An Emotional Preview of Tonight's Wizards vs. Celtics Game

In Dumb and Dumber, in order to make some extra cash, Lloyd Christmas describes selling a headless parakeet to a blind wheelchair-bound boy named Billy. The camera immediately cuts to Billy, unknowingly stroking the decapitated creature, while cooing, “Pretty bird. Pretty bird. Can you say pretty bird?”

For as long as I have followed the NBA I have avidly supported the Washington Wizards, an experience that has often left me feeling like Billy the Blind Boy. When I developed my attachment to them, I was simply too young and too naïve to understand that I was about to love something defective. Like Billy, I showered the object of my affection with love and attention, hoping that maybe a little more might lead to reciprocation without realizing it would never come.

Until last year, for the previous fifteen seasons, the Wizards were an undeniably bad team; in that span they won 483 games and lost 797. Without examining the composition of the numerous lineups that helped cement Washington’s status as “The Clippers of the East”, it might be easy to cast them off as a perennially underachieving team for whom failure was their only consistent accomplishment.

Yet Washington’s failures during the early period of my infatuation with them can be traced to two simple problems: horrible drafting and bad luck. Over a 10-year span (1991 – 2000), despite missing the playoffs all but one year, the Wizards failed to win a single top-three pick, the odds of which occurring was less than 7%. As a result, GMs Wes Unseld et al. apparently set in place several rules for drafting players, among them:

Rule: Select any available physical freak.
Result: While the vernacular of today might interpret the above rule as “draft superior athletes”, this rule was interpreted literally and resulted in the selection of 5’3” Muggsy Bogues, 7’7” Manute Bol, and 7’8” Gheorge Muresan. These picks would have made for a fine Ringling Brothers corporate squad, but little else.

Rule: Rather than scout players, consult genealogy charts.
Result: Washington drafts Brent Price (brother of Mark) and Harvey Grant (brother of Horace).

Rule: If all else fails, turn to divine providence.
Result: After trading their 1st round pick for a golden calf, God Shammgod is chosen in the 2nd round of the 1997 draft.

While hitching my emotional wagon to such a total disaster of a franchise might have ended my foray into following the L, a sort of NBA-related Stokholm Syndrome instead overtook me. Though the Wizards were home to the freak, the overshadowed younger brother, and the wayward deity, they were still my freaks no matter how many airballs they hoisted and no matter how many defensive assignments they blew. I came to see them as a group of talentless overachievers, a bizarre collection of individuals who miraculously could win almost thirty games against actual professional basketball players!

When the Wizards acquired Chris Webber, it might have appeared that they were ready to cast off the shackles of mediocrity, but I knew better. Winning just wasn’t something the Wizards did and Webber's four years in DC changed nothing. But it didn’t really bother me; I was happy to just to see Gheorge’s delightfully disfigured face on Snickers’ commercials and shout to my friends that my boy was on TV.For the next few years, the Wizards continued to cement their “culture of losing” and no less an authority on winning than Michael Jordan failed to prevent it. The more things changed, the more they stayed the same.

But last year, thanks largely to Gilbert Arenas (whose virtues have been extolled all over this site), the Wizards were able to overcome every invisible force in the universe to, not only make the playoffs, but actually win a series. Best of all, the Wizards won with the same kind of team I had grown to love. Antawn Jamison and Larry Hughes were both cast off from unsuccessful teams and played with chips on their shoulders; Arenas continued to defy skeptics, as he had at every level, and made his first All Star team; the Wizards returned to their proud tradition of signing the ugliest player in the league, bringing on Michael Ruffin (the last of the homo habilis) in the proud tradition of Gheorge and Popeye Jones.

The Wizards’ march through the first round of last year’s playoffs was among the most exciting experiences I’ve had as a basketball fan. There's no point wasting space trying to describe the feeling; just about every fan has known it at one point (it just took Wizards fans twenty three years to get there). Yet experiencing winning suddenly barred me from my garden of blissful ignorance; I had tasted the forbidden fruit and never again would I feel as happy to support a losing team.

This season, the team seems to have settled back into familiar mediocrity. Ernie Grunfeld couldn’t bring himself to match Cleveland’s insane deal for Hughes and was forced to lose his 2nd best player without compensation. Flaws that last year made the team endearing, like Jamison’s lack of a post game, Arenas’s unconscious gunning, and Eddie Jordan’s completely unstructured “Princeton” offense this year appear simply as vulnerabilities. They’re currently barely the 8th seed in the east, a precipitous drop from last year, and haven’t shown many signs of having the offensive dynamism they had. They often feel like the same old Wiz: not good enough to make any noise in the playoffs, not bad enough to get a decent draft pick. They’re surging a little now, but where I used to be gleefully optimistic about the team, I can’t help think last year was just an outlier.

It pains me to say this, but I think I wish I had the old Wizards back. Before last year, no game the Wizards played could ever turn out badly. If they won, they amazingly beat the odds; if they lost, it was no big deal. Low expectations mean no disappointment and I was free to gleefully support my woe-begotten team and its rag-tag ensemble of players.

