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With 44 seconds left in the second quarter at the MCI Center, Washington Wizards guard Larry Hughes (salary: $5.5 million) misses a 21-foot jump shot. Teammate Etan Thomas ($2.2 million) grabs the rebound but misses the putback. Tonight’s opponents, the Miami Heat, get the ball back, move quickly up court, and sink a deuce. With 10 seconds to go, the highest-paid Wizard, Gilbert Arenas ($8.5 million), sends an errant pass out of bounds. The clock expires. The Wiz head to the locker room, trailing 49-40.

At center court, the Wizards’ game-operations crew unrolls a 22-foot-long racetrack. Arena announcer Kevin Heilbronner calls out a new starting lineup: In Lane 1, weighing 26 pounds and wearing a tiny blue No. 3 jersey, it’s 10-month-old Zane Michael Martinez. “He likes the Wiggles,” Heilbronner says. “Dislikes taking naps.” In Lane 2, it’s 11-month-old Jonah Terrance Wisniewski, who “likes to eat.” Other infants take their marks in Lanes 3 through 5.

It’s halftime. Time for the baby races.

Zane crawls out to an early lead, then stops and plops on his butt. The other racers stay behind, some wandering off the track altogether. Eventually, Zane gets going again, crossing the finish line into the arms of his mother, Liz Martinez.

The victory is short-lived; the second and third heats are dominated by 17-month-old Daniel McArthur-Armeanu. Daniel, the oldest of the racers, almost literally runs away with the event—he’s just learned to walk, his grandmother confides, putting him at risk of disqualification for failure to crawl. But he stays on all fours, collecting the $500 winner’s prize.

Highlights of the baby races appear on NBC Channel 4 that night—unlike footage of the actual game, which the Wizards end up losing by 20 points. “See,” says sportscaster George Michael, as the clips of the infants roll, “sometimes the Wizards’ halftime show is better than anything else.”

“Better” may be stretching it. Yet throughout the Wizards’ terrible season, the halftime entertainment was a departure from the home team’s listless struggles—it stood out, the way an unwashed carnival clown would stand out at an investment bankers’ convention.

Decades ago, when the team was the Baltimore Bullets, halftime belonged to a cart-pulling dachshund named Alex the Bullet—a dog-and-pony show, minus the pony. To be sure, that was before the NBA grew into a globe-girdling entertainment empire. Standards are much higher today. Nowadays, when the first 24 minutes of star-studded sports action are over, the Wizards bring out…performing dogs from out of town.

The K9s in Flight “All American” Frisbee Dogs, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., were just one of this season’s attractions. Wizards spokesperson Matt Williams describes the range of halftime acts as “a nice mix of community groups and national touring groups.” Translation: a cross between the Fauquier County Fair and the public-access lineup on DCTV.

Besides disc-fetching dogs, Wizards customers could feast their eyes on the Dragon Masters, a New Orleans–based break-dance troupe that seemed not far removed from doing butt-spins for spare change in the French Quarter. Or some two dozen pasty-limbed boys from Latrobe, Pa., spinning basketballs on their bodies in drill-team unison. Or the trampoline-launched acrobatics of the University of Maryland gymkhana troupe, or the magical costume changes of Quickchange artists David and Dania, or the precision jump-roping of Columbia, Md.’s, Kangaroo Kids.

There were a few famous names in this season’s mix—albeit ones getting less famous by the minute. The home opener featured a performance by beatbox pioneer Doug E. Fresh, for instance. Herbie Hancock made an appearance, as did the Ohio Players.

But most of the acts come from complete obscurity. On Dec. 26, children’s entertainer Steve Max, of White Plains, N.Y., led some 50 contestants from the audience in a fierce Simon Says showdown. “When I first heard this concept,” Williams confesses, “I thought, This is not gonna work.” But by halftime standards, it was a hit.

More often, halftime leaves the crowd nonplussed. On Jan. 30, five mike-wielding MCs took the floor, sporting Wizards jerseys and plenty of bling-bling. The sound system blared a merengue-influenced hiphop beat.

“Guallando!” the group, which goes by Fulanito, rapped, “Y ahora es que la cosa se va a pone’ buena aqui/Gozadera total, pa’ lante/Hagan bulla, aqui el party/Move your body, everybody…#”

“Most of the crowd didn’t understand what we were saying,” rapper Dose admitted backstage afterward.

But there are rare nights when a halftime performer steals the show entirely. On Feb. 6, two Wizards staffers carried a small blue trunk out to center court, set it down, and walked away. The top opened. Out came a human hand.

Gradually, Daniel Browning Smith pulled his twisted, 5-foot-8 body out of the confined space. Smith, based in Los Angeles, calls himself Rubberboy, “the world’s most flexible man.” He boasts making the Guinness record book for an act he calls “De-Escape,” in which he gets into a locked straitjacket, has himself chained up, and then crams himself into an 18-by-16-inch box. For Guinness, he did it in 2 minutes and 8 seconds.

On the MCI floor, Rubberboy proceeded to demonstrate front and backbends, handstands, arm and hip dislocations, and 180-degree torso twists. He pulled his entire body through an unstrung tennis racket, then jokingly attempted to pass, ass-first, through a 30-inch toilet seat.

Rubberboy got his professional start with the Bindlestiff Family Circus, he says. Later he went solo, to theaters and nightclubs. “And now I do major television shows”—including Leno, he says—“and NBA halftime shows.”

“I do at least one a week during the season,” he says.

Toward the end of his routine, Rubberboy twisted himself into a pretzel—touching his toes, then walking his hands, arms, and torso backward through his legs, and finally stretching his neck so that his head hit his behind.

“It hurts to watch,” said Fort Dupont Park resident Winslow McGill, wincing as he watched from section 105. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.