Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal on the jumbotron in Capital One Arena
Credit: Kelyn Soong

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The memories help keep Darin Crews coming back for more Washington Wizards games. He first started attending back when the team played at Capital Centre in Landover as the Washington Bullets. Tickets were cheap—like $5 or $10, Crews recalls—and the arena was close enough to his home in Oxon Hill that his parents could drop him off at games. And those teams in the late 1970s, unlike the more recent product on the floor, actually won in the playoffs. The franchise’s first and only NBA title came in 1978, and Crews attended one of those NBA Finals games at Capital Centre around age 12 with his brother and their friend to watch players such as Wes Unseld, Bob Dandridge, and Elvin Hayes. He even has photos of himself with each of the three Hall of Famers. 

“They were the champions,” Crews says. “So I guess that feeling, it just keeps bringing me back, just chasing a title.”

Crews, now 56, has remained a loyal, committed fan through plenty of underachieving years, draft pick busts, rebuilds, and the #SoWizards era, where anything that can go wrong will go wrong. This season, however, is the most optimistic Crews has felt about the franchise in a long time. The Wizards hired a new but familiar head coach in Wes Unseld Jr., the son of the late NBA champion, and the team began the season 10-3, its best start in 47 years. For a brief moment, Washington was the top team in the Eastern Conference. 

But a third of the way through the season, the Wizards have faltered. They struggle to find a cohesive identity on the court, and after teasing fans with a hot start, the team has taken a nosedive. The Wizards are 5-11 in their past 16 games, and are eighth in the Eastern Conference. Bradley Beal, who can opt out of his final season in D.C. and become an unrestricted free agent this offseason, has not played up to his All-Star standards, and the Wizards are in the bottom half of the league in both offensive and defensive ratings.

“We’re working as a team to figure things out and get us back to the position to where we were when we were having fun playing instead of having a lot of frustration on the floor,” forward-  center Daniel Gafford told reporters after a 123-98 loss to the Utah Jazz on Dec. 11.

The team’s often cynical fan base, accustomed to disappointment, appears skeptical. Less than a year ago the COVID-19 pandemic prevented fans from attending NBA games. Now, in the few months since D.C. began allowing full capacity at Capital One Arena, the Wizards are averaging just 15,947 fans at their 20,000-plus-capacity home stadium, according to ESPN data

“If you win, they will come,” Crews says. “You have to win. The fan base is here. It’s the same fan base that has been here when I was going to the games in the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, the 2000s. The fan base is here, but you just have to win.”

This year marks the 25th season that D.C. sportscaster Dave Johnson has been calling Wizards games as the team’s radio play-by-play voice. He’s read the tweets and heard the cynicism from Wizards fans on his shows. He likens the Wizards’ relatively low attendance to what the Washington Capitals experienced before they became a consistently successful NHL franchise.

Back in the 2007-08 season, Johnson says, the Capitals had fired their head coach Glen Hanlon after a slow start and the fan base “was not very much energized like it is now.”

“But then all of a sudden, they made that amazing run, and they went from last place into the playoffs,” Johnson continues. “They didn’t win the Stanley Cup, but they got in the playoffs, and the town started to feed off the energy of how they were playing. And next thing you know, by the next year you couldn’t get a ticket. … Yes, it helps having an Alex Ovechkin, but the Wizards, if they can continue to excite fans with the way they play, they don’t have to win an NBA title, but if they can continue to show what they’ve already shown this early part of the season at home, it’ll start to catch, because people will come out.”

While some Wizards fans may have soured from decades of mediocrity and misery, cynicism, Johnson says, is better than the alternative: apathy. 

“I think [what] sometimes is misunderstood about that fan base … is they care, they’re passionate about this team,” Johnson says. “Yeah, they get frustrated with losses or injuries or when things don’t meet their expectations. But the best thing is they care. It would be a more difficult situation if you had a fan base that was apathetic.”

