WASHINGTON - If the NBA was expecting the Washington Wizards to curl up into the fetal position over news that Michael Jordan may have to miss the rest of the season with a knee injury, coach Doug Collins expects to give the league a rude awakening.
If anything, Collins is taking the situation as a personal challenge, a chance to do perhaps the best coaching job of his career.
"From my standpoint, I've got to do even a better job than I've ever done before in any place I've ever been," Collins said yesterday. "I don't want these guys to get accustomed to losing, because all that we've worked for, I don't want it to slip away. I don't want people to look at us and say, 'Yeah, you guys were great for 50 games.' I don't know how many we're going to win, but I do want us to play."
The Wizards (27-28), in the midst of a five-game losing streak and in a slump in which they've dropped seven of their past eight, aren't in a position where they can just play. They need wins to stay in contention for a playoff position that as recently as two weeks ago seemed a certainty.
With Jordan now on the injured list with arthroscopic knee surgery planned, not to mention minor injuries to centers Jahidi White (strained left shoulder) and Brendan Haywood (fluid on left knee), victories may be at a premium.
"Anything's possible," said guard Richard Hamilton. "Michael has led us in the right direction, and we have to continue to play with that spirit, continue to play with that winning attitude. That's what it's going to take."
The Wizards, by necessity, will look different in Jordan's absence. Collins said yesterday the team will run more, particularly when backup point guard Tyronn Lue is in the game. Second-year guard Courtney Alexander, who has been in and out of Collins' doghouse, likely will become the backup small forward, behind Tyrone Nesby, who will start for Jordan.
However, the biggest beneficiary of Jordan's absence is likely rookie Kwame Brown, who had been considered buried on the injured list, possibly for the rest of the season, but will get plenty of chances to prove himself now, Collins said after activating him to take Jordan's roster spot.
"Kwame's got to play," Collins said of the first overall pick of the 2001 NBA draft right out of high school. "I told him, 'Kwame, you've got to relax and you have to get out there and play. If you make mistakes, make them aggressive mistakes. The only thing I ask you is to make sure you know what we're doing.'
"I'm sure that early, he's going to have the dry mouth for a while. But we've all had to do that. We've all had the bright lights in our eyes and we've had to deal with it."
At the same time, Collins doesn't want fans to read into Brown's increased minutes that the team has surrendered its playoff hopes, which are real given that it is tied with Philadelphia for the last Eastern Conference spot.
"Nobody's going to wave a white flag," Collins said. "In no way am I the coach of a team that's going to give up. We're going to play to win games. Now, if that means Kwame's out there playing, I don't want that in any way to be reflected that they've given up. We have not given up."
Hamilton, who is second to Jordan on the Wizards in scoring at 19.3 points, has played poorly since the All-Star break, but will become the focus of the offense. He has complained recently that a groin ailment that placed him on the injury list through December and January has flared up again, but not quite as severely as before.
"I need to continue to elevate my game," Hamilton said. "Teams are starting to come after me more and I'm learning how to use my teammates more, to come off screens better. Everybody's starting to work together. We know that in order for us to win, we have to out-execute the other team, and we all have to be on the same page on both ends of the floor."