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The weight of rebuilding the Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards are in the first year of a rebuild. Every night, they've looked for something to believe in -- and something to find joy in.



The weight of rebuilding the Washington Wizards
The weight of rebuilding the Washington Wizards
JORDAN POOLE KNOWS how this looks. We're speaking in the Washington Wizards locker room, and he's trying to explain why his play has been so off this year.

It's mid-January, and his Wizards just lost to the defending champion Denver Nuggets, their fourth consecutive loss in a mini-losing streak that will soon extend to six games. Poole finished with 4 points, 4 fouls and 1 rebound in 28 minutes.

"You don't want to make it look worse than what it already is, right?" he says. His eyes scan the corners of the room as he considers how far he wants to take his point.

"Let's say I go five possessions without touching the ball, six possessions without touching the ball, I could force the next four, right? But if we already forced four shots, now it just looks like even worse basketball."

His moods shift from answer to answer: media-trained-give-them-nothing professional, thwarted talent, team player, gunner, desperate to please, unwilling to pander, at his wits' end.

Poole keeps coming back to the word, look. He's worried about being scrutinized. He feels like everyone is waiting for their next chance to laugh at him.

It's not just the way NBA fans online have clipped and made a meme out of his every gaffe this season. (I don't know how many times I've watched Poole shoot and miss that look-away 3 against Memphis.) It's that the laughing hasn't really stopped since the grainy video of Draymond Green folding Poole to the floor with a leaping right hand in October 2022 leaked online.

So he's stuck on how things look. "I could go shoot the ball six times in a row, right? But then what does that look like for our team?" he asks. "I mean, s---, you watched the game."

Poole sounds like a player hooping in a hall of mirrors, every decision viewed from multiple angles, nothing coming instinctively from a young player once considered one of the most exuberant, fluid talents in the NBA, a junior Splash Brother, a scoring replacement for a declining Klay Thompson, a face to help lead the Warriors into the post-dynasty years.

He hardly knows what to do with his body sometimes. "So, I could have an open three, but I didn't shoot the ball in 12 minutes. So, should I drive to the basket and try to get an easy one?"

He sighs, miserably, and not for the first time. "It's so much."

This is what losing is like.

WEEKS BEFORE I MET Poole I traveled to Boston to see a different version of losing. The Detroit Pistons had lost 27 straight games and were trying to avoid ignominy -- 28 straight would tie the record for the longest losing streak in NBA history.

Surprisingly, the Pistons led the Celtics by 19 at halftime. I leaned over my phone in the press area during intermission, scrolling absently when I saw Wizards star Kyle Kuzma's tweet in which he shared an image of the score and took a shot at Boston, At this point, it's like, "Don't be that team."

Detroit blew that 19-point lead, all in the third quarter, and then hung around in the fourth until they fell slowly, inexorably behind in overtime.

The Pistons' locker room after the loss was sour, silent. It looked like they'd been sitting there draped in towels for days. No one would talk about the weight of the streak. It was Monty Williams trying to rally the team one moment -- "We're getting so close to not just winning one game but winning a lot of games" -- and worrying about his players the next -- "I hurt for them." It was heads down hovering over phones. Killian Hayes at his locker, eyes remote. Cade Cunningham talking from under a towel, looking for lessons. "I've never been through anything like this," he said to a scrum of reporters. It was not fun to look at.

The beat reporters could hardly bring themselves to ask about the streak. They wanted to talk about specific sequences in the disastrous third quarter. They wanted to talk about basketball. They didn't want to ask: Do you feel like you are losing your mind? Are you OK?

Detroit didn't quite expect to be here at the start of the season -- they have rising talent such as Cunningham, Jaden Ivey and Jalen Duren -- but Washington did. For the Wizards, this has been the first season of a long-awaited rebuild. As Kuzma was tweeting, the Wizards had just three more wins than the Pistons and now as the season winds down, they are only two games ahead of them at the bottom of the league.

Kuzma's tweet stayed with me as I left the Pistons' locker room. It wasn't the audacity of sounding smug from the lofty perch of five wins, but the shrug of the tweet. This was either the tweet of the most unbothered player in the NBA or the most terrified -- I never want to be on a team that loses to the Pistons.

