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“It does really matter to players,” Chris Webber told the Washington Post when asked about plans for a new Bulletdome set deep in the heart of downtown Washington.“Usually the best teams play in the best arenas….It might help us play. I don’t know for sure if it makes you play better, but it definitely helps our attitude.”
Webber’s comment might strike some frustrated Bullet fans as unseemly: another outrageous request from an over-hyped solipsist who blew an NCAA championship, reduced a revered NBA coach to pneumonia, and has done remarkably little to earn his keep here on the shores of the Potomac. After all, it would be pretty hard to argue that the Bullets deserve a new home. A $180-million arena seems a little steep for a club with a woeful 8-26 record.
To others, however, there’s ancient wisdom in the young forward’s pronouncement. Sure, we can talk rotation. We can talk injuries, shooting guards who can’t shoot, centers who can’t rebound, point guards who can’t move. But when it comes down to it, the Bullets’ problems are largely architectural, for the USAir Arena is one of humankind’s most wretched creations. I imagine the guys feel like total losers playing there. And I imagine that visiting players roll up to the building with the thrill of conquering Mongols. Would a worthy challenger really play in a venue as benighted as this one?
The hallmark of every great civilization is great architecture: Babylon, Egypt, Greece, Rome. The same is true of sports. Great teams play in great places: Yankee Stadium, Soldier Field, the Forum, the two Gardens. (The power rubs both ways—the place energizes the players and the players energize the place.) Given the meanness of their home, is it really that much of a surprise that the Bullets refuse to rise from their cellar?
Just look at the place: gray, of indeterminate shape (it is neither rounded nor angular), surrounded by parking lots, flanked by wasteland. Enter the bunker and feel its heaviness: weighty overhangs, low ceilings, hepatic lighting. Venture into the dim arena and note the awkward seating, the ungainly concrete gaps between sections, the cheesy advertising (ads for car-repair shops and third-tier athletic-shoe companies dominate; the spiffier basketball palaces showcase eminent banks and post-millennial communications firms). Gaze upward and revisit the technology that time forgot. There’s the bulky, low-resolution scoreboard. And there are the flickering digital temperature monitors, which must have seemed innovative in the early ’70s, but are now reminiscent of the worn neon hotel signs of the Florida panhandle.
My saddest Bullets experience this year came when I visited the team’s locker room. I had hoped for a capacious inner sanctum with fine carpets and elegant yet masculine lockers, a groaning buffet table, and a wide array of electrolyte beverages. There would be the hum of whirlpools and the whir of washing machines cleaning towels and uniforms for the next day’s practice.
And what did I find? Players jammed in minuscule locker slots separated by chain-link; a shower-room floor with stained and worn industrial tiles; white cinder-block walls ringed by a red stripe with white stars (the room’s only whimsy). Gatorade cans were dispensed from a machine, and though they were free the mode of delivery served as a cold reminder that you could be charged a buck at a moment’s notice. And the food? A lone basket of Hall’s cough drops.
Worst of all, the room was tiny. If I, at a whisker over 6-foot, felt big in it, think of how each Bullet experiences the space. Consider, too, the corrosive effect of leaving that cramped room for a large arena. The change would be overwhelming, like standing alone in the middle of the Bonneville Salt Flats. Now, if the players were to emerge from more generous surroundings, the adjustment would be easier. They would be prepared, and not intimidated, by the massive space unfolding around them.
Which brings us back to Mr. Webber’s wisdom. The Bullets desperately need a new arena. More important, they need an arena that will help them win. And to do that, team owner Abe Pollin and his squadron of architects and planners would do well to explore the world of feng shui.
Feng shui—it means “wind” and “water” in Chinese—is a 4,500-year-old synthesis of astrology, design, and Eastern philosophy aimed at harmonizing the placement of man-made structures in nature. According to the New York Times, the theory behind feng shui (pronounced “fung shway”) is that “a life force flows through all things—buildings, rivers, power lines, people—and the manipulation of the force through the proper orientation of physical structures can enhance a person’s luck, wealth and good health.” We can safely assume, then, that if the Bullets move to a venue in harmony with this force—known as chi—it will carry them, with the power of heaven and earth, at least through the first round of the playoffs.
I’m not joking. The following is fact.
Fact: In 1992, Credit Lyonnais Securities hired leading feng shui masters to chart its investments. According to The Times of London, the geomancers “outperformed the company’s analysts with uncannily accurate forecasts of where the market was heading.”
Fact: The Los Angeles Times reported that when a store in New York’s Chinatown followed the instructions of a feng shui expert, business jumped 12 percent. “Not only that,” manager Anna Fung told the newspaper, “there’s harmony in the store, there’s no internal feuding—and we’re having two girls getting married this year!”
Fact: According to the Denver Post, bad feng shui may be responsible for the city’s beleaguered, and still unopened, new $4.2-billion airport. The feng shui aficionados hired by the newspaper to examine the snakebit structure deemed it a disaster. Though the problems are too complicated to explore in detail here, suffice it to say that the main terminal’s 34-peak tensile fabric roof creates “an energy roller coaster” that blocks the positive flow of chi.
The list goes on. Donald Trump has embraced feng shui to lure Asian investors. Mike Ovitz had the offices of his wildly successful Creative Artists Agency blessed by a feng shui master. If this ancient art can bolster these titans, why can’t it help the Bullets?
It can. And mercifully, there’s time; Washington ineptitude is not without its blessings. As Mayor Barry admitted last week at a press conference, the arena plans we have seen in the Washington Post and on TV don’t resemble the structure at all. Actually, there are no plans. Actually, Barry said, they may have to reduce the site and rotate the building on a 45-degree angle! All of which means that we still have a chance to ensure that the proposed complex, set to be built on the 600 block of G Street NW in time for the 1997-98 NBA season, will be cosmos-friendly.
So, here are some general feng shui tips the Bullets should keep in mind. (One hopes they’ll seek the advice of a feng shui pro.) The presence of water draws money and luck. Mirrors should be hung next to the water to reflect the chi back into the environment. The building should not be subject to oncoming traffic, which is like a dagger to the heart. Also, it should not face glass buildings: They absorb negative energy and then shoot it back at you.
Colors are very important. Red, the source of the universe’s energy, is best. Green promotes healthy chi. White must be avoided at all costs. Same with sharp edges and points. A harmonious entrance will help, as will a temperate environment. Also recommended: eastern views (they help start things, like winning streaks), western views (they help finish things, like fast breaks), plenty of trees, stoves, and skylights.
Feng shui also encourages the use of natural materials, which root buildings to the earth. Think of the salutary effect this “grounding” would have on a high-turnover town like D.C. (Go to a Bullets game and see how many fans are cheering for the visiting team. It’s depressing. In any other city, these ingrates would be ritually humiliated and on their way to safety by the end of the second quarter.)
My hope, then, would be to construct the building from local goods. There’s brick, made from the District’s rich clay. (We could rekindle the kilns along the National Arboretum!) Sister Maryland could bestow on us some of her beautifulSeneca sandstone; you can see it along stretches of the C&O Canal. From our other benevolent sibling, the Commonwealth of Virginia, we could harvest the hardwoods that so captivated our colonial forefathers. And for the interior of the building, we could liberate the long buried Tiber Creek, which once ran along what is now Constitution Avenue. Direct it and the area’s other repressed natural water sources to flow through the arena’s halls. Then stock the streams with bounty from our waters: rockfish and shad. This, in fact, would be the only deviation from feng shui principles. The Chinese prefer carp. And Washington, I’ve learned, has enough of that.