There’s a dark, ominous cloud hanging above everyone’s head inside the Capital One Arena. Rodney Rikai could sense it as he held a jersey at center court on Tuesday when the team honored him for the five years he spent as the Washington Wizards’ emcee.
It was a familiar feeling for Rodney. It was the same feeling he had for all five years he was with the team — and it’s the same feeling a lot of his friends who still work for the Wizards cope with.
A day after being honored by the team, Rodney logged onto Twitter and fired away. For a few hours, he became the head emcee for #WizardsTwitter, preaching the gospel of hundreds of voiceless Wizards fans.
This man Ernie Grunfeld is the worst GM in all of professional sports bro. And it's not even like he's a nice guy. Dude is a straight up dick. He's perpetually rude, and shows NO sign of gratitude, appreciation or joy for his job— IG|Snap: RodneyRikai (@RodneyRikai) November 21, 2018
Get his ass out of DC IMMEDIATELY. Keeps bringing in players on these 1 year deals who are playing for their next contract, fuckin up team chemistry. Giving player options to dudes who barely deserve a jersey, much less the right to determine whether or not THEY come back— IG|Snap: RodneyRikai (@RodneyRikai) November 21, 2018
Never seen such incompetence by one man... @stephenasmith always barking about how Marvin Lewis should be fired, but took it easy on Ernie Grunfeld who has a WAY worse track record. How are you under a 150 games below .500 for your tenure??— IG|Snap: RodneyRikai (@RodneyRikai) November 21, 2018
Ask any hard working member of monumental that isn't a high ranking exec, or player about their interactions with Ernie. I GUARANTEE over 80% will say, "yo that guy's a douche." He's the cloud bro. He's the dark ass cloud that makes that place not shine like it should— IG|Snap: RodneyRikai (@RodneyRikai) November 21, 2018
It wasn’t the long flight back to Los Angeles that frustrated Rodney after such a momentous night. It was that damn cloud that still loomed inside what used to be his second home.
Ernie Grunfeld has been a constant source of vexation for Rodney — and he’s been for plenty of other people within the organization who don’t have the luxury of speaking out.
“It’s just truth, man,” he said. “I spent five years there and that’s the sentiment of everyone. There’s this big ass elephant in the room that no one is addressing. I’m fortunate that I’ve never been dependent on the Wizards to survive or exist, but there are people in that organization that need that job to feed their family. It’s foul that no one is reporting on the guy who makes the experience of being in that building dark. He casts a shadow above that place and it’s corny that nobody talks about it.”
Rodney is thankful for the five years he spent with the Wizards, but none of it — not even a ceremony — could stop him from sharing his feelings. He felt no apprehension.
“What can Ernie Grunfeld do to me?” he asked. “Ban me from the arena? That’s fine by me. I live in L.A. I can catch a Wizards game when they’re in L.A. I also understand that he directly impacts a lot of people and how they’re able to do their job. I’m not one of them.”
As a basketball fan and former employee, Rodney has spent an awfully long time contemplating a question that no one can quite answer: how does Grunfeld still have a job?
“How the [redacted] do you have a job for 16 years and have a minimal track record?” he asked. “There’s nothing that warrants him having that job for that long. It really makes no sense. He’s had this job since [redacted] Bush. The game of basketball has evolved when he’s been at the helm. I’m not one to take away his credentials, but as a GM it’s not like he’s Jerry West, Pat Riley –- so why does he have the job for this long while looking so disinterested? Why doesn’t he report to anyone throughout the season? No one puts pressure on him to make statements. He just hides and everything falls on John, who’s been a beacon of hope for this city, or Brad, who’s finally come into his own and is getting frustrated because his talent should warrant a certain level of cache in the league.”
Critics will argue that it’s John Wall’s fault — that he hasn’t taken the necessary steps to truly improve his game and reach the level he was expected to reach after being taken first overall. Rodney would point to his supporting cast and the negligent handling of the roster overall.
“Ernie keeps putting a bum team around these guys that can’t flourish in ways they’re capable of,” he said. “There’s no way you add certain elements to a fragile locker room if you have done your homework. It’s clear that he’s guessing. What’s the formula to come to that conclusion — draft picks, the draft, free agency? There’s no way you sat somewhere and watched Tim Frazier play and thought, ‘this was the guy we need backing up John Wall.”