There is nothing spectacular happening in Washington. No gaudy streak, no shattering disappointment. The Wizards are a few years behind Detroit, according to Wizards general manager, Will Dawkins. They are young and currently without All-Star-caliber talent.

They walk into an arena nearly every night expecting to lose. The fans, with little to root for, live on fumes, huffing every wisp of progress from young players like Bilal Coulibaly or Deni Avdija. They believe in Jordan Poole and then give up on him and then believe in him again. You can watch this happen over the course of a single game.

It's all going according to plan, but the reality of being a professional door mat is much harder when you get stepped on nearly every night for eight months. Everyone in the organization has to face this in their own way. That's part of losing. You do it alone by imagining a beautiful future, or waiting to escape, or saying losing isn't really losing if you think about it, or by wondering: How did I get here?

MICHAEL WINGER, THE president of the Wizards, has taken a wrong turn. It's his third wrong turn in the last five minutes. This is partially because I need to shut up and let him concentrate and partially because his GPS app is a little delayed, and he's still learning his way around the city.

It is the morning of January 17. Bundled in our coats in his black SUV, we're racing southeast to the Wizards' practice facility.

A reminder pops up on the car display: What are your three core values? Rebuilding a team is all-consuming, including the parts of you that need to learn how to get to work when you don't start from home, including the parts of you trying to remember who you are outside your job.

I met Winger for the first time two days earlier, just before the Wizards tipped off against the Pistons. He smiled and said he was nervous about our upcoming conversation. "I talk too much," he says. "I'm nervous I'm gonna say something and then leave like..." He playfully bites his fist.

Over scrambled egg whites and a parfait, Winger teases out the contradictions he's trying to solve while leading a rebuild of a franchise that hasn't won 50 games since 1978.

"Is it impossible to play with joy while not being favored to win most games?" he asks. "I don't know." That's one contradiction, joy while losing.

Here's another: the obvious desire and need for a rebuild and the impatience with it. Winger heard from fans, local media, people within the organization and even players who said the team badly needed to start over. Between 2021 and 2023, the star pairing of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis, foiled by a combination of injury and mediocrity, failed to make the postseason for two years straight.

"It is certainly harder than I ever anticipated for a market that seemed to have been excited about a rebuild to not necessarily find the appeal in the early going," Winger says. Long-term plans don't inoculate you against day-to-day pressure. Winger hears the muttering -- new suits, same old Wizards.

He loves a big idea. He makes notes to himself often, and he reads me some: What is your organizational appeal? While losing, how are you appealing to the fans? Your most amplified and influential growth will come from the experiences and cognitive challenges you find most uncomfortable, unfamiliar, and unachievable.

Here's a big idea, or NBA truism, the Unattainable Triangle of Roster Construction: You cannot have youth, flexibility and stars at the same time. Trying to maintain all three at once, he thinks, has been part of the Wizard's problem in the recent past.

Back in Winger's SUV, another reminder pops up on the display: Family First -- the reason you do what you do and make... The screen cannot accommodate the rest.

He worries about how little time he has to read and has resorted to audiobooks in his car. He typically listens to Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis. "You know, very contemporary thinking books," he says. But he's recently added popular histories, books such as Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," Richard Rhodes' "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" and Bill Bryson's "A Short History of Nearly Everything."

He calls an assistant on speaker -- "There's a reporter in the car so be nice" -- to let her know he's going to be late for his 9:30 a.m. meeting. I ask why Wes Unseld Jr. is the right coach for this team, and Winger extolls his player development history and high character. Winger is an energetic, relatively young man, and these Wizards are his project. He paints in broad conceptual strokes. He is as likely to worry about the team's joy as its record.

While Dawkins handles the day-to-day, traveling with the team, and overseeing the player development program, Winger's role is to envision the team's future, strategizing Monumental Basketball's (the company that owns the Wizards and Mystics) potential departure from Capital One arena, for example. A fraught relocation from downtown Washington to Arlington that Virginia's state senate seemed to all but kill in early March.

But Winger has won big before, laying the groundwork that lured Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the Los Angeles Clippers.

"Create appeal and an opportunity," he says. "And then you have to let the world rotate. Like, the universe does what universe does."

I ask what book he is currently listening to on his morning drives. He says, "It's a curious book, and I hope it doesn't reveal anything about my character. 'The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.'"

