It’s fitting that Ted Leonsis is the man to take over the Washington Wizards after the passing of Abe Pollin.
I say this because one of the central principles that has guided Leonsis as a sports owner is a piece of advice given to him by basketball royalty.
Years ago, Leonsis -- owner of the NHL's Washington Capitals -- was fortunate enough to have lunch with Red Auerbach, the legendary architect and mastermind behind the Boston Celtics.
Leonsis took the opportunity to ask Auerbach for his advice on how to handle star players. It seemed like a wise decision, considering his lunch buddy earned a combined 16 NBA championships as a coach, general manager and team president of the Celtics.
It seemed Leonsis knew he was in the presence of one of the most successful men in professional sports history, so why not pry for some insider’s knowledge.
"He said your best player has to be your best person," Leonsis said in an interview with The Hockey News back in October 2008. "He has to be your most respectful person because that will set the tone for the team.
"We’re lucky that Alex is a world-class player, but he’s even a better person – and the fan base knows that," Leonsis said.
Earlier this year, I had the chance to chat with Capitals general manager George McPhee on how much character and similar attributes come into play when debating whether to sign a player to a long-term contract.
"Absolutely," McPhee said. "You want talented players, certainly. But they have to be good people, too. People think it’s the talent that puts you over the top, but it’s really the character of your players that puts you over the top."
Since he was drafted first overall in 2004, Ovechkin has known no boundaries. He has become the face of the franchise, one of the game’s most gifted players and, beginning this season, the captain of the Capitals.
"He’s actually better than we could ever have hoped for going into the draft," McPhee said. "We’re lucky to have him. He’s been a leader since he’s been here. It was time to put the captaincy on him."
Like McPhee said, the Caps are lucky to have Ovechkin. That’s’ why the team had no problem signing their star player to a 13-year contract extension worth $124 million in 2008. They knew he was a player they could build a team around and jumped at the chance to do so.
That same year, another local franchise made a long-term commitment to a star player. After he opted out of his contract, the Washington Wizards signed guard Gilbert Arenas to a max deal, which came out to six years for $111 million.
At the time, I wondered why the team would dedicate such an investment into a one-legged, me-first point guard.
For starters, Arenas has played just 47 games during the past three seasons. Thanks to a knee injury that required multiple surgeries and his most recent antics involving hand guns and gambling debts, Arenas is off the court much more often than he's on it. Call me crazy, but I’m not a person who is overly eager to break out the checkbook for a player who hasn’t been relevant on the court in three years.
And when it comes to Arenas on the court, you honestly never know which Gilbert is going to show up – whether it be Agent Zero, Hibachi or the guy who can’t hit free throws with the game on the line.
I don’t blame Pollin or Wizards general manager Ernie Grunfeld for being seduced by the game-winning shots and quirky shenanigans. But, at the same time, it seems they turned a blind eye to the moody diva who oftentimes put himself in and removed himself from games without regard for his coach.
He’s also the same player, who, if someone hurt his feelings, decides to stage a protest by refusing to shoot the ball. Or spend halftime of NBA games playing online poker. Or decides to ditch the team and rehabilitate injuries on his own.
Without even going into his latest incident involving illegal firearms and teammate Javaris Crittenton, there’s enough of a history here that the Wizards should have known better. Let’s go back to the conversation between Auerbach and Leonsis.
"Your best player has to be your best person."
I defy anyone to present an argument in which Arenas comes across as the team’s best person. I’m not suggesting that he’s a bad person or, in the words of John Riggins, that he has a black heart. But the truth is, with Gilbert, it’s all about Gilbert. If you’re looking for a locker room leader who is unselfish and always willing to put the team first, he’s not your man.
Honestly, that would have been forward Antawn Jamison. But last I checked, he was jacking up ill-advised jumpers in Cleveland.
Thankfully, there appears to be a small sliver of light beginning to appear at the end of this tunnel. The Wizards inexplicably landed the top spot in the NBA Draft, which gives them the right to draft Kentucky point guard John Wall. Maybe he can become this team’s cornerstone, a role that Arenas was never truly suited to fill.
If Wall could become the Wizards’ best player/person, it would go a long way toward turning this woeful franchise around. I say this because there seems very little chance that the Wizards will be able to head into next season without Arenas on the roster.
But if the team drafts Wall and he becomes the next "can’t-miss" point guard, then maybe he takes some of the spotlight and pressure off of Gilbert. Wall can be the face of the franchise while Arenas transitions to quirky sidekick. Let Arenas simply focus on being a high-scoring shooting guard while Wall handles the larger duties on and off the court.
Whatever happens, simply having Leonsis involved somehow makes it all better. Local sports fans have seen what he has been able to do with the Capitals; now it's time for his second act – the much more challenging task of making the Wizards relevant again.
I have no doubt that once Uncle Teddy officially takes over and begins making changes to this town’s beleaguered basketball franchise, he’ll continue to follow the guidance of the great Red Auerbach as he tries to turn the Wizards into something more than a national punchline. Those words of wisdom have helped turn the Capitals into a model franchise in every way. Wizards fans can only hope Leonsis brings their favorite squad more of the same.
Just remember, it all starts with one simple sentence:
"Your best player has to be your best person."