It goes beyond the hardwood, too.
Rodney believes that Grunfeld has contributed to an overall dark feeling within the organization and likened it to the time he used to coach AAU. There were people who overcharged kids or weren’t as transparent with their plans as they should have been. Rodney called those people, “people who take away from the game.” He sees a lot of those people in Grunfeld.
“There’s no love of the game for him,” he said “There’s not a passion for the game that would help ignite a fan base, there’s no interest generally in creating a healthy environment for the players, employees or anyone for that sort.”
“I’ve never spoken to anyone who had a great thing to say about Ernie Grunfeld –- and again, I worked in that arena for five years,” he said. “Never. I’ve never had anyone say, ‘oh, I really like Ernie Grunfeld.’”
Rodney characterized Grunfeld as miserable — someone who’s unable to actually enjoy his job, failing to gather any actual perspective on how to properly lead an organization. His opinions on the ownership are completely the opposite, which makes it even more perplexing that Ted Leonsis, who’s paying luxury tax for a losing team and built a $70 million practice facility, would keep him around.
So who’s to blame? Is it Leonsis’ patience or perhaps even the stars’ tendency to be too loyal? Rodney doesn’t have the answer, but he won’t go as far as to blame John Wall, whom he considers a personal friend.
“I don’t think John [Wall] is complacent at all,” he said. “He’s very appreciative of the opportunity to represent the Wizards and he never wants to come off as ungrateful. He’s not one of those kids that’s second generation NBA bloodline; he’s an underdog who became the number one draft pick.
I think his mom’s influence and background gave him the idea of never going against the team. He’s loyal. He’s super down to earth and grounded. Unfortunately he’s put his hands in the career of people who aren’t great basketball minds for this era of basketball. The game revolves around the guys that John Wall trusts will bring players around him to help him become more successful. It’s just unfortunate. You had so many pieces that could’ve helped. You let Shaun Livingston go. You left Trevor Ariza go. You gave $64 million to Ian Mahinmi.”
Rodney has seen the locker room reports and what he believes are misconceptions — the notion that the players in the locker room hate playing with each other and the Wall and Beal have grown apart. He’s not buying it. Being around the team, Rodney thinks Wall and Beal have a strong relationship - a “brotherhood.” It’s why the team managed to right the ship after injuries and not-so-ideal starts.
But it goes deeper than that. The team has egos, just like any professional club. They’re young. Plus, the coach isn’t particularly abrasive, neither in the locker room nor with the clipboard in his hands. Rodney thinks opposing teams have figured out how to stop the Wizards and Brooks hasn’t done enough to add wrinkles to his offense.
And ultimately, what has he had to work with?
“Constant head scratching moves make the team question whether they’re really trying to compete for a championship,” he said. “There hasn’t been a move to suggest they’re trying to win a championship. There’s been nothing of that nature. What’s the last big move they made? The Keef trade? There’s nothing that says, ‘we want to win a championship.’
Jodie Meeks? A player option? He has the right to say, ‘yeah, I’ll come back’? Why does he get to dictate that? How did he earn that? Did you know that he was still in the NBA? I had no idea — I didn’t know.”
There’s been no indication that Rodney’s frustration will end anytime soon — that the 16-year-old dark cloud that’s been hovering above the Wizards as an organization will finally depart.
If Rodney were to guess, the Wizards just might do enough to keep Grunfeld safe. After all, whether they make or miss the playoffs hasn’t really seemed to make a difference to the ownership. He doesn’t anticipate a major trade involving Wall or Beal, either.
For Grunfeld’s tenure to finally end, Rodney thinks there would have to be public outcry from the media or a player with influence, which might have already happened.
Although he’s in L.A. now, the Grunfeld cloud is still around. It doesn’t impact Rodney like it used to, but he still sees it from afar. And it keeps him puzzled, wondering when the hell it’s finally going to leave.
“I have no idea why he’s still around making basketball decisions,” he said. “He must be one hell of a salesman. From a business standpoint, I don’t get it. Jeanie Buss fired her own brother because he was stinking it up. So I have no idea how he’s still around.”