WASHINGTON - After telling his players and members of the media before last night's game that he intended to return next season, Washington Wizards coach Leonard Hamilton abruptly resigned following perhaps the worst season in the franchise's 39-year history.
Hamilton, 52, who joined the Wizards this year after 14 years as a coach at Miami and Oklahoma State, announced his resignation after meeting with team president Michael Jordan following Washington's 98-92 loss to the Toronto Raptors, which ended a 19-63 season.
"I know it's in my best interest and I think it's in the best interest of the Wizards that I allow their progress to continue without me. I feel very confident that the Wizards are in good hands," said Hamilton, who earned $2 million this season and walked away from three years of a guaranteed four-year contract.
When the game - which the Wizards played with only seven healthy players - was finished, Hamilton was summoned to an MCI Center office for a talk with Jordan that lasted over two hours.
Hamilton said he did not tell his players about his decision and had only told his wife, Claudette, moments before informing the media; he denied that he had been forced by Jordan to resign.
"I'm straightforward and honest in what I said," Hamilton said when asked if he had been pressured to quit.
Hamilton, who answered a few questions before leaving suddenly, said he would take some time off before considering his next move.
"It's not like I haven't given this a lot of thought. I've been mulling this around for a long time. I'm confident that I'm making the best decision for everybody," said Hamilton, offering that he mentioned resigning seven to 10 days ago to Jordan, who left MCI Center without commenting.
Hamilton's meeting with Jordan came so swiftly that assistant coach Larry Drew was dispatched to handle the post-game news conference.
"I was in the locker room walking around, thanking each player for their cooperation and I was told that Leonard had to go upstairs to meet with Michael and [for me] to come in and do the post-game," Drew said. "It never happened all year. Certainly, when you're asked to do something that hasn't taken place all year, you're concerned.'
Reserve forward Michael Smith said Hamilton addressed the team after the game as if he would be coming back.
"He basically congratulated us and told us to be ready for next year, to come in in better shape, work hard during the summer and, hopefully, we'd have a better year next year," Smith said.
Hamilton's resignation sends the Wizards looking for their fifth coach in the past three seasons and the third coach since the beginning of last year, when Gar Heard was fired by Jordan after 44 games and replaced on an interim basis by Darrell Walker, who became the team's director of player personnel.
The Big East Coach of the Year for the 1998-99 season at Miami, Hamilton took over a fractious team that performed below expectations, and ended the year with the most single-season losses in franchise history.
Jordan engineered a massive trade deadline deal that shipped forward Juwan Howard to Dallas for five players, forcing Hamilton to revamp his plans for the season.
"With all the trades and other things, you can't blame him," said Smith. "We win together and we lose together. This is a team, both upstairs and down here. Everything happened at the same time. I mean, he's a rookie coach and half your team gets traded and you bring in another crew. That's the business. You have your ups and downs."
Unlike many dreadful teams, Washington never managed to be bad the same way twice. There were close losses to New York, San Antonio, Portland, Miami and Philadelphia, all playoff teams, mixed in with desultory home setbacks to dreg teams like Atlanta, New Jersey and Chicago.
In perhaps the year's worst defeat, with Jordan making one of his rare appearances, the Wizards blew a 16-point, fourth-quarter lead to the Los Angeles Clippers in a 93-88 loss at MCI Center. Jordan, who promised the club would make the playoffs, then took the team to task.
"Maybe we didn't hold each other accountable enough or get on each other enough," said Laron Profit. "Maybe we do need to get after each other and not be so friendly when it comes to playing the game as it relates to the team."