LANDOVER -- The Washington Bullets had taken a break in the last couple of years from opening the Capital Centre to the public to watch them make selections in the NBA draft.
They reopened the arena last night, but the crowd hadn't forgotten the long-standing tradition attached to the Bullets' selection-making process: booing.
In fact, despite its small numbers, the crowd hooted the choice of Louisville guard LaBradford Smith at the 19th slot in the first round so loudly that Bullets general manager John Nash felt a little defensive when he strode to the microphone to explain the pick after the first round ended.
"My feelings weren't hurt, but I was a little fired up," said Nash, who reminded the crowd that the Boston Celtics had a good deal of success last season with the 19th pick of the first round, Dee Brown, who won the Slam Dunk contest at the All-Star Game.
"I was probably surprised that they wouldn't recognize a player of the caliber of LaBradford Smith. We liked the guy we took and I don't apologize for it."
Smith, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound guard who averaged 13.6 points for his four-year career at Louisville and finished as the Cardinals' all-time leading assist man, is dedicating himself to winning over the unconvinced.
"I'm just going to try to come in and give it my best and I hope they can accept that," Smith said by phone from his home in Bay City, Texas.
The Bullets had coveted Smith for quite a while, and had pondered selecting him with the number eight pick that they traded to Denver two weeks ago.
But the Bullets passed on such local stalwarts as Hagerstown's Rodney Monroe, formerly of North Carolina State, and John Turner, who transferred to Phillips University from Georgetown, fueling the crowd's ire.
"This is not a popularity contest," said coach Wes Unseld. "Rodney or Turner or whoever [the fans] wanted have a good local following. That's good. That's important.
"But this is not a popularity contest, although we hope to make it one."
Nash said that Monroe was the team's backup selection if Smith had been picked and that Turner was also under consideration.
But once Cleveland had selected Oregon's Terrell Brandon at the 11th slot and Atlanta took Anthony Avent of Seton Hall at the 15th position, Nash was sure he would get the man he wanted all along.
"If we had taken Rodney, we would be vulnerable to a big guard combination like the one the Lakers use with Magic [Johnson] and Byron Scott," said Nash. "You're just inviting a post-up situation."
Unseld, a Louisville graduate, pronounced himself "happy, but not ecstatic" to have Smith, who the Bullets hope will eventually be able to guard some of the bigger backcourt players in the league from both the shooting and point guard positions.
"He's got good one-on-one skills. He can beat a person on the dribble and do it individually," said Unseld. "He's got a decent shot; he's going to get better. And he's got a good body, something we can work with."
"I think I'm a good playmaker," said Smith, who will again team with former Louisville center Pervis Ellison. "I'm able to score and get my teammates open."
What Nash and Unseld also hope Smith has is the ability to shake up the Bullets' backcourt situation.
The team is counting on Smith to challenge incumbents Darrell Walker, Ledell Eackles, A.J. English and Haywoode Workman for playing time alongside guard Michael Adams, who came over to Washington in the Denver deal.
"Mr. Eackles, meet Mr. Smith in training camp," said Nash. "And the other guys, Mr. English and Darrell Walker, we'll have a very competitive training camp. That's what it's all about."