Eight days later, he fires Unseld as the team's head coach.

AFTER THE TRADE deadline, Kuzma and Tyus Jones, at 28 and 27 years old respectively, are now two of the oldest players on the Wizards' roster. Their lockers are next to each other, across the room from Poole. Together, Kuzma and Jones are the team's most reliable players on a nightly basis, its veteran conscience. Given their experience and Jones' ballhandling responsibilities, they've become the team's possession-to-possession brain.

The Wizards' week starts Monday against the Pistons, who have the worst record in the league and are missing Cunningham. The story of the night is Detroit's Alec Burks going 8-for-12 from 3 and tying his career high of 34 points. Washington loses 129-117. Its 32nd loss in 39 games; Detroit's fourth win. Kuzma is ejected late in the fourth quarter for clapping in a referee's face.

Postgame, the Bills vs. Steelers NFL wild-card game plays on large TVs on opposite walls in the locker room. There are a couple of days off and this is a Monday matinee. Everyone seems eager to put it behind them. The locker room clears quickly, Kuzma among the first to rush away.

He had never been ejected in the NBA before tonight. Some veteran griping from Landry Shamet and Jones in their quick postgame pressers further hints at a group under duress. They point to lapses in concentration and physicality in neutral, obligatory tones.

There are no good losses, but there are bad ones. It's the second time they've fallen to Detroit this season, the kind of game that makes players and front office types alike wonder what it is they're doing. "I think that we had too many guys just not take that game as seriously as they may have taken a game against, you know, a contender," Winger says. "And it showed. Our effort was pretty poor. Our rotations were not really that good."

"We weren't taking them out of what they were trying to get to," Jones says. "Can't have lulls in the game where they go on runs and we're just gifting them points."

All of that feels addressed at the midweek game at Madison Square Garden three days later. The New York Knicks lead by one after the third quarter, eventually winning a 113-109 thriller decided by the fact the Wizards don't have anyone who can guard Jalen Brunson in crunch time. This is a recognizable loss for a rebuilding team, overwhelmed by the opposition's star talent.

In the afternoon before the Knicks game, I seek out Kuzma after shootaround. A team rep scans the arena floor with his eyes. Players get shots up, stretch, and lounge around. Coaches huddle and various Wizards staffers float around. The ball strikes and sneaker squeaks on the hardwood echo in the empty arena. I spot Kuzma sitting courtside, knees wrapped in ice. Next to him, of course, is Jones. The rep decides I should just speak to the two of them at once.

As we talk courtside and later walk down the long ramp from the arena floor to the team bus underground, Kuzma and Jones put on a professional, on-message face while addressing the team's struggles. They talk how vets should talk.

"I won a championship. [Jones has] been on multiple 50-win teams," Kuzma says. "But for us, it's like, you have to kind of change your approach a little bit. And it's like, what do you do it for? You know? And I think if I could speak for myself, it's about development every single day. Like, I can get better every day."

"You gotta be understanding, understanding of the situation, understanding of where we're at as a team," Jones says.

I walk to the team bus between them, holding the recorder up to each of them in turn as they answer. A little duet of gratitude breaks out.

"We're living our dream job," Jones says.

"There's only like 450 [players in the NBA]," Kuzma says. "So, like, that's a great honor."

Jones is a free agent this summer and was one of the most frequently mentioned players at the trade deadline, though he wasn't moved. Kuzma signed a $90 million four-year deal last summer. Kuzma, who does not have a no-trade clause, turned down the opportunity to leave at the trade deadline, but his contract is structured to pay him less each successive season. It's designed to make him easily tradable in the future. This is the song of the soon-to-be liberated.

"Take care of your body. Work hard. Watch film. Be studious," Kuzma says.

"Trust in the process," Jones says. "Chop wood. Carry water."

"Find beauty in the struggle," Kuzma says twice. "Rome wasn't built in a day," Jones says, also twice.

LOSING AND EXPECTING to lose creates a pedagogical problem in the short term. Nothing coaches ask players to do will likely impact the bottom line of wins and losses, maybe for years.

The day after the loss to the Knicks, spirits are up at the Wizards facility. Players horse around after practice, throwing a football and running one-on-one routes in the gym. I sit with members of the coaching staff to talk about what you say and how you instruct when you can't win.

