Grunfeld speaks with the fans
Since Ted Leonsis assumed control of the Washington Wizards, he's talked frequently about following the example of the Washington Capitals, and why not? The Caps were ranked 11th in ESPN the Magazine's just-released "Ultimate Standings," which measure how much teams give back to their fans. No other D.C. team was in the top 90. (The Nats were 94th, the Redskins were 105th, and the Wizards were an astounding 120th out of 122 big-four teams.)
This Caps emulation plan works for on-ice strategy: building through the draft, trying to form a young core of players who can grow together, not going crazy on long-term deals for pricey free agents until success is near, etc. And it counts for off-ice matters, too, largely concerning fan interaction and team responsiveness.
Which helps explain why Ernie Grunfeld joined a conference call with about 1,500 Wizards ticket buyers
season-ticket holders Wednesday afternoon, and then spent more than 45 minutes answering their questions. One question referenced the Caps, and so did Grunfeld's answer.
"We are gonna follow what the Capitals did, building through the draft and building through youth and trying to do it the right way, and let a group grow together," Grunfeld said. "I don't think right now we're in a position where we could just get one player and he's gonna make all the difference. It would almost be like a little bit of a band-aid, that we'll get instant gratification, but what we're trying to do here is to put a core together of these young guys that we can be competitive with for years to come, not just one or two years....
"We want to see these young guys develop, get the valuable playing time that they need, to be out there on the court, let them make the mistakes. At the same time, we want to have a competitive mentality out there, we want players that will be competitive on a nightly basis, that are gonna play hard together and that are gonna play the right way, and can grow together. And then when we feel like we have enough players in place, we can save our powder to get that maybe one other big-time player that you need to put us over the top."
(I should note that a ticket-holder sent me the log-on information for the call, and that I told the Wizards in advance that I'd probably be tuning in. The team did not promote this to the media, nor did they promote previous season-ticket holder sessions with Leonsis.)
The questions were all over the place. One guy asked about the chances of landing Jeff Green, Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant next summer. Another was curious about Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer this summer, another asked about Mike Miller, and yet another wondered about keeping Josh Howard. A woman wanted to know how the Wizards will help their young kids transition into mature professionals. A forward-looking type asked how the Wizards could keep John Wall happy in Washington throughout his entire career. Someone asked how the Wizards could be sure about new acquisition Yi Jianlian's age.
"His birth certificate says that he's 22 years old and that's all we can go by," Grunfeld said with a laugh. "I spoke with him today, he was in for his physical, and we met for about an hour-and-half. He's very happy about this opportunity....He's still a very young player under any kind of circumstances, and he's very happy to be here. He wants to be part of a young group and a group that can grow together, and I think he feels and we feel that he fits in well with what we're trying to do."
These conference call klatches are old news for the Caps; Coach Bruce Boudreau, GM George McPhee and Leonsis have all held them. So have players like Brooks Laich, Matt Bradley and Mike Knuble. So have the team's television announcers, Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin.
In fact, for this Wizards call - which was suggested by Leonsis - the host, radio play-by-play man Dave Johnson, actually traveled to the Caps' offices in Ballston. He started the proceedings with a few generic questions about the recent transactions and the upcoming dawn of free agency. Then the event was turned over to the callers, many of whom wanted to talk about a certain veteran superstar.
"I wanted to ask if you have discussed with Gilbert the idea of Gilbert playing the two guard position, Gilbert being Ray Allen to John Wall being Rajon Rando?" one fan asked.
"I was very heartened when I heard Ted Leonsis and you say that you really were gonna give Gilbert another chance, and that you thought he'd be an important part of the team," another said. "Most of us love him, everyone in our section misses him and wanted him back."
"We're all excited, we love the Hibachi, we love what he did in the past and looking forward to seeing this again," someone else said.
Grunfeld, truth be told, wasn't terribly more quotable with the fans than he is with the media. He told them that Arenas is "really looking forward to playing with John [Wall] and not having to have as much of the ball-handling responsibility." He declined, politely, to discuss any players under contract with other teams. He said the team needs to pick up at least one more big man and somebody who can play on the perimeter before next season. He acknowledged that John Wall is already "the Great Wall of Chinatown," and decided that Yi could be "the Great Supporting Wall, I guess."
He paused as Johnson made repeated pitches for fans to be connected with the ticket staff, and he thanked fans for their support. Many of the fans thanked Grunfeld for participating in such an event, and Johnson hinted that there would be more.
"This is part of what we're gonna continue to do is connect with you the fans, because we can't do this without you," he said at the end of the call. "We appreciate that support, need the support....If there's something else that we didn't get to, we do want to get to it, so just simply stay on the line and you'll be transferred to a voice mail and you can leave your question or comment. Believe me, they will be listened to."
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