WASHINGTON - There's precious little time in the NBA these days to stop and reflect, and so it is for Ernie Grunfeld, the Washington Wizards' new president of basketball operations.
Grunfeld just officially got the job yesterday, but with the league's free-agency period starting today, the 48-year-old former New York Knicks and Milwaukee Bucks general manager must literally hit the ground running to fill the Wizards' roster.
Of course, there are a few things in a person's life that are more important than even his job, and so it is for Grunfeld, who marked his 24th wedding anniversary with his wife. Nancy Grunfeld made her husband promise that they would find a good restaurant in Washington to celebrate their landmark, and it's a promise that he'll have to keep immediately.
"Hey, I gotta keep her happy," Grunfeld cracked. "I know what my priorities are."
After dinner, Grunfeld's immediate priority is turning around the sad-sack culture of the Wizards, whose public persona has taken a bit of a beating in recent weeks.
Grunfeld must transform a franchise that unceremoniously declined to rename Michael Jordan in May as its head of basketball operations and has gone 21 years without winning a playoff series.
In the past four seasons with Milwaukee and the previous eight in New York in a player-personnel capacity, Grunfeld has overseen teams that had advanced to the playoffs 11 times. Twice during his tenure, the Knicks reached the NBA Finals (1994, '99), and most recently, the Bucks played in the Eastern Conference finals in 2001.
"In any winning organization, the first thing you need is to create a positive environment," Grunfeld said. "That's what we want to do. We want to create a professional, hard-working environment, where players will work hard and be respected. In turn, they will be accountable for what they do. You have to have that."
The Wizards reportedly asked former Philadelphia coach Larry Brown and former New York coach Jeff Van Gundy to each consider coming to Washington to coach and head up player personnel.
Both men rebuffed them, but that didn't stop Washington owner Abe Pollin from claiming victory yesterday. Pollin maintained that with the hiring of Grunfeld, the recent naming of Eddie Jordan as coach to replace Doug Collins, and the Wizards' two draft choices, swingman Jarvis Hayes and former Maryland guard Steve Blake, he had all the pieces in the puzzle he wanted.
"I'm 4-for-4," Pollin said. "Those are the two guys [Grunfeld and Jordan] that I wanted to head the organizations, and the day of the draft I met with Eddie and Wes [Unseld]. We spoke for hours. And those are the two guys [Hayes and Blake] we hoped to get, and we got them."
"From my standpoint, those of you in the media who have said that Mr. Pollin is over the hill, incompetent and doesn't know what he's doing, I think we proved that we still know what we're doing," Pollin added. "We got what we wanted. I'm very pleased."
As Grunfeld was being introduced, the team also welcomed its new draft choices, Hayes, the first-round selection from Georgia, and Blake, the point guard who directed the Terps to two Final Fours and the national title last year.
Jordan and general manager Unseld, whose leave of absence for health reasons began after draft day, were wowed by Hayes' shooting: He was 15-for-16 during a pre-draft workout. The swingman will likely be thrown into competition at shooting guard or small forward.
"I'm a competitor," said Hayes, 6 feet 7, who left Georgia after his junior year. "There's competition every day in the NBA. I'm just coming into another competitive situation."
Meanwhile, Jordan said Blake, 6-3, is not "a Susan O'Malley pick," referring to the Wizards president who is noted for favoring moves that improve the team's bottom line.
"I'm very optimistic about the situation," Blake said. "I know I have an opportunity to make something good happen. I'm going to work my hardest to prove that I belong here and make sure that that happens."
Pollin said he had been pursuing Grunfeld for over a month and has asked Milwaukee's owner, Senator Herb Kohl, a Wisconsin Democrat, for permission to talk with him because Grunfeld still had a year to go under his Bucks contract.
Kohl twice turned down Pollin, then said Pollin could speak to Grunfeld after Thursday's draft. Grunfeld ran the Milwaukee draft, engineered a trade of point guard Sam Cassell (Dunbar) and center Ervin Johnson to Minnesota for forward Joe Smith (Maryland) and guard Anthony Peeler, then was released from his contract Friday.
Pollin and Grunfeld met Sunday for the first time and worked out a deal that the new president signed just 10 minutes before the 2:30 p.m. news conference began.
Pollin had said originally that he wanted to hire a head of basketball operations first, then let the new person select a coach, but the wait for Grunfeld and the narrow window of opportunity for Jordan, the former New Jersey Nets assistant who was being pursued by the 76ers, made a flip-flop necessary.
Both Jordan and Grunfeld, who competed for a spot on the 1976 U.S. men's Olympic team - with Grunfeld winning - downplayed any difficulty in working together.
"He had to work with Jeff Van Gundy and Pat Riley [former Knicks coaches] and [Bucks coach] George Karl," Jordan said. "This is going to be a holiday for him, knowing those guys like I do."