Skiles brings Bullets a sparkling new aura


Before the Washington Bullets' practice at Bowie State yesterday, the team's trainer, Kevin Johnson, was talking with Scott Skiles, who was running a temperature.

"Are you going to be able to practice?" the trainer asked.

Skiles looked at him in disbelief.

"I practice every day," Skiles said.

If you've ever seen Scott Skiles play -- even if you only saw him in the Bullets' opening game last Friday -- you will not be surprised that Skiles has such a hard-nosed attitude.

The Bullets, you see, have a new personality.

For the Bullets, getting a new personality was maybe not a bad idea. The old one was flat, negative and boring. They have had seven straight losing seasons. That would drag anybody down.

But the personality that was on view before a sellout crowd of 18,756 at the USAir Arena for the 110-108 opening night win over a more talented Orlando Magic team was . . . well, it was something we're not used to.

And the fans ate it up.

When the game ended, the celebration was the sort of thing you see after the final game of a playoff series, not after the first of 82 NBA regular-season games.

What the new Bullets have is emotion, desire, hunger and a desire to be better than they are, which is what they achieved in their first two games.

Orlando, led by Shaquille O'Neal, is more talented than the Bullets. So are the Chicago Bulls, even without Michael Jordan.

But on the night after the Bullets endeared themselves to the home crowd with a victory they didn't expect, Washington won in Chicago, 100-99, in overtime before 22,186.

That victory ended a 15-game losing streak against Chicago. It was the first time the Bullets had won in Chicago since 1988. Thus, the Bullets, as they get ready to go to Philadelphia to play the Sixers tomorrow night, are 2-0 for the first time in nine seasons.

The reason for all this, I tell you, is their new personality. It has to be. They sure didn't win these games on talent alone. They won them because they wanted them more than the Magic and the Bulls did.

Two people have contributed most to the Bullets' new personality.

One is Skiles, the point guard. The other is the new coach, Jim Lynam, who is the exact opposite, personality-wise, of his predecessor, Wes Unseld.

Skiles probably is a perfect fit for this team, whereas his predecessor at point, Michael Adams, was not. Adams is good, but he's not a true point guard. On a young team of jump shooters like the Bullets, Skiles is the right guy to distribute the ball.

He's a lot more than that, though.

Skiles is the most inspirational athlete I've seen in a long time. He plays so hard and so fearlessly that he lifts everybody to a higher competitive level.

Whenever the Bullets had their hot streaks against Orlando, it was Skiles who was igniting them.

That was not lost on the huge crowd. After Skiles would go to the bench for a couple minutes and take a breather, the crowd would roar its approval as Skiles stood up to come back in the game.

You're going to love this guy, if you haven't already seen him. If you have seen him, you know what I'm talking about.

He doesn't take any stuff off anybody. Skiles, 6 feet 1 and 180 pounds, is not at all reluctant to dive on the floor and wrestle for the ball with O'Neal, who is 7-1 and 301 pounds.

"Scott did exactly that in the opener," Lynam recalled after practice yesterday. "He took the ball away from Shaquille and the crowd was going wild and the Magic players were coming at him like piranhas and he had the presence of mind to call a 20-second timeout."

"Did Skiles give you another 110 percent Saturday night?" I asked Lynam.

"He gives you that every night," Lynam said.

Getting Skiles was a steal. Orlando decided to give the point guard job to Anfernee Hardaway right away. Skiles was expendable.

Bullets GM John Nash acquired Skiles and a 1996 first-round draft and future considerations in exchange for a '96 second-round pick and future considerations.

It was hard to believe that those players in Orlando uniforms that Skiles was bumping chests with all night were his teammates last year, his buddies.

"He acts like he hates them now," said the lady sitting next to me.

"Did you have fun, beating Orlando?" I asked Skiles.

"I have fun every night," he said. "It's not like I was trying to stick it to 'em or anything, but anybody who gets traded wants to do well against his old team. I like all those guys, but this is the only way I know how to play."

Lynam is Mr. Enthusiasm -- running up and down the sidelines during the game, talking to everybody, waving his arms, berating officials. He was so hoarse yesterday I'm wondering if he'll last 82 games.

"I always tell our players," Lynam said, "that nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm."

How far that will take the Bullets no one knows. But they only need 22 more wins to equal last season's total. Bet you they win 35 anyway.

And they haven't even signed No. 1 draft pick Juwan Howard yet.

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