"I don't think people want to give this team the benefit of the doubt," Webber says. That may be because the Wizards have been even more immature—dangerously so—off the court. In November '96, Howard was charged with driving while intoxicated after being stopped for speeding, though the charge was dropped after he agreed to enter an alcohol rehabilitation and education program. Last September, Strickland was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and disorderly conduct. In January, Webber was charged with three misdemeanors, including second-degree assault, and six traffic violations, including driving under the influence of a controlled, dangerous substance, after he was stopped by police on the way to a morning practice. Strickland's and Webber's charges are pending.
Not all of their misbehavior was related to traffic violations. On Dec. 10, Strickland and Murray had a fight in a Charlotte hotel room over comments Murray had made to a woman about Strickland. That night Washington lost 104-101 to the Hornets. Strickland played with a taped left wrist and Murray with seven stitches below his left eye, a swollen lip and a bruise on his arm. "They take responsibility for what they've done, they don't run from it or make excuses," says Bickerstaff of his trouble-prone team. "If they weren't good human beings, I would be the first to say so, but they are." The Wizards have a relatively harmonious locker room—even Strickland and Murray have made peace—nor is there any lack of respect for Bickerstaff, making the situation even more baffling.
Strickland, who at week's end was leading the NBA in assists with 10.6 per game, has played as well as any point guard in the league this season, with the possible exception of Seattle's Gary Payton. Howard, who was averaging 18.7 points and 7.0 rebounds, is the highest-paid Wizard, MH having signed a seven-year, $105 million contract before last season. However, it is the talented, charismatic-Webber who has to deal with the blessing and the curse of being Washington's most identifiable player. He has had perhaps the finest season of his five-year career, averaging 22.2 points and 9.4 rebounds. Yet he is seen by many as exciting but not a winner—much like his team. Of the Wizards' big three, he is also the one most willing to confront the problems, his team's and his own, head-on. "I've made mistakes and put myself in certain positions that I shouldn't have been in, and that's my fault," he says.
Allowing fans to have a five-minute conversation with Webber—he talks softly and sensibly about his team's difficulties and about how badly he wants Washington to become a consistent winner—might be the surest way for him and the Wizards to reverse their image. Webber insists that his antics on the court, his gestures and scowling demeanor, aren't meant to be offensive. I le drew criticism for his throat-cutting act after Washington beat New Jersey, but he says the move was intended as a playful message to some college buddies in the stands, not as a taunt to the Nets or their fans. "I wish I hadn't done that in front of the camera, but it was not meant the way people interpreted it," Webber says. "I don't want to eliminate things like that from my game entirely, but I need to choose the time and the place more wisely."
Until he does, the Wizards will not be an every-night kind of team. "I think they want it, but they don't know yet how to get it," says Bickerstaff. "We have a ways to go, but we're on the right track." That may be, but what good is being on the right track when you're running in place?