Candace Buckner has encountered a few surprises since arriving in D.C. as the Washington Post’s new Wizards beat writer. Some of these, like discovering that all the Smithsonian museums are free, have been pleasant, if tangential, to her career. But there’s a big one that could not be more relevant.
“My introduction to [Wizards] fans was just their utter disappointment,” Buckner says. “I’m just surprised, because as an outsider I never viewed the Wizards as this chronically underachieving franchise.”
It’s a refreshing perspective in what is perpetually a hangdog basketball town.
It’s not that Buckner is unfamiliar with the team or its management. She came to the Post earlier this month from the Indianapolis Star, where she covered the Indiana Pacers, and she spent some time at the Vancouver Columbian covering the Portland Trail Blazers before that. So she’s seen the local team and their fans from the visiting media seats in the Verizon Center press box, most notably during the Pacers/Wizards second-round playoff series in 2014.
“I saw the Verizon Center … I don’t know if it was packed, but it was energetic,” she recalls. “I saw these two young guys forming a backcourt that I thought was going to be the best in the league in no time.”
She expected sustained improvement from the Wizards and was somewhat surprised to see them falter last year. “I thought, too much talent, they’re gonna sneak into the eighth seed. Never happened.”
From her vantage point outside the bubble of D.C. sports neuroses, it was a disappointing but ultimately forgettable dip. And then the Post called. She accepted the position, announced it on social media, and immediately discovered a fan base with a chip on its shoulder the size of the Pentagon. She was reminded that the team hadn’t had a 50-win season since the Carter administration. Many asked when she’d be writing a “Fire Ernie Grunfeld” piece.
Fans enjoy wallowing in their misery, but this seemed a bit much, she says. “It’s like, really? Is he doing that poor of a job? When I first got on the Pacers beat, that team—the Wizards—did make it to the second round two years in a row, so I didn’t think it was that terrible.”
With the Wizards preseason still more than a month away, the Post’s plans for the beat are still in process, but Buckner has been penning offseason NBA pieces and contributing to the Post’s Olympics coverage.
Perhaps her most striking work to date is a blend of reporting and first-person opinion about gymnast Gabby Douglas and how black women feel about their hair. The controversy struck a deep nerve with Buckner, the only African-American woman covering the NBA beat.
“I’m part of the problem,” she says. “Although I’m not talking about her hair, I’m part of the community that’s way too concerned about my appearance.”
It was a surprisingly personal public introduction. “For one of my first pieces, I wasn’t expecting it to be a first-person perspective, but to have that opportunity and that platform is kinda mind-blowing,” Buckner says.
She says she has encountered no harassment in the locker room and in fact believes being a woman in that context actually has its advantages.
“I’m not a psychiatrist, but sometimes men feel more open to talking about personal things to a woman than they are to a man,” she says.
As the Douglas piece suggests, Buckner is unafraid of sensitive issues. “The people that follow me know that I have no problems talking about blackness, talking about race, talking about society’s problems,” she says.
“I just think that in this city, this diverse, culturally mixed, progressive city, I think—I hope!—the feeling is that people will like the complexities and the layers, and they won’t just say, ‘Aw, she’s just out here for the black cause’ or ‘She’s a race baiter.’ I’m not. But if I happen to bring up the fact that I am black, I don’t think it’ll be too much of a problem here.”
Buckner, a St. Louis native, seems to have a deep and genuine fondness for D.C., and has taken a two-pronged approach to learning her new home, visiting a different neighborhood each week and asking her Twitter followers to recommend places to go and see. It’s not unlike how she plans to tackle the Wizards beat.
“It’s always good to have somebody who understands your fan base, somebody who may even be from the area,” she says, “but I like coming in with fresh eyes and hopefully telling stories that haven’t been told before.”