This was the season. Forget the recent past, the hard-luck Washington Bullets finally were going to turn things around.
Chris Webber and Juwan Howard were on board right from the start, and the drafting of Rasheed Wallace provided a talented set of fresh legs. Then there was the trade for Mark Price, a masterstroke that added a veteran who could offer guidance to the young, budding stars.
But just like that it began to unravel -- just like it always seems to do with the Bullets. After an impressive showing by Price on the first day of training camp, the bad news this time would come in the form of a midnight phone call to coach Jim Lynam.
"That day [scout] Jay Hillock told me that he saw more penetration from the point position in two practices -- Day 1 -- than he had seen in three years with the Bullets," Lynam said. "Now, I get a call from Mark's agent, saying that Mark is concerned.
"And you know the rest of the story medically."
Price's injury is a sore left heel. Webber is out with a separated shoulder. Neither will be in the lineup for tomorrow's season opener, and, with the possibility of surgery looming for both, it's uncertain when they will return.
Such is the plight of the Bullets, maybe the only team in the NBA where the trainer (Kevin Johnson) and team doctor (Steve Haas) are as well-known as some of the reserves. Where players in recent years have been injured or missed games because of gunshots (Larry Stewart), bar fights (Don MacLean) and too many trips to the buffet line (see John Williams or Kevin Duckworth).
A month ago the Bullets were on everyone's list as a possible playoff contender.
"The Bullets have lifted themselves tremendously with their forwards and the pickup of Mark Price," said Boston Celtics coach M. L. Carr. "They have to be one of the most improved teams in the Atlantic Division."
Now, fans already are looking toward next season.
The situation has become so urgent that on Monday the Bullets, low on numbers, activated assistant coach Derek Smith.
"It's unbelievable," said Smith, who turned 34 yesterday and hasn't played in the league since the 1988-89 season. "I can't imagine a team, three days before their first game, having this many injuries and things taking place that would cut your numbers down. This is an event that should be taking place in mid-March, not Nov. 1."
The Bullets seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough. Webber, the NBA Rookie of the Year two years ago, has the talent to be a special player -- but instead has suffered his second dislocated shoulder in two seasons and could face surgery that could cost him much of the season.
Price came over with the credentials of a four-time All-Star, but showed signs of wear and tear last season, when he missed 34 games. He has practiced one day since joining the team, and might make a decision next week on whether he should have surgery.
"I came in here excited about the opportunity to play with these guys, and it hasn't worked out for me," said Price. "If we do surgery now, I'll have a chance to be back by all-star break, so the whole season wouldn't be lost. If we wait and keep waiting and it doesn't get better, we'll jeopardize the whole season."
With Price and Webber out, the weight of the team will fall on Howard, clearly Washington's most consistent frontcourt player. He's capable of double digits in points and rebounds (he averaged 17.0 points and 8.4 rebounds last season), and could develop into one of the top forwards in the game.
"I'm a big Juwan Howard fan," said Orlando Magic coach Brian Hill. "He has a knowledge of the floor. He's a great ballhandler. I think he's going to be a great, great NBA player."
Gheorghe Muresan, at 7 feet 7 the tallest player in NBA history, proved last season that he's capable of being a starting center. With a few more moves in his offensive repertoire, Muresan should be able to build on his 10.0 scoring average -- only if he's able to avoid foul trouble.
In the backcourt, the addition of Robert Pack has helped the Bullets avoid starting the season with Doug Overton (traded to the Denver Nuggets) or Brent Price at point guard. But the key to the team's being able to weather Webber's and Price's absence is the play of shooting guard Calbert Cheaney.
Cheaney's approach to the game has been low-key in his first two seasons, but the Bullets need him to become more consistent as an outside shooter and more aggressive going to the basket. He showed during the preseason that he's up to the task.
But, of course, Cheaney has a sore hamstring that has kept him out for a week. However, it's likely he'll be in uniform this weekend.
"I want to be mentioned up there with some of the great players in the league," Cheaney said.
Off the bench, the reserves are not as strong as they were at the beginning of the week because of the trade of MacLean. Backcourt reserves Mitchell Butler and Tim Legler and backup center Jim McIlvaine will be asked to step up right away.
"With the injuries we have, some of these guys have no choice but to step up," Lynam said.
Ever heard of Jeff Webster or Bob McCann? Both could wind up on the opening night roster that a month ago was set with guaranteed contracts.
Just when it seems like the situation can't get any worse with the Bullets, it does.
"Last year was bad, real bad," Cheaney, shaking his head, said about the injuries. "Lots of times, it just happens. You just have to take your punches, and hope it gets better."