From ex-Wizards to world champs

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- It's taken almost a quarter of a century, but Washington, D.C., is an NBA champion again. The Bullets/Wizards are finally out of the wilderness and back among the NBA's elite. And beating the Lakers to do it! Well, for my hometown, quite a coup.

I remember being a kid, and going to the Capital Centre, and ...

Um, David? What are you talking about?

Well, the fact that the Wizards are beating the Lakers to win the Finals is an amazing feat, considering ...

Uh, hello? The Wizards aren't in the Finals.

Of course, they are. Don't you see Ben Wallace blocking shots and manning the paint? And Rasheed Wallace the other night -- what a game! And Rip Hamilton doing work, running like crazy all over the floor? Why, even Darvin Ham is getting some significant run. Wizards, everywhere.

Excuse me, dope. They aren't Wizards. They're Detroit Pistons. The Wizards traded all of them, or let them go.

They did?

Yes. They did.

Oh. Never mind.

So call the Pistons "Wizards West."

"We talk about it all the time," Ben Wallace said. "I guess a lot of people around the league knew something Washington didn't."

I asked Joe Dumars if the Pistons' victory parade would detour through D.C. -- or at least a tony suburb of D.C., like Bethesda, Maryland.

"Why are you taking a shot at your 'hood?," he asked, chuckling.

I'm not, really. (Well, maybe a little.) Sifting through the decisions that the Bullets/Wizards made over the years to get rid of so much talent makes you aware of how precarious it is to evaluate and manage NBA talent. You have to make decisions on whether young players with potential will ever reach that potential. And when you swing and miss, the reverberations can harm a franchise for a decade.

Take Rasheed Wallace. After his rookie season in Washington in 1994, the Bullets -- they were still the Bullets then -- were in desperate need of a point guard to go with their core of young big men, which included Wallace, Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Gheorge Muresan and Jim McIlvaine. The Trail Blazers had had their fill of Rod Strickland, who was in his talented but turbulent prime. Washington had a surplus of bigs, and Wallace had driven everyone in D.C. crazy with his rashes of technical fouls.

So off 'Sheed went, along with Harvey Grant, for Strickland. And with Strickland running the show, the Wizards made the playoffs for the first time in a decade.

Now, was that a bad trade? On the surface, it's defendable. But after Muresan got hurt, and McIlvaine got $33 million from Seattle, and Webber was traded to Sacramento for an aging Mitch Richmond, it doesn't look so hot.

But the Wizards got lucky. Washington general manager Wes Unseld had been enamored with a young kid from Virginia Union that had no range, but had major hops and a proclivity to block shots into the third row. The Celtics had had the kid in their rookie camp, but told him he was too small to play center -- and, incredibly, tried to convince him his future in the NBA was as a two guard or small forward.

Ben Wallace said, "No thanks," and went to Washington as a free agent. He paid his own way.

"I had to catch a ride to get up there," he said. "That's all I was looking for, was an opportunity. Once I got out there, I figured if I do what I do, I'd have a good opportunity to make the team ... when they traded Rasheed, they was bringing me in. They never asked me what number I wanted to wear, or anything. They just gave me No. 30."

Which just happened to be Rasheed Wallace's number.

"Smelled like mothballs," Ben Wallace said.

Draw your own conclusions here.

For three years, Wallace was a presence and occasional starter for the Wizards. I remember one night in Orlando standing next to Unseld. Wallace had just knocked someone into next Tuesday. "This kid is going to be a player," Unseld said. In Wallace's third season, he blocked 1.9 shots a game and looked like he was going to be Washington's big man of the future. And then, he wasn't.

"They said they knew they were going to miss what I bring to the team night in and night out," Wallace recalled, "but that they had an opportunity to get a true center and they couldn't pass that up."

And that true center was ...

"Um, Ike Austin," Wallace said.

He had the class not to laugh out loud.

Ham played in 71 games for Washington in the 1997-98 season, earning a reputation as a high flier and a crowd favorite. He was on the last Wizards team to post a winning record, and thought he might have a future in D.C. He thought wrong.

"With me, the lockout hit, and they wanted me to bring me into camp, but they didn't want to guarantee me anything," Ham said. "So I went to Spain, and after the lockout, I came back and signed with Milwaukee. ... I just think as far the coaching, you've got to have a vision. One thing I learned in Milwaukee, and I've seen here, is that when there's direction, everything else will fall into line. We set goals, and we got the personnel to accomplish those goals. There, it was like they were constantly searching and searching."

By the time Hamilton was taken by the Wizards with the seventh pick in the 1999 draft, Washington had gone in a totally different direction. They liked the thin guard who'd just come off a national championship at the University of Connecticut. Hamilton was happy in Washington, and even after Michael Jordan came aboard as the team's president of basketball operations, Hamilton believed he was a cornerstone of the franchise.

"You look at the team we had before MJ came," Hamilton said. "We had me, Courtney (Alexander), Kwame (Brown), Brendan (Haywood). We had just gotten T Lue (Tyronn Lue) from the Lakers. We had a nice young core. We were really starting to get that edge. We was really starting to build something. They always said we were going to grow together."

Hamilton says he learned a lot from Jordan both as an executive and a teammate. He says that Doug Collins taught him that he had to learn to move without the ball to be a major scorer in the league. Playing next to Jordan, Hamilton looked like Washington's heir apparent, averaging 20 a game, and he wanted a contract extension to reflect that status. The Wizards said at the time that Hamilton was demanding a max contract, and Jordan -- who was now making the personnel decisions -- wasn't willing to tie the team up long-term with that kind of deal.

So ... Hamilton was sent packing for Jerry Stackhouse. He says he hasn't talked to anyone in Washington since, though he says he's given up a grudge against the city that lasted for months.

"It's kind of tough," Hamilton said. "When they tell you that you're a franchise player and all of a sudden they mess around and trade you, it's crazy. That's when you understand and realize that this game isn't about basketball all the time. It's a business, also."

When Joe Dumars heard that Hamilton might be available, he jumped on it quick.

"This guy can score in a variety of ways, without having to come down, catch it, and go into his one-on-one thing," Dumars said. "That was appealing to me. Especially with the new rules, I thought it was going to become harder and harder for guys to just come down and hold it and go one-on-one."

With Rasheed Wallace coming from Portland via a pit stop in Atlanta, the last piece to a team that should be a title contender for a while was in place. With a quarter of the roster having matured and developed on someone else's dime, big dividends should be paid in Detroit. And for that, the Pistons can thank their lucky stars ... and a certain franchise in the nation's capital that knows talent when it sees it ... but can't seem to keep it when it needs it.

David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.