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Home crowd succumbs to Kobe Bryant's aura

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Home crowd succumbs to Kobe Bryant's aura

The day before the L.A. Lakers came to town, John Wall found himself watching a documentary on Kobe Bryant. Wednesday night, he saw him up close and personal as they dueled and the 20-year veteran won in a dramatic showdown. 

The chatting between the two during dead balls was frequent. Even before halftime of what would become a 108-104 win for the Lakers, just their third in 18 games, the affinity they had for one another was evident. It was a 37-year-old legend, global icon and five-time NBA champion being honest with the 25-year-old lightning-fast point guard in his sixth season eager to soak up any wisdom he could. 

"He told me, 'I wouldn't catch you 10 years ago and I wouldn't catch you now' when he grabbed me one time on a foul," Wall said.

Wall realized in Kobe Bryant's Muse, released earlier this year, that Bryant had the same banter with Michael Jordan.

"A lot of people say he's an ***hole," Wall, who had a game-high 34 points, 11 assists, seven rebounds and two steals. "Just playing against him, understand when you step on the court with him, you shouldn't be friends with nobody. You should want to try to rip somebody's head off and be the best player on the floor, in the world."

"We talked and certain things like that. Try to pick people's brain as much as possible. He was asking Jordan questions in the middle of a game. When I have an opportunity to guard or play against him, I'm not real friendly when we're playing but like a timeout you might say something."

Bryant did most of his talking during game action. He had a season-high 31 points. After a strong start when he scored 18 in the first half, he was dormant until the fourth when Bryant dropped in 12 points. The teams traded turnovers and it led to Bryant's three-pointer to break an 87-all tie with 5:56 left.

Bryant missed his next shot as he backed down the smaller Bradley Beal to the mid-post and Wall pushed the tempo to get a layup as the Wizards (7-9) regained the lead. Then it was two free throws by Wall, a drive to the basket for a layup by Bryant, a floater over the 7-2 Roy Hibbert by Wall and then a crossover dribble for a pull-up jumper for him over Hibbert again. 

Ultimately, however, it was Bryant who won out. Wall made four consecutive foul shots, Bryant drained a three with 59 seconds left, Wall made a feed to Marcin Gortat to tie the score at 101 and Bryant's isolation play for a bucket over Beal to put the Lakers ahead for good.

With D.C. being a transient city, there's a melting pot of fans. When cornerstone franchises like the Lakers and New York Knicks come here, there always will be a disproportionate amount of cheers for the visitors. 

But this was different. The more aggressive Bryant became in the fourth quarter, the louder the cheers. And more people among the sellout of 20,356 joined.

The writing was on the wall long before that. The Wizards had erased a 19-point deficit and took the lead on a three-pointer from Wall with nine minutes left in the third, 62-61. 

Applause? Not even a faint one. There were bigger cheers for the children playing a game on center court for halftime entertainment. By the time Wall went to the foul line to shoot a pair of free throws to trim the deficit to 98-97, boos overtook the venue. Even those rooting for the Wizards at the beginning, or so it seemed, turned in favor of the "heel" as the saying goes in "pro" wrestling. They rooted against the supposed good guy in Wall -- a two-time All-Star and who led the Wizards to an upset of the Cleveland Cavaliers the previous night, turned this franchise from a loser to a winner and has given of his time and money exorbitantly to D.C. that the NBA honored him last month -- and got behind Bryant.

Showing appreciation for Bryant is one thing. Booing the franchise player for the Wizards who is trying to win a game is another. Fredo Corelone displayed more loyalty.

At least Bryant enjoyed himself.

"It was really great. It was fun," said Bryant, who was saluted as he left the floor at the end. "Felt really good to play the game in front of the fans and have that amount of appreciation and love is just really a beautiful feeling.

"It seems like it has pumped some life into us to play with some more energy. For myself, I hope I can stay injury-free."

The Bryant who was a surly, steely-eyed cutthroat killer all of his career with the Lakers is gone. His last three seasons have been riddled with injuries and over the weekend he finally made it official he's retiring. The atmosphere humbled him though it came at the expense of demoralizing the Wizards.

"He didn't look like an old guy. I said that a month ago. A week ago. It's not about the Lakers or other players. It's about one guy who can get hot one out of 100 games," Gortat said. "And hopefully he's not going to get hot against us. I jinxed it."

Asked about the overwhelmingly pro-Kobe crowd when the game ended, it was a mixed bag of emotions for Gortat, too.

