Illlustrations Fred Harper
You can blame it on the beer, if you want. But there I was, wedged shoulder-to-shoulder in the 400 level of the MCI Center on a Saturday night in January. The Washington Wizards were battling neck and neck with the top-notch Minnesota T-Wolves in front of a raucous sold-out crowd. It was late in the fourth quarter—or just about time for that fickle basketball to doink! off the sneaker of one of our hopeless mopes and seal the victory for the visitors.
But then beefy Wizards center Jahidi White grabbed a loose rebound and thunder-dunked over a hapless foe to cut the T-Wolves’ lead to 6. The roar in the house rocked the MCI rafters. It grew even louder when Chris Whitney or Tyronn Lue or one of those no-name guards swished a 3-pointer from the wing. And then something even more miraculous happened: I fully expected the home team to win.
And Budweiser be damned, it was freaking me out.
Of course, the clues that things have changed in the realm of D.C. pro hoops have been popping up ever since the day He soared into town: the countless national print and TV stories, the waning local interest in the Redskins, the people whose last names I don’t know calling up and asking me to score tickets. The most jarring example, perhaps, has been the sudden upscale quality of the merchandise, and I’m not talking about just No. 23 jerseys. I’m talking about thick handsome Champion sweatshirts, stylish fitted Nike caps. I’m not sure they even had a team store at the Capital Centre; all I remember are those rickety stands that sold the kind of crap that wouldn’t pass muster in the CBA.
But nothing, and I mean nothing, so far had prepared me for that disturbing winter night. With time running low and Minnesota up by a bucket, the crowd at MCI was on its feet—and not to flee the building certain of another loss, either. The fans were whooping and hollering and, as the biggest surprise of all, booing Kevin Garnett, one of the NBA’s biggest stars and arguably the most well-rounded player in the league.
A family to my right was dressed father to mother to son to baby in full Wizards regalia. A couple of thoroughly looped businessmen to my left were lifting their Kwame Brown “bobblehead” dolls high in the air. Jesus, I wasn’t the only one: Everybody expected the Wizards to win.
And that’s when it finally hit me, like an errant Calbert Cheaney bomb clanging off the front of the rim: I missed the losers. I just couldn’t handle the winners. Michael Jordan was ruining me. I instantly longed for the days when Wizards futility ruled, when a .500 record was a silly pipe dream, and when the most suspenseful thing about coming to a pro hoops game in the nation’s capital was not whether our men in shorts would win or lose—because they would, in fact, lose—but how far down the bench they’d go. Hello, God Shammgod.
I had followed the Bullets, the Wizards, the whole cavalcade of lame-os—Tom Hammonds! Labradford Smith! Manute friggin’ Bol!—through the lowest moments in professional sports history since I was a teen. Starting with the 1987-1988 season, I had suffered through 694 losses, 422 wins, nine clueless coaches, and hundreds of hoops rejects that even the lousy European leagues had no use for.
In 1997, the first year after the infamous name change, when superstars Chris Webber and Juwan Howard were still around, I even dressed up like a Wizard and road-tripped to Detroit for an opening-night game against the Pistons. Traveling with a couple of fellow die-hards, I was proud to wear that itchy fake beard and ridiculous pointy hat, even when a couple of Motor City punks kept calling me a gnome.
Fanatic or not, long ago I had come to the comforting conclusion that our boys just weren’t meant to win. The organization hasn’t had a league-wide rookie of the year or MVP since the 1968-1969 season (Wes Unseld, both awards). No coach of the year since 1981-1982 (Gene Shue). No executive of the year since 1981-1982 (Bob Ferry). Sure, the team’s had an assortment of Most Improved Players—Pervis Ellison (1991-1992), Don MacLean (1993-1994), Gheorghe Muresan (1995-1996)—but if anyone can tell me where those guys are now, I’ll buy him a plate of deluxe nachos.
With Garnett and Jordan trading baskets and the time ticking away, the memories came bumbling back. Being a particularly doughy guy myself, I grinned first for the fatties, for the longest time this organization’s preferred body type: John “Hot Plate” Williams, a scoring and rebounding stud during his college days at LSU who became bigger (6-foot-9, 300-plus) instead of better once he came to the nation’s capital; Ledell Eackles, a prominently bellied 220-pound shooting guard who passed up a jumper as often as he passed up a hoagie; and 7-footer Kevin Duckworth, once an all-star center for the Portland Trailblazers, who rejoiced at the buffet line but sulked in the paint once he became a Bullet.
Then there were the past-their-primers, another franchise specialty: Bernard King, Mark Price, Otis Thorpe, Ralph Sampson, Mitch Richmond, Scott Skiles, and Rod Strickland.
The thing is, they weren’t all head-case creeps like Duckworth and Strickland and that giant ass Ike Austin. A lot of the Bullets and Wizards have been quite lovable if only because they always worked hard on both ends of the court, even when out of it before the end of the national anthem.
Unseld, who coached the team from 1987 to 1994, was a tenacious force as a player, an undersized 6-foot-7 center who successfully battled with men much taller and more physically gifted. And although the scowling, grumpy Unseld would wind up being a lousy head coach, and not exactly the best GM, either, he at least put a squad on the floor that could hang and bang with most teams—well, at least for a half before getting blown out by 30. Guys such as Jeff Malone, Michael Adams, Mark Alarie, A.J. English—winners all, if not exactly in the box scores.