Wizards general manager and president Tommy Sheppard also hears the frustration. Sheppard has been with the organization since 2003. He took over for Ernie Grunfeld, the target of much of the Wizards fans’ ire, in April 2019 on an interim basis before he was named the permanent GM a few months later. Sheppard recently received a contract extension and an additional title of president of the team after the Wizards’ 10-3 start.

He tries not to worry about the outside noise, but acknowledges that the fans are “paying the money and it’s an emotional investment.” Even with decades of #SoWizards cynicism, the GM insists that success will come.

“It’s my job to put the best team out there,” Sheppard says. “And we want the fans to be happy. I want to hear when they’re not happy. But I also know the ebbs and flows of fans, and you can hate a team in the first quarter and love them by the end and vice versa. That’s the beauty of being a fan. And I love loyalty. I love people—their passion. If they’re not booing, there’s something wrong … If it’s a bad product and they’re not booing that means they don’t care. Booing is an emotion, so is cheering … Every fan base is going to have its ebbs and flows. Every fan base is quote-unquote cynical. You just got to ride it out. I think everybody has their seasons to remember, right? We’ve had those here before.”

And there are signs that fans are appreciating this particular group. So far this season, the Wizards are averaging a 1.1 household rating in the Washington market, which equates to approximately 23,000 households, according to Nielsen data. That number is up 21 percent compared with the final ratings and up 8 percent versus the comparable amount of games for the 2020-21 season, as of Dec. 10. The rating is the average for the entire game and does not include unique viewers or streaming data.

Sheppard gets credit for hiring Unseld and drafting Rui Hachimura and Deni Avdija. Hachimura, who was named to the NBA All-Rookie Second Team in the 2019-20 season, hasn’t played yet this season due to unspecified personal reasons, but Avidja has become one of the team’s best defensive players. Sheppard also brought in key players this offseason such as Montrezl Harrell, Kyle Kuzma, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in a trade that sent Russell Westbrook to the Los Angeles Lakers. That trade has so far worked out in the Wizards’ favor. Sheppard hopes fans will be patient with his strategy of building for long-term success rather than immediate wins. All of the team’s players, he points out, are under the age of 30. The team’s moves this summer, Sheppard says, “were really thoughtful with the idea of being able to sustain winning.”

Some fans are cautiously hopeful.

“It’s like that hashtag #SoWizards, you just get a feeling that something’s always going to go wrong,” says longtime Wizards fan Nick Bilka. “Just this feeling of never getting over the hump.”

But Bilka, a former contributor to the Wizards fan blog Bullets Forever sees reason for optimism: “I’m a little more hopeful now, because I like some of the things that Tommy Sheppard has done. I think Wes Unseld Jr. has a lot of respect in the league, and [give] him a chance to see what he does. And so in that respect, yeah, I’m excited. And some of their young players I enjoy.”

The Wizards, as Crews notes, have not played at full strength this season. Center Thomas Bryant is still working his way back after tearing his ACL in January, and Hachimura’s exact return remains unclear but he joined the Wizards on the bench for the first time earlier this month.

“Rui’s doing great. I’m looking forward to getting him back,” Sheppard says. “Got to get him a little bit more contact. It’s been a little long layoff, get him right. Thomas Bryant is ready to go. Those are two pretty important players to us who haven’t played the game yet, so that gives you a little bit of excitement.”

For fans like Crews, he wants his three kids, aged 12, 15, and 18, to experience what he did back at Capital Centre with the Bullets. Crews says he feels good about this season’s team if the players can get healthy. He still attends about 20 Wizards games per season and finds the energy to cheer them on even when the team is down. Against the Jazz earlier this month, Crews attended the game with his wife and one of her friends. He jumped up and down during the T-shirt toss and took selfies and photos throughout the game. When the Wizards return from their six-game road trip, it’s likely Crews will be there, traveling from his home in Bowie to cheer on the team at Capital One Arena, regardless of its record.

“Through all these losing years, and still be a fan, I guess I would have to be a die-hard fan,” he says. “I am a loyal fan.”