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WIZARDS COMPLETE HOUSECLEANING BY FIRING COLLINS

First Michael Jordan, now Doug Collins. And if Washington Wizards fans don't like it, they can get their money back.

Collins was fired as the Wizards' coach Friday, three weeks after Jordan was shown the door by owner Abe Pollin. The widely expected move happened sooner than expected -- Pollin originally had pledged to let Jordan's yet-to-be-hired replacement decide Collins' fate.

"I think everybody had a sense all along that I was going to be fired," Collins said. "It was just a matter of when that was going to happen."

In a statement, Pollin said he made the move when he did to give Collins time to pursue other coaching jobs, but Collins had a different reason: the possibility that someone such as former Philadelphia coach Larry Brown could be interested in both coaching and running the front office.

"If they can get Larry Brown, they've hit a home run," Collins said.

Pollin also laid down a new challenge for himself in a separate letter that will be sent to season ticket-holders. After citing the unpopularity of his decision to dismiss Jordan, Pollin promised refunds to fans unhappy with his moves.

"My pledge to you: If you are not satisfied with the direction of our basketball franchise after this summer, I will refund your season-ticket deposit in full," Pollin wrote. A copy of the letter, dated June 2, was obtained by the Associated Press on Friday.

The Wizards are expecting a substantial drop in attendance this season after selling out 82 consecutive games during Jordan's second comeback as a player.

Jordan was the Wizards' president of basketball operations when he hired Collins in April 2001. Jordan then decided to return as a player, putting Collins in the unusual position of coaching the person who hired him. The Wizards went 37-45 both seasons and failed to make the playoffs.

Collins had two years remaining on his four-year contract, but his days were numbered once Pollin decided not to let Jordan, who had retired as a player again, return to the front office.

Collins was an obvious member of the Jordan camp in a franchise that had splintered into two groups -- one supporting the owner, the other supporting Jordan.

"With Michael hiring me, it was natural that I would be the next one to be dismissed," Collins said.

Last week, Pollin said the new president of basketball operations, whom he plans to hire before the June 26 draft, would handle Collins' situation and select the team's coach.

But the fact that Collins was still technically an employee made it awkward for Pollin to pursue some candidates. The Washington Post, citing sources, reported Friday that Brown canceled an interview for a potential front office-coaching position out of respect for Collins.

The Wizards said Pollin would have no further comment. In his letter to season ticket-holders, Pollin said he has "interviewed and will continue to interview the brightest available basketball minds in the business."

"It's my job as a coach to win," Collins said, "and that didn't happen."

Collins said he was not looking to rush into another coaching job.

"Whatever I do next in my life, I want it to be well thought out," Collins said.

Meanwhile, outgoing General Manager Wes Unseld is in charge of draft preparations. Unseld, who held the title in name only while Jordan ran the team for 3 1/2 seasons, is taking a leave of absence after the draft for health reasons.

Nets mighty confident

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Given the opponent they faced and how they played in the NBA Finals a year ago, the New Jersey Nets are thrilled to be going against two-time defending MVP Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs this time around.

That's not a knock at Duncan.

The Nets don't match up well against Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers, and they admit it.

When Shaq wants to play -- which he did last year in leading the Lakers to a sweep and a third straight NBA title -- there is little the Nets can do to stop him.

Against any other team, they feel they have a shot.

"Thirty-four is not there, so that helps," Jason Kidd said Friday as the Nets practiced for the first time knowing their opponent for the NBA Finals, which start Wednesday. "Shaq changes the game by being out there. San Antonio has a guy like that in Tim Duncan."

But it's still not the same. The Spurs don't have a Kobe Bryant, and Duncan isn't Shaq in terms of size and bulk.

He's lighter and more athletic, someone Nets power forward Kenyon Martin can battle.

Mavericks face decisions

DALLAS -- The way things kept going their way, the Dallas Mavericks were starting to think they might be a team of destiny. Maybe coach Don Nelson would get to the NBA Finals for the first time in his 25 seasons, and take the Mavs there for their first time.

Then reality hit.

A horrendous collapse in the fourth quarter of Game Six of the Western Conference finals Thursday night ended those dreams. Dallas led by 13 points with under 11 minutes left, then saw the San Antonio Spurs go on a 23-0 run to win the game and the series.

"This was supposed to be our year," Dallas' Michael Finley said. "Everything was set up for us to go to the finals, and we fell short. Next year, we might have the same opportunity, but it won't be as easy."

On Friday, an exhausted but relatively upbeat Nelson began looking ahead to next season.

The top priority is settling his status. Is he staying on as coach and general manager or becoming only the GM? His coaching contract expired this season and owner Mark Cuban hasn't committed to an extension.

Cuban softened his stance in recent days and said in an e-mail Friday that it's up to Nelson whether he wants to keep coaching. Nelson said he's flying to his offseason home in Maui today for about two weeks to think about what he wants to do.

"I've told Nellie during the season that I want him back and I told him again this morning," Cuban wrote. "He did a great job this year and has earned some R&R time. When he gets back from Hawaii, we will sit down and take care of things."

Nelson didn't tell reporters about such an offer, saying instead that Cuban also needed "a chance to step away and decide what he wants to do."

Shaq admits he 'messed up'

LOS ANGELES -- O'Neal acknowledged he "messed up" by not attending his season-ending meetings with the Lakers' staff, a snub that had angered coach Phil Jackson.

The players were expected to meet with the coaches before taking off for the summer.

"I didn't go to the meeting and I'll take the punishment like a man," O'Neal said. "I don't make excuses and I'll never talk back. I'll never embarrass Phil. I messed up and when I mess up, I'll always clean up."

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