 points through the first four games. Coach Randy Wittman joked that his team would stay on the floor during halftime to avoid whatever bug was infecting the locker room.
By DERON SNYDER
No matter what happens in their Eastern Conference semifinal matchup – which can end tonight in Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers – the Washington Wizards have enjoyed a good year.
A winning record for the first time in six seasons. A playoff-series victory for the first time in nine seasons. And the development of a young backcourt that might rank among the NBA’s best for years to come.
That’s a good season and credit is warranted for everyone involved, from the front office to the coaches to the players.
But no one should be so giddy that this is mistaken for a great season.
Despite the excitement of making the playoffs and beating the Chicago Bulls, Washington has yet to reach championship-caliber status. Likewise, the team’s architect, Ernie Grunfeld, has yet to prove he’s the right person to get the team there.
By DERON SNYDER
Many decades from now, folks will look back and ponder the phenomenon known as the NFL. They will marvel at the league’s keen marketing ability and wild success at drawing viewers for any programming related to “the shield.”
Fake games (the preseason). Drills and workouts (the combine). Drawn-out roll calls (the draft). The level of fanaticism is amazing.
Yes, it’s all relative. Fans don’t rip out toilets and hurl them from the stands, striking and killing someone as happened last week during a soccer riot in Brazil. We don’t see the full-scale, mass brawls that erupt between international “football” fans. (Our violence usually is contained to a few spectators in one section or an ugly encounter in the parking lot.)
Historians will apply a rationale for the most-puzzling aspects of the NFL’s popularity. The combine doesn’t have real action, but at least players are running, passing and catching. Exhibition games are meaningless and filled with soon-to-be truck drivers, but fans are starved after a six-month hibernation.
However, the chroniclers won’t have a good explanation for the NFL draft, which begins tonight after months of player analysis, team assessments and multiple mocks.
The three-day event is getting 16 hours of live coverage on ESPN; NFL Network is devoting a whopping 51 hours of live coverage.
I’ll figure out how the pyramids were built before I understand the draft’s TV appeal.
By DERON SNYDER
Congress will hold hearings this week on the Northwestern football union case, promising more rampant examples of “college sports” being misused as a one-size-fits-all label.
Actually, the term is equivalent to “professional baseball,” grossly inadequate as a general description.
Sure, young minor leaguers have plenty in common with their major-league counterparts. Except for the charter flights, luxury hotels and roughly $100 per diem. Likewise, student-athletes at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater easily relate to their counterparts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Except for the super-sized athletic budget, enhanced facilities and plusher accommodations.
The disparities within college sports are numerous and enormous in Division I alone, which has 65 power-conference schools and another 218 schools in lower income brackets. The differences grow exponentially when you include Divisions II and III, the majority of 1,100 schools under the NCAA’s umbrella.
There’s no fair way to lump them all together or treat them all the same, not when Texas can spend $1.3 million on its cheerleaders and spirit squad (as it did in 2012-13), while the entire travel budget for Troy’s athletic department was $1.2 million.
However, that cavernous gulf between those realities is just one inequality among dozens that cloud the debate on paying student-athletes.