I even called the Wizards front office to reminisce about the good old bad old days. But the mere mention of those wonderful woeful times was treated with unease, as if my true intention were to ferret out the brainwashing-through-wieners scheme of longtime franchise owner Abe Pollin. Trying to calm the frazzled “spokesperson”—no names please, he pleaded—I praised the unflappable Susan O’Malley, the first woman president of an NBA franchise, for marketing all those horrendous Bullets and Wizards teams by masterfully hyping the great visiting teams; the ads would basically say, Come see Shaquille O’Neal emasculate our guys!—and damn if it didn’t work.
But the “spokesperson” wanted none of this, almost as if any allusion to Harvey Grant or Ed Horton or Mel Turpin would instantly time-warp us back to the vast wasteland of the Cap Centre parking lot circa 1989.
This has always been the point in the season when I start gearing up the big nonplayoff run, when the team is so far out of first place (or second-to-last place, for that matter) that using the term “spoiler” is the only salve. Coaches murmur weak quotes about “building for the future,” and idea-spent beat writers tuck the mention of potential draft picks into every lede.
But not this year. Now there’s winning. Now every game counts. Now there’s…hope. And who needs that kind of pressure?
Alone in my comforting celebration of suckdom, I’ve put together my own personal Bullets/Wizards team, the guys I could always count on to let me down gently. It’s been a
glorious struggle, combing through all those good solid players—who just weren’t good and solid enough. Does Steve Colter make it? Robert Pack? Muggsy Bogues? Jim McIlvaine? Larry Stewart? Lorenzo Williams—oh wait, I’m not sure walking-wounded Williams actually ever played a game in his four years here.
After much poring-over of sorry stats, I’ve come up with up a squad that represents the very average of what our D.C. cagers have so long had to offer. The selection is based on three criteria:
1. The Scrappy Factor—the player always had 48 minutes of resilience and doggedness, even when his wife, girlfriend, parents stopped paying attention.
2. The Bench Factor—on most other teams, the player wouldn’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t start, but hey, teams need towel-wavers, too.
3. The Intangibles—no matter how well the player performed on his own, he never pulled his fellow hoopsters out of the doldrums. After all, the Bullets and Wizards have always been a whole core of losers instead of the productive sum of their go-get-’em parts.
So here you go:
Shooting guard: Rex Chapman (6-foot-4, Kentucky) In college, Chapman used to psych out defenders by pointing to where he was going to launch one of his trademark rainbow 3-pointers and then nailing the shot with a shit-eating grin. During his four years as a Bullet, he would bomb away, smile, and then get his butt burned
Point guard: Doug Overton (6-foot-3, LaSalle) Tough as nails and fun to watch, even though he couldn’t shoot. Or penetrate. Or dribble.
Center: Gheorghe Muresan (7-foot-7, Cluj) Have you seen My Giant? ‘Nuff said.
Small forward: Darvin Ham (6-foot-7, Texas Tech) As far as the smooth-pated Ham is concerned, I’ve never seen someone miss so many dunks and still keep trying. God bless him.
Power forward: Tom Gugliotta (6-foot-10, North Carolina State) Yeah, I know: This is a controversial selection, because it could be argued that Googs—a decent shooter, a better rebounder, but really just a very tall guard—was actually a pretty good all-around ballplayer. And when the man with the most deliriously chantable nickname in sports was asked to do the impossible, such as guard Shaq man to man, he didn’t bitch at all. Not even when he got lit up for 30. Then again, controversial or not, you’re not hearing the “Googs!” chant so much these days, are you?
Sixth man: Mitchell Butler (6-foot-5, UCLA) I loved this guy! The classic ‘tweener with no right to be in the NBA, Butler didn’t know if he was a shooting guard or a small forward, and neither did any of his coaches. But he worked his ass off, and made a little money, and here’s hoping he’s happy and healthy someplace warm.
Coach: Jim Lynam A pure Philly gym rat, with the worst greasy hairdo since Morey Amsterdam.
I’m a little relieved to note that the Wizards have been stinking it up of late. As of this writing, they’ve lost seven of their last 10 games and are hovering precariously around the even mark. TV play-by-play man Steve Buckhantz has been screaming “backbreaker!” a bit more—and not in a positive way; color man Phil Chenier is moaning about free-throw shooting again—never a good sign.
Oh sure, Jordan still leads the nightly SportsCenter broadcast, and Sports Illustrated rarely goes a week without giving the Wizards some kind of ink. But the mounting losses are making things much, much easier for me.
In the 1996-1997 season, the last time the Wizards made the playoffs, Jordan—then with the Bulls, the team that knocked Webber & Co. out of the first round—declared that the Wizards were the team of the future. Who knows? Maybe he was right.
Still, on that January night when my heart sang out for Mitchell Butler, the Wizards would eventually lose to Garnett and the Timberwolves, 107-100. And, for the first time in a while, that felt just right. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illlustrations Fred Harper.