Saunders bringing new attitude, style to Wizards

Flip Saunders

Flip Saunders

Flip Saunders opened his first Washington Wizards training camp with a hypnotist who had guard Nick Young running around like he was riding a horse.

The coach also handed out iPods loaded with a huge play book as well as blue T-shirts and baseball caps emblazoned with the slogan “Our Time.”

As if that wasn’t enough for the Wizards to realize that change had come, they also experienced a Saunders practice: efficient and extremely organized from start to finish.

“He don’t play around when he’s explaining something,” veteran forward Antawn Jamison said. “He expects you to pay attention.”

The Wizards took to the court at Virginia Commonwealth University on Tuesday to begin the process of renewal and recovery after last year’s injury-ruined 19-63 season that cost coach Eddie Jordan his job before Thanksgiving. Three-time All-Star Gilbert Arenas looked fine on his thrice-repaired left knee — “He was like the typical Gil that we’d seen before the injury,” Jamison said — leaving the focus on the new coach.

Saunders, according to team president Ernie Grunfeld, will bring “a new type of professionalism” to the Wizards.

It’s a type of professionalism that leaves room for entertainment. After arriving in town Monday night, Saunders brought in humor hypnotist John Ivan Palmer to work his behavioral control magic on several members of the organization.

Nick Young

Nick Young

Young was the life of the party, riding a broom as if it were a horse. Arenas found himself unable to unclench a fist, while guard DeShawn Stevenson — known for his “can’t feel my face” gesture when he scores a basket — said he literally was unable to feel his face.

“It just opened everybody up. Everybody bonded with each other,” Stevenson said. “Instead of everybody coming here and sitting in our rooms with nobody talking to each other, we were in a room laughing. It made us close.”

Jamison said he had some good laughs but didn’t participate himself.

“I wish I was hypnotized last year,” he said, rolling his eyes.

Saunders also distributed the new hats and caps Monday night. “Our Time” is hardly a groundbreaking slogan, but it’s easy to buy into, given the team’s recent struggles.

“We’ve been through so many down times, and so many negative things have been done or said, it’s our time to put all that stuff behind and do what’s expected and do what we believe can happen,” Jamison said. “If you don’t believe it, we’ll find a way to get you out of here.”

Around his neck, Jamison wore his new Saunders-issued iPod. Yes, it does require a unique code to use — a bit of protection just in case it gets left in a hotel lobby. It includes videos and diagrams of plays, and it can be updated at any time.

“They got the schedule for what we’re going to do in March,” Jamison said. “From what time we’re leaving the bus, shootaround, those are the things that to me make a difference. There’s no excuse why you don’t know the plays. You can listen to your music and look at the plays.”

“Coach Saunders and the coaching staff, they had it going real fast with a nice pace,” Butler said. “By the time we looked up, it was 2 ½ hours into it, we was done.”

Said Jamison: “We have a lot to learn. That play book is like one of those NFL play books, it goes on for days. But he incorporated things so quickly, and then you go right into it. It’s no rest time. They don’t play around.”

Some things don’t change, however. For years, the Wizards have opened training camp promising they will finally start playing better defense. Sure enough, they broke one of their huddles with the chant: “1-2-3, defense!” Given the team’s defense-challenged history, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Saunders had asked the hypnotist to put the players in a spell while saying over and over: “You will play defense.”

“It’s not talking about it, we’re just going to have to do it,” Jamison said. “Yes, we mean it this year.”

Let’s not forget he guided with difficulty the Timberwolves to their first-ever playoff berth in the 1996–97 season, his first full season as anNBA head coach, and to a franchise-record 50 victories in 1999–2000 which was duplicated in 2001–2002.

After the Timberwolves’ success in the 2003–04 NBA season, in which they made the Western Conference Finals, they struggled in the 2004–05 season, winning fewer than half of their games. On February 12, 2005, Saunders was fired and replace by then-Vice President of Basketball Operations Kevin McHale as head coach. Many fans believed that the firing was unwarranted, citing instead the contract troubles of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell as the reasons for the team’s failure.

Saunders replaced Larry Brown as coach of the Detroit Pistons on July 21, 2005. Under Saunders, the team set a new franchise record for wins during the regular season, finishing with a 64–18 record. Saunders coached the Eastern Conference All-Stars in the 2006 NBA All-Star Game in Houston, Texas.

Despite the successful season, however, Saunders has been a target of criticism for the Pistons’ playoff performance, in which the Miami Heat pushed them to 6 games in the 2006 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The worn-out Pistons eventually lost the Eastern Conference Finals to the Heat. Saunders has received criticism for the poor defensive showing by the Pistons in the East finals. This has been speculated as a deciding factor in Ben Wallace’s decision to sign a free-agent contract with the rival Chicago Bulls in the 2006 off season. The 2007 playoffs also ended in disappointment for Saunders and the Pistons as the Cavaliers rallied from a 2–0 deficit to win the next four games and the Eastern Conference title.

Upon entering his third season as Pistons coach, Saunders became the longest-tenured Pistons coach since Chuck Daly’s nine-year tenure (1983–1992).

as reported by the AP, Wikipedia and NBA.com

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