Oct 23, 2009

Setting Sail

To anyone living outside the District, Deshawn Stevenson, if he registers at all, must seem an idiot. This is a man who, at his apex, was perhaps the fourth best player on the fifth best team in the NBA's second best conference (a long but lovely definition of mediocrity). Who, from this lofty perch, deigned to label the King "overrated." Who showed up to camp this year with a P tattooed (tattoos, by the way, are forever), on his face, backwards, because he does not grasp the intricacies of perspective. Who once made a three pointer during a blowout loss, on the road, en route to a third straight postseason dismissal at the hands of the Cavaliers, and indicated to the rabidly hostile crowd that no, even then, he could not feel his face. In short, a fool, a clown, an embarrassment and a distraction.

But nothing is black and white, and certainly not a portrait of Mr. Stevenson. For when that triple splashed the bottom of the net the District shuddered with delight, and not because a 19 point deficit had suddenly been trimmed by 3. And when he threw up his hand, as we knew he must, in an outburst of defiant swag, our delight turned to pure joy. For we knew, along with Deshawn, what would come next. Retribution, swift, terrible, delivered by the one they call Lebron. Regardless, Deshawn allowed us to share with our Wizards a moment of fierce and silly pride.

Now, after a bewildering year in which Murphy's Law brutally asserted itself, the Wizards have returned, expected once more to figure in the Eastern equation. Gilbert, Deshawn, Caron, Antawn, and Brendan are reunited in health, free to resume their merry play. And yet, there is already a sense that something both subtle and fundamental has changed, or perhaps vanished. Agent Zero has disappeared without a trace, replaced by an Arenas who eschews the dagger for the dime, bereft of zaniness, and, some whisper, aggression. Caron and Antawn have endured a 19 win season that both brought them together and forever scarred them, like survivors of a shipwreck who float for endless weeks, eating their boots and inventing a private language. Brendan has looked at the last two seasons and concluded he's personally worth roughly 23 wins. Ok, so nothings really changed with Brendan.

Then there are the up and comers and the new additions. Nick Young has apparently dominated in off-season competition, despite the notable handicap of running down the court like a duck. But he also independently decided to continue emulating his lost older brother Gilbert and set aside childish things (this we will believe when we see). Flip Saunders has arrived with an unprecedented air of easy professionalism and an understandable desire to start fresh. Everything about Saunders is like a gentle admonishment that excitement about the future should trump nostalgia for the past.

Finally, there is Mike Miller. Last season on the Minnesota Timberwolves, Mike Miller refused to shoot. In the league as we know it, not shooting is unheard of. Outside of Brevin Knight and Jason Kidd, before he moved to Dallas, everyone shoots, whether they have the percentages to back it up or not. Only the truly atrocious will hesitate to pull the trigger. Is Mike Miller atrocious? No. He is sublime. In a league in which technically deficient gunners convince themselves to hoist 10, 15, 20 shots a night, Mike Miller, an assassin, could barely muster 7.

Now Mike Miller the nonconformist has come to Washington. And along with his sweet outside touch and panoramic court vision, he has brought with him something else: Lebron's sneakers. From Mars Blackmon to Charles Barkeley to Benny "The Jet" Rodriguez, shoes are always more than just shoes. And Miller is wearing the Chosen One's. A more direct rejection of Wizards culture would be difficult to conceive.

Who has stood up and addressed this affront? Not Gilbert, he's not talking, not to the media, not on his blog, probably not even to his teammates. Not Antawn or Caron, they're too happy the Coast Guard showed up. Not Flip, he would probably encourage the blasphemy. And certainly not the youth.

That leaves Deshawn. Deshawn on a team in which suddenly finds himself an outsider. No longer the Locksmith. No longer Arenas' three point shooting pal. Now just another past his prime role player coming off back surgery and scrapping for a spot at the bottom of the rotation. A lesser, or perhaps wiser, man would no doubt survey the situation and hold his tongue. But Deshawn, as always, remains unbowed.

Stevenson has made it clear that on his team, those sneakers have to go. What is unclear is whether or not it remains his team. Not literally, that point was rendered moot with the return to health of his betters and pointed off-season upgrades, but figuratively. Are these still the Wiz Kids? Do they still consider self styled Mohawks the ultimate in playoff preparation? Or, in their return to respectability, have they lost their quirky, lighthearted spirit? Are these Wizards Stevenson's or Miller's? The season may not hang in the balance, but, perhaps more importantly, an identity does.

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