Assistant coaches Brian Keefe (soon to be head coach) and David Vanterpool, both gurus of player development, have been influential in the careers of players such as Kevin Durant, James Harden, Dame Lillard and CJ McCollum. After Keefe replaced Unseld as coach, Durant said of Keefe, "He taught me everything I know."

We arrange chairs in a triangle, with me facing the two of them. They almost have a good cop-bad cop thing going. Keefe is all avuncular gentleness, warm eyes, thoughtful "hmms," arms crossed over his chest. The first sentence out his mouth after we introduce ourselves is: "The first thing to me is you're really developing, holistically, the whole person." Vanterpool's gaze is more intense, he's slightly taller. The sternness of his effect fades when you notice how often he smiles.

"Holistically" is not just a buzzword. Together, the coaches outline the Wizards' player development system, led by Dawkins. Each player is assigned a team of 10 people consisting of a physical therapist, strength conditioning coach, a player development coach who works on-court skills, someone from the video room, someone from the front office, nutritionists, a mental health expert and a sleep therapist. This group assembles roughly every 10 days, creating a rolling, updated portfolio for each player.

But what is all of this doing? I'm left asking an old question while confronted by new ideas. Every member of the Wizards' hierarchy -- from Winger to Dawkins to Unseld -- admits the team is underachieving. Even though losses are part of this stage of the plan, they expected to win more games than they have, if only a few more.

"We're really focused on habits and process because, to be honest with you, they shouldn't really be any different if you win the game or lose the game," Keefe says.

How do you balance that with competition? Isn't losing supposed to sting?

Vanterpool pivots to a different definition. "What does winning actually mean? What does success actually mean? For us, when you talk about development, did I get better today? It's a small victory. If the answer is yes, you won."

Kuzma and Poole have won championships. Jones has played for 50-win teams. They don't require therapeutic redefinitions of success, they've tasted the real thing. "I'm not going to sit here and bulls--- you and say that we have joy," Poole says. "Winning brings that."

Keefe, Vanterpool and I talk, eventually, about their approach to teaching. Coaches are trying to learn new ways to teach young players the NBA game. They complain about the habits of new players and a steep decline in practice time around the league.

"Veteran guys, they watch games. They understand the league. The younger generations of players don't watch basketball. You will be shocked." Unseld tells me after practice. "Us as coaches are kind of retraining how we teach. We've got to meet them where they are. We can't expect them to meet us where we are. Because it's not what I know; it's what they retained."

One adaptation the Wizards have made is to gamify film study. They send video quizzes to players' smartphones. A sequence will run and then freeze frame at a critical point where a read must be made, the player then chooses which read they think is correct. The clip runs and the player finds out if they were right. The team monitors the results of these visual quizzes and players and coaches review them together.

And they've adapted in other ways. By embracing player power. Coaches like Keefe and Vanterpool consciously reject a hierarchical approach between themselves and their players.

"It's not me just saying, 'You need to get better at this.' I think they would tune me out pretty quickly," Keefe says.

Vanterpool demonstrates the point. "You're on that side of that table, I'm on this side of the table, we start to go back and forth. And it's almost like a tennis match, just bang, bang," he says.

"It's a totally different thing if I get up," and he does. He rises out of his chair and comes to stand next to mine. "And I sit on the same side of the table as you. And now, we're both together, looking at the same issue or problem. Now, we're sharing ideas. And now, we're figuring out how to tackle this."

When he sits back down across from me, he says, "You saw the guys throwing the football around and having a good time in here? That's the idea. It should feel like that, every single day."

I find myself thinking about Marvin Bagley III, who was just traded to Washington after losing 30-plus games with Detroit. So I ask him what he thinks about the Wizards' "holistic" approach to player development.

"That's definitely new to me," Bagley says. The second overall pick in 2018 and on his third team in six years, a youngish player getting older all the time, a guy who wants to believe the Wizards are onto something. "That's definitely big time... I think that'll help me a lot."

