A Family Affair
It is early afternoon on the Verizon Center practice court when Flip Saunders’ whistle signals the end of practice. The players smile and exchange pats on the back as they casually jog to midcourt for the team huddle to close out practice.
A few words are spoken by Saunders and a member of the team, and then as they do at every practice the team brings it in for one cheer. The players yell “1, 2, 3, FAMILY!”
The cheer is always the same, and while simple, it captures just how close the team has become over a short period of time. With only six players returning from last year’s roster, the Wizards have used Summer League, off-season workouts and training camp to forge a bond that takes many teams years to accomplish.
“We have good camaraderie,” said Flip Saunders. “There is no question our guys care about each other. They spend a lot of time with each other off the court so there is some good bonding going on between the players.”
Various players, coaches and special guests that have visited practice also agree. The team, while young and inexperienced, possesses a family loyalty that previous Wizards’ teams have lacked. As the second longest tenured player on the Wizards’ roster, Andray Blatche has seen what camaraderie and chemistry can lead to on a basketball court. In previous years, he witnessed a definitive split between the younger players and older players on the roster. Even though the players got along, the cohesion was not there, which ultimately hurt the ball club.
“I’m not going to lie. I’ve been with the Washington Wizards for five years. I can honestly say this year, with this team we are closer than I have been with any other team. We are all one big family. In the past we were cool, but this year we are all like brothers. We all get along. We hang out off the court, we BBM and text each other. We are very close.”
That closeness and bond isn’t just a change for Blatche, but for new players as well. Hilton Armstrong is one of several new faces in the Wizards locker room. An NBA veteran with five years of experience and three teams under his belt, Armstrong has seen his fair share of locker room dynamics. However, upon arriving in D.C., Armstrong noticed a significant difference between the Wizards and previous teams he played for.
“I love this group of guys, just as soon as I got here, there were a lot of laughs, jokes in the first couple of days and I feel real comfortable here knowing it’s going to get better and better,” said Armstrong. “On the court nobody is selfish and everyone looks to win right now and that’s great. If you don’t have an open shot just swing one more pass to the open man.”
The premise that Armstrong eludes to is that strong chemistry leads to players playing for the good of the team, overriding individual success. This premise has been funneled down from the top of the organization with the arrival of majority owner Ted Leonsis. Leonsis, who is the majority owner of Monumental Sports & Entertainment which also owns the Capitals and Mystics, has witnessed the importance of team chemistry first-hand. It was a “team first approach” which led both the Mystics and Capitals to #1 overall seeds in the playoffs this year, and will hopefully have a similar impact on the Wizards.
"Hopefully, we have guys that are not into stats, they're into wins, and collectively, the optics of this team,” said Leonsis. “It's important that not only are they coachable but they like being around each other. I thought some of the past teams, the chemistry wasn’t high. I’ve seen with the Caps, a very tight locker room, a belief in the coach, a belief in one another, is worth a lot of wins every season.”
The belief that team chemistry leads to wins is not a new one. Bullets legend, Pro Basketball Hall of Famer, and guard on the 1973 New York Knicks Championship team, Earl Monroe saw it on a constant basis over his 13 seasons in the NBA.
“Good teams start with camaraderie and these guys seem to have that,” said Monroe who visited the team at training camp. “I think as the year goes on this team will really come together. They are a group of young guys that they can mold into the type of team they want to have. They are at the beginning of something that I think is going to be very special.”
During his trip to training camp, Monroe had the opportunity to attend the annual team bonding night at a nearby restaurant. Team bonding nights are often used by coaches throughout the league as a way to get players to spend time together off the court and hone team chemistry. While the entire team spoke the next day about their great night out, it was obvious that either way, the team still would have spent the time together.
“To me, honestly, that kind of stuff is good for us, but we don't need it," Blatche said. "We all have a good bond together. We're all the same age. We're young. We hang out on and off the court. Sometimes, when we leave here, we go to John’s (Wall) room. Nick's (Young) room, my room. We all hang out together and have a good time with each other."
With a young, talented roster built on camaraderie and chemistry, surely the good times together have just begun.