"It felt bad," Gortat said when asked about it being a road game at home. "It's Kobe Bryant. It felt bad that we lost but it was just amazing what he did. I was fortunate enough to play during his legacy. You're talking about one of the greatest in history. Just as people speak about Michael Jordan, that's how we speak about Kobe Bryant."

Wall, who had a history of injuries early in his career, believes Bryant can still play at this level skillwise. The health part of the equation is tricky.

"I feel like he can play five more years. It's just about physically can he do it," Wall said. "A person that puts so much into this game of basketball, has the footwork, has the angles and knows how to get to where he wants to be he doesn't have to be athletic or be faster than anybody anymore. ... That's why he's Kobe Bryant."

All of the chaos Wednesday begs this question: If you're Bryant in his prime or a superstar free agent from the outside looking in, does this make you more or less inclined to consider coming to D.C.?

The 800-pound elephant in the room can't be ignored. The other 29 teams in the NBA who will compete with the Wizards for those same free agents will bring it up in the recruitment process. 

Like players say the day after a bad performance, "Film don't lie." Neither does the soundtrack.

"He hadn't been playing well, hadn't been shooting well, got to the fourth with basically the whole damn crowd him," said Wizards guard Garrett Temple who guarded him some. "It's been like that the last three and a half years I've been here. Whenever a good team comes in, a historic team comes in, you're going to have a lot of fans go for that team. ... We knew what we were getting into."

Cheering Bryant for what he has done for the game? Totally acceptable. Showing him more support than the franchise player for the home team that's struggling to get back to .500? Shameless. 

John Wall deserves better than that. 

[RELATED: Photos: Kobe's last game at Verizon]

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Watching Go-Go games takes Wizards' coach Scott Brooks back to his own, unglamorous minor league days

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Watching Go-Go games takes Wizards' coach Scott Brooks back to his own, unglamorous minor league days

When Scott Brooks walks into the gym at St. Elizabeths Arena to catch a Capital City Go-Go game, the players can't help but notice. The building also houses the Wizards' practice facility where Brooks has an office and he is often around at tipoff. So, he makes the short walk over to catch a glimpse of the team's G-League affiliate.

Naturally, he is easy to spot.

"One of our assistants or a player, they'll say something," guard Chasson Randle said. "You've always gotta be on your A-game. When you see him in the stands, though, it's a little bit more motivation for sure."

"They can literally just walk down the stairs from their office and go through a door and be at our game," guard Chris Chiozza said of Wizards' brass. "It just adds a little more fire to have a good game."

Brooks knows the feeling. He was once a minor league basketball player chasing the NBA dream. 

After graduating from U.C. Irvine in 1987, he spent time with the Albany Patroons of the Continental Basketball Association and then with the Fresno Flames of the World Basketball League (which oddly featured a 6-foot-4 height restriction) before catching on with the Sixers in 1988.

Brooks himself can recall what it was like to be on a minor league team when someone from the NBA was in attendance.

"I just remember that our coach would say 'there are scouts here,'" Brooks told NBC Sports Washington. "When you're in the minor leagues, your goal is to be in the majors. You want to be in the NBA. You know it can take just one coach or one scout to give you that opportunity. So, when I go watch our Go-Go play, I take it seriously because I was in that position."

So, what exactly does Brooks look for? Some of it can't be found in the box score.

Brooks looks for intangibles.

"In reality, they're not all going to be NBA players, but out of respect for the game you've gotta give them an opportunity to be an NBA player," he said.

"I don't even look at their scoring because if they become an NBA player, they're not going to come in and score a bunch of points. Are they being good teammates? Are they helping their teammates off the floor? Are they pointing at them after a good pass? Are they high-fiving them? Are they making eye contact with their coach? I think those are way more important than somebody making a bunch of shots."

Brooks understands that may be counter-intuitive to some players, but he knows what it takes to not just get the chance to play in the NBA, but stay there. Brooks ended up playing 10 NBA seasons with six different teams and won a championship with the Rockets in 1994.

None of it came easy. Brooks got his first NBA gig after a tryout in the Loyola-Marymount Summer League in Los Angeles back in 1988. He borrowed $400 from a booster at Irvine. 

"I don't even know if that was legal at that time," he joked.

The games were early in the morning and, listed at 5-foot-11, he played small forward. Brooks was on a team of free agents that faced NBA players and he was told there would be many scouts in attendance.

"All that were in the stands were your girlfriend and your parents," he said.

But the Sixers saw him and gave him an NBA contract. From there, he never looked back.

"I had my 1-800 calling card that my mom paid for when I was 22- or 23-years-old. They thought somebody stole it because I called so many people that night I was told I made the 76ers. It was one of the best days of my life," Brooks said.