THE NEXT DAY, the Wizards blow a fourth-quarter lead against the San Antonio Spurs. It's a thrilling night because the game is tight throughout and because of Victor Wembanyama. Everything he does draws oohs and aahs, just watching him run is hard to square with our understanding of our bodies. The Spurs call a few plays that can only be described as "Throw it high for Wemby." And when he jumps near the rim, for a frozen splinter of a second, he is up there alone.

I spot Dawkins a few rows back from the court, sitting opposite the Wizards' bench. His hands rest on his knees, his face frozen in detachment except for the slow swivel of his head up the court and back, his mouth working reflexively at some gum. He watches nearly the whole game like this.

It was easy to move past the Knicks' loss, the Wizards simply aren't good enough. But, even with Wembanyama, the Spurs are another young rebuilding team without many wins.

Kuzma is dressed in top-to-bottom black leather as he answers questions postgame, his tone noticeably different than a few days before. I ask him if he's still feeling the little wins of incremental growth that the team preaches about. "Last game versus the Knicks we had great stretches, played it down to the wire, that's incremental growth. But you can't take three steps back the following game, and that's what we did."

The front office is trying to manage this "worse before it gets better" stage of the rebuild, focusing on the long-term plan to scout, draft and develop young talent, the Oklahoma City Thunder model. (Both Winger and Dawkins are proteges of Sam Presti.) The coaches are trying to focus on their processes, staving off the weight of the results, as long as they can. The team's vets are saying all the right things. But the struggle isn't so beautiful tonight. Kuzma can't quite reign in his frustration.

When asked what the team needs to do to play better, he answers, "I truly don't know. We've been through so many games this year and haven't changed much. The answer's not always play harder."

Kuzma walks out of the locker room, I see he's holding a burgundy-colored book, Sun Tzu's "The Art of War."

A couple of weeks later, I asked Kuz if he had finished it. Jones, undressing in the neighboring locker, laughs. "No, I had to put it away," Kuzma said. I tease him and ask if he's been carrying it around as an ornament.

"Like Bron," chimes in Jones.

"Yeah, I'm worse than Bron," Kuzma says.

He tells me he has read "The Art of War" several times and that he tends to reread and consult his favorite books often. He rattles off the rest: "The Way of the Superior Man" by David Deida, "Zen in the Art of Archery" by the philosopher Eugen Herrigel, Will Smith's memoir and Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," a book Kobe Bryant turned him on to.

I ask him how he got into that kind of writing. He says those are the only kinds of books he's ever really been interested in.

I notice his black baseball cap, a frequent piece of his wardrobe. It's inscribed with white letters that read, "Be Well."

THE SECOND NIGHT of the back-to-back is against the Nuggets, who play with a perfunctory half-disinterest, rolling their peas from one side of the plate to the other. From late in the second quarter, the game is three or four consecutive good Wizards possessions from feeling within reach. It's still a snooze.

Poole is having one of those games. After he makes his only bucket with 4:30 left in the second quarter he gestures like, I don't know man, I can't call it. Before halftime, he turns the ball over and air-balls a step-back 3.

It's the worst he has played during my week with the team. In the locker room postgame, he's gamely trying to suppress his irritation. We're 3 minutes into talking in front of his locker when he pauses in the middle of an anodyne answer about getting better each day and says, "Coach has a lot to do with it."

I stop to register his change of mind about what kind of conversation this is going to be. Before I start up again, he says, "Apologies, too, bro, we just got our ass kicked."

I ask him about "joy," one of the team's mantras, a feeling its players desperately have to hold onto.

"Thankful for the opportunity, but joy, not currently, not at the moment," he says after another long pause. "I think winning brings that, team basketball brings that ... You can't bulls--- that, though. You can't fake that. It's not something that you can just say, and just apply it, right? Joy almost has to be earned."

Poole is in a strange position. At 24 years old, he's very much on the Wizards' rebuilding timetable. He is years away from his prime. Like Kuzma, he's already been an important part of a championship team. Unlike Kuzma, Poole probably imagines he has more in his future than being an elite role player. Processes are integral, but stars are stars because they produce results.

"I played with Steph, Klay and Draymond," he says. "Wiggs is an All-Star. Averaging 20 points behind three Hall of Famers, playing 30 minutes with three Hall of Famers."

Highlight reels of Poole's mistakes have gone viral all season; Poole getting blocked while shooting a transition 3, slipping while taking the ball down the court, and most notably, appearing to be disengaged during a timeout and ignoring coaches in the huddle.

