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On The third Sunday after the NBA lockout ended, the Wizards threw open their doors to fans and proffered God as well as 10 commandments. More than 14,000 were drawn to MCI Center, but most chose to worship an idle idol instead. "We want Rod! We want Rod!" they chanted before a free intrasquad scrimmage. It was a plea for Washington general manager Wes Unseld to sign free-agent point guard Rod Strickland, who last year, his second with the Wizards, led the NBA in assists. His agent, David Falk, was seeking a five-year, $55 million contract for the 10-year veteran; reportedly concerned about Strickland's physical conditioning and eating habits, the club was offering half that over three years, plus two more years worth $23 million if Strickland met certain performance incentives.
The Wizards did have second-year guard God Shammgod manning the point for one squad that afternoon. They had also taken out a full-page ad in The Washington Post, announcing their 10-point contract between the team and its fans. For example, the 10th point was, "We will never forget that the fans are the lifeblood of this game." The lifeblood's response: spoil the rod and spare the children.
Last Saturday night the chant was still going strong during an exhibition loss to the Sixers, and as of Monday the 32-year-old Strickland remained unsigned. That day Unseld declared, "If it's not done by the time we open the season [Friday], then it's not going to get done." Five-year vet Chris Whitney was penciled in as the starter, but because it was unlikely that Strickland would sign elsewhere—he can't earn anywhere near what the Wizards are offering him with another team this season—the feeling around Washington was that it was just a matter of time until the missing member of the conference's top new backcourt arrived.
"We all know that we need him," said the other half of that duo, six-time All-Star Mitch Richmond, an off-season trade acquisition from Sacramento. "The main reason I came here was to play alongside Rod."
Richmond, a 46.3% career shooter, should help open up the inside for power forward Juwan Howard, who is coming off a disappointing season but has displayed an improved focus and a nifty little jump hook. Small forward is manned by streak shooters Calbert Cheaney and Tracy Murray.
Alas, the year-old MCI is the only center that the Wizards can point to with pride. Gheorge Muresan, who missed all of last season, suffers from chronic ankle problems and may never play again. Terry Davis, a 6'10" journeyman, will most likely open the season as the starting pivot.
With Strickland running the show, this team is a playoff contender. But if the Wizards don't bring him back, they'll really be hearing it from their fans, who clearly will worship no false Rods.
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