Unfamiliarity leaves Bullets lost, for now


The Washington Bullets' practice at Bowie State yesterday was nearly over when coach Jim Lynam blew the whistle, interrupting the scrimmage.

Lynam knelt on one knee and looked up at his No. 1 draft choice, Juwan Howard.

"This," said the emotional and demonstrative Lynam, "is about asserting yourself. If you're open, holler for the ball. Winning teams scream at each other all the time."

Howard nodded quietly.

That's the way the whole practice went -- quietly.

I looked at the 10 players on the court and suddenly it hit me. The reason for the quiet -- the reason Juwan Howard does not holler for the ball when he's open -- is that these guys hardly know one another.

Bullets players are encouraged to call out: "Hey, I'm open, Calbert [or Rex or Scott or whomever]."

But: "Hey, over here, I'm open, what's-a-name?"

No chance.

There's so much newness on the Bullets team, which will host the New York Knicks tonight at the USAir Arena, that it's a wonder it can beat anybody.

Lately, the Bullets haven't beaten anybody. Since starting the season by going 4-1, they've lost five straight.

What's particularly maddening is that the 4-1 was achieved with Tom Gugliotta and a bunch of overachievers who were outhustling opponents.

Then the Bullets added not only Howard but also his former Fab Five teammate from Michigan, Chris Webber. They haven't won a game since.

Newness? The Bullets have:

A first-year coach in Lynam.

A new point guard in Scott Skiles.

And now two important, new players in Webber and Howard who are not only young and short on NBA experience -- Howard had none until 12 days ago -- but who did not even attend training camp.

Nobody's going to win in the NBA with a squad and coaching staff like that.

In fact, the senior member of the Washington Bullets -- the man who has been longest on this team -- is Larry Stewart.

Stewart, 26 years old, a fourth-year man out of Coppin State, is the team's elder statesman.

"That's pretty funny," said Stewart after he shot his post-practice free throws and went to the weight room.

Skiles and Kevin Duckworth have been in the league longer than Stewart, but not longer with this team.

The same applies to Rex Chapman, who didn't come over from Charlotte until Feb. 19, 1992, when Stewart was two-thirds of the way through his rookie year.

The Bullets truly are a team in transition. It should surprise no one that they are after suffering seven consecutive losing seasons.

"You can't blame the owner [Abe Pollin] and the front office," Stewart said. "They did what they had to do."

For Stewart, this has been somewhat dizzying. Every time he turns around, there's somebody new.

Athletes don't like coaching changes unless they're out of favor with the coach.

That wasn't at all the case with Stewart and Wes Unseld. Wes liked Larry Stewart, maybe because Stewart was like himself -- quiet, a hard worker. Under Unseld, Stewart made history as the first undrafted rookie to make an NBA all-rookie team.

Ten games into the season he became the league's only undrafted rookie to start on a regular basis.

A foot injury ruined Stewart last year, limiting him to three games. He says he's healthy now.

Stewart has no problem playing for Lynam.

"Wes has his way of doing things," Stewart said, "and Jimmy has his. You can't get too attached to anybody. This is a business."

It's a lucrative business, too. Stewart is being paid $700,000 this year, $800,000 next year, all of it guaranteed. That means if the Bullets want to cut Stewart now, they'll still have to pay him $1.5 million.

Larry's mind is not on that, however. It's on doing what he can to help make the Bullets a winner.

"It's going to take time for this team to get itself together," Stewart said.

How much time, he was asked? Will it take until playoff time?

"I don't think it'll take that long," he said. "Chris and Juwan are great players, but they're just beginning to get to know this team.

"If we keep working hard in practice -- and Jimmy works us hard every day -- I think we'll become winners well before the end of the regular season. The more we practice, the better we're going to be."

With the 6-10 Webber and the 6-9 Howard, the Bullets are a different team than the one that opened the season. They're bigger and more physical, more of an inside team as opposed to the team of perimeter shooters they were two weeks ago.

Webber and Howard received standing ovations at the pre-game introductions Saturday. Before the game ended (112-96, Lakers), there were boos for the Bullets.

There's just too much newness right now. The standing Os may have to wait for a while.

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