"He has to be mindful of that -- Twitter and the cameras are everywhere, and people are everywhere," Vanterpool says. "I don't know that he has any social media." Poole doesn't. Or he does, barely. He's not on X and has only nine posts on Instagram.

His teammates and coaches tell me he has been focused and hardworking throughout the season. One day when I arrived early for practice, he was alone on the floor, shooting free throws. "I've proven this at the highest level," Poole says. "I think other people see it, but the people who need to see it, don't."

He laments the fourth quarter against the Spurs the night before, which comes out as a criticism of his coaches: "In that last 20 seconds, we got a chance to win the game, but because there are no roles that are implemented, guys aren't being told consistently what they can do. Guys aren't being put in situations to play to their superpower. It's tough. You give up games that you should win. That's not the first time it's happened."

The promotion of Keefe and the departure of Unseld (surely the target of his gripes) have been mixed for Poole. The team lost 16 straight, including being winless in February. In the first six games of February, Poole averaged 8.8 points on a 34.7 true shooting percentage. During that stretch, he went scoreless on 0-5 shooting against the Cavaliers.

After the All-Star break, Keefe benched him, a move meant to get him more minutes as a primary ball handler and give the team a scoring punch in its second unit. He has scored more and seemed to play more confidently overall, but the double-clutches that have blighted his season were still obvious in a late-February game against his former team, the Golden State Warriors.

THIS IS MEME Jordan Poole again. A nervous, twitchy performance where he seems to have three or four thoughts in his head as soon as he receives a pass. The arena in Washington sounds more like a Warriors home game, filled with fans who are here to cheer for Steph Curry.

A sequence of plays in the third quarter against Golden State seems to define Poole's season, the Wizards' year in the fog of losing, sometimes surging ahead, sometimes stumbling and lost. He puts an outrageous move on Curry -- dribbling into a fake spin, then a left-to-right crossover into a behind-the-back, right-to-left, step-back 3 that sent Curry flying by on the contest. The crowd aahs. But the shot bricks. Next, he air-balls a corner 3. And then a moment of pure yips -- the ball comes straight out of his hands on a 3-point try. It slips up and backward over his head.

After the game, he embraces Thompson and other former teammates and coaches. He shares particularly long hugs with Steve Kerr and Curry. Green turns away, and there is nothing dramatic in it. The embarrassment was public. The repair, if it happens, will have to begin in private. For now, there is nothing to say.

Though he's not made available to media, Poole seems to be in good spirits later in the locker room. He marvels at a Ricky Council IV dunk against the Celtics on one of the TVs and jokes with a staff member who refuses to toss him a Sharpie, instead trudging over to hand it to him.

"Throw it!" Poole keeps saying as the staffer approaches. "You can't throw it?"

"No, you can't catch it with your stone hands."

Poole takes the Sharpie and mugs at the staffer like "Yeah, right."

THE CRISIS OF BEING on a losing team is that it reinscribes your loneliness. You pore over the blueprints, searching for the faulty node in the organizational grid, the intersection of confusion, the place where the signals get crossed. You notice your diagnosis of the problem isn't the same as your teammate's. You can't quite believe this. Aren't they looking at the same thing?

Mike Malone, Denver's head coach, told me that losing in the NBA feels like being alone on an island. There's Jordan Poole, eyes up to the sky, hands out in a plea. There's Dawkins, a statue in the stands. There's Kuzma with a book in his hand and wellness jargon on the tip of his tongue. There's player development guys redefining "wins" and a head coach getting axed for his losses.

"There's no connection," Poole tells me. "There's no cohesiveness."

When people say winning cures everything, they mean something like it dissolves your meager subjectivity, temporarily, imperfectly, into a collective. Everyone is moving in the same direction and knows what's expected of them; any dissatisfaction must be buried in the name of results.

In Washington, there are as many ways of coping as there are members of the organization.

I watch the loneliness land on Poole and draw down the corners of his mouth as we stare at each other in the corner of the locker room. I watch it bring his eyes low as he searches for his next answer.

I watch him give up on answers.

He looks up to meet my eyes, and maybe because he hasn't thought to try this question yet, he says: "When you watch us play, what do you see?"