As Brooks tells it, even his early days in the NBA were rough compared to the accommodations now provided to the Wizards' G-League team. He may have been earning an NBA salary playing for the Sixers, but he had to wash his own jersey. He also had to wash the uniforms of veteran teammates.

"There were many times where I kept my jersey on [in the shower]. I shampooed my hair and I shampooed my jersey at the same time. You ring it out, you dry it. I was Maurice Cheeks' rookie and I had to take care of his jersey as well," he said.

But in the minor leagues, it was worse. Brooks was fresh out of college and wasn't yet an expert at doing laundry.

"We wore things multiple days without washing them," Brooks said. "When you're young and hungry, you knew better, but you had no other choice. You did whatever it took to get on the court and play well and impress the scouts."

Go-Go players have equipment managers to wash their jerseys. They also have a well-rounded staff of coaches and player development assistants. One of their best perks is food provided by the team and a designated eating area at St. E's. Not all G-League teams get those benefits.

Well, it's not that glamorous. The Go-Go do their air travel through BWI, roughly an hour from their home base in Ward 8. That has led to some John Candy and Steve Martin-like adventures. 

For instance, when they played the Windy City Bulls in December, they had to bus an hour from the Sears Centre in Illinois to Midway Airport, fly to BWI and then leave for Washington on a bus from Baltimore at 1 a.m. That's a far cry from the charter jets some players enjoyed at big-time college programs, like Chiozza at the University of Florida.

Sometimes an NBA call-up will require Go-Go general manager Pops Mensah-Bonsu to drive players late at night to airports for flights back to Washington because the rental car is registered in his name.

But, as Brooks can attest, it's all worth it. Finally realizing the NBA dream makes you appreciate the steps it took to get there.

Brooks did it and Randle, after spending much of this season in the G-League, now has a guaranteed NBA contract. 

"I love stories like that," Brooks said of Randle, who like him went undrafted. "It's definitely earned. Nothing was ever given to him."

For others, the journey continues.

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Wizards at a crossroads as trade deadline looms

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USA TODAY Sports

Wizards at a crossroads as trade deadline looms

The Feb. 7 NBA trade deadline isn’t some all-or-nothing moment for the Washington Wizards.

The final 38 games of the regular season won’t define the franchise.

However, there’s a connection between the two markers. Three weeks from now, we’ll have a better sense of the organization’s on-court direction this season and beyond.

While the Wizards look ready to at least compete for a playoff run after the past week of impressive games against the top teams in the East, the team has more than just this season to think about.

Financial projections show Washington already careening into 2019-20 salary cap concerns with only five players under contract.

That is unless moves are forthcoming. The first sell opportunity, one with perhaps three-quarters of the league playing the role of buyer, comes over the next three weeks.

Two of the five players with contracts beyond this season, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr., typically take a perception back seat to Wall, the five-time All-Star. It’s understandable why. Wall arrived first and with red carpet hoopla as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft. With help, a turnaround eventually followed.

Watching the Wizards over the last two seasons with and without their point guard has some believing it’s time for a change. The alterations could occur in multiple ways: Moving one or more of the top three players, changing their roles or finding more suitable pieces to put around them.

Should Beal, who has taken his game to elite levels, and Porter will Washington into the playoffs with a pass-heavy approach that also saved the prior season from potential collapse, style changes are on the table.

At least they should be. There’s a universe where, if their talents are maximized, a Wall, Beal, Porter triumvirate lifts the Wizards to the Eastern Conference finals, a level the organization hasn’t reached since advancing to the 1979 NBA Finals.

Reaching such lofty heights seemed inevitable following a 49-win 2016-17 campaign. At least to those not burdened with the knowledge of Bullets/Wizards history from the prior four decades.

The possible fixes are tricky but exist.

“The number one thing you can do if you're the Wizards is pick a point in time where you think you can be elite and don't mess anything up for that,” a former league executive told NBC Sports Washington. “You're not elite now. This isn't binary. It's not win or tank. You don't have incredible trade assets. Put yourself in the best position you can in small steps.”

Does a recent surge put more emphasis on a fifth playoff appearance in six seasons? Should Washington regroup for a larger goal once Wall returns next season? Decide the current mix needs an overhaul?

By the early February trade deadline, we may have a window into those evaluations and priorities.

Cutting bait seems prudent. Trade the expiring contracts of Trevor Ariza, Jeff Green, and Markieff Morris, and regroup for a Wall return with more assets. Consider bigger changes.

In the coming weeks, we’ll see what the Wizards decide.

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