As a teacher, it crushed me when one of my students struggled with a test when I knew they could have done better. Every loss to a team like Houston and Orlando feels similarly; they should have beaten these teams, so why didn’t they? For the first time, I sulk after loses that I watch on espn’s near-useless gamecast.

It’s a pretty tired analogy, but winning really is like an addiction. Feeling it for the first time is a tremendous rush. But once you try it, all you want is to feel it again. So while rooting for the Wizards was once an unconditionally positive experience, it’s now a roller coaster of wins and losses and, honestly, I think I’d like to get off.

So tonight, I travel to the TD Banknorth Center in Boston on one of the two nights I have circled on my calendar: the two times the Wizards come to my newly adopted home of Boston. I hate the Celtics and the eye-gouging brand of basketball they play. In fact, I hate every team in this city and the smugness their fans exude. For me, tonight’s game is an extremely trivial battle of good vs. evil. I never thought I’d be reluctant to drop $20 I don’t have on the Wizards, but I never thought I’d be crushed if they lost.


At 1/25/2006 10:13 AM, Blogger niv said...

i live in boston and i too hate the celtics, boston sports teams, and boston sports fans. so for one night, i will be a wizards fan along side you.

At 1/25/2006 11:37 AM, Anonymous T. said...

The Wizards might be my Eastern Conference team (well, them or the California Golden Bears of New Jersey) solely because of Antawn Jamison. Of all the NBA players I know - he's the most stand-up, polite, nice, unassuming all around good guy in the NBA (not named Yao Ming).

Just a great great person.

Plus watching Arenas try to play like Kobe-east is always fun too.

Anyways - sorry to hijack your comments - but Shoals, if you're really interested in working for the Houston Walking Wounded - give me a way to get in touch.

At 1/25/2006 12:02 PM, Blogger Bethlehem Shoals said...

T.-i'm so serious. hit me up on the company account: freedarko@gmail.com.

At 1/25/2006 1:08 PM, Blogger Ken said...

If you hate the Boston fans, and everyone on Earth who is not from Boston does, then you need to look in the mirror and ask "am I one of them"? I don't mean this as a dis but I don't want to see another sadsack fan out there.

Look at the true Cubs fans, they don't do that woe is me stuff, the true Cleveland Browns fans don't do that either. They are all about (often myopic)optimism. I'd rather see a front runner than a guy who is all about his team failing.

At 1/25/2006 1:19 PM, Blogger Dr. Lawyer IndianChief said...

the situation in boston is different, because they have consistently had good teams throughout the years...fuck it...DYNASTIES...from the celtics to the bruins to the pats...and say you were focusing on baseball ALONE, then you at least had consistently great red sox teams, which is a hell of a lot better than cities like milwaukee who have had to deal with the brewers futility for quite some time now. when was the last time the brewers made the playoffs?

also, you have to distinguish pats fans from redsox fans. the redsox--unlike any other team in recent history (cubs come close)--have the trendiest fanbase in all of sports. trixies wearing pink redsox hats who don't know shit about oil can boyd.

At 1/25/2006 4:09 PM, Anonymous aug said...

BS, if the deal with T doesn't work out, you can always check out http://nbateamjobs.teamworkonline.com/teamwork/jobs/default.cfm sign up for the mailing list or just check the houston stuff. I've gotten notices about rockets jobs opening up a couple times.

At 1/25/2006 4:21 PM, Blogger Gregg said...

I know it was rhetorical, DLIC, but the last time the Brewers made the playoffs was 1982. Until they grab the wild card this year, that is.

Anyway, how much of the hatred of Boston fans has to do with Simmons? I guess his rise has been roughly paralleled by the rise in prominence of Boston sports (Pats and Sox, anyway), so they might be inextricable. In my head, anyway; I've never been to Bean-town.

At 1/25/2006 4:55 PM, Blogger Ken said...

I dunno, I know why people dislike him but I still like Bill Simmons, he is pretty good as far as NBA writers go after all.

I just can't stand the histrionic Red Sox fans. They took something good and pure- liking baseball- and turned it into something twisted. Like Star Wars fans turning a movie you like into something dorky as fuck.

I give girls a free pass on being fair-weather fans. It is fun when your city's team is winning. I mean do really want your chick to be all about Oil Can Boyd?

At 1/25/2006 5:29 PM, Blogger Dr. Lawyer IndianChief said...


A better question would be how much of the hatred of Boston based fans has to do with a Boston-based ex-flame?

Leave it up to you to only comment when we bring up the Brewers...bastard.

At 1/25/2006 9:55 PM, Blogger The Electric Zarko said...

Take your Wizards love and then imagine it through the prism of all three of your best players from last year (Jamison, Hughes, Arenas) coming from the Warriors.

Two of those left becaues they never really worked out. One (Chockity Choco) left because of a financial situation that belonged half to the league, half to the team itself. Losing Jamison and Hughes didn't hurt half as much as losing Arenas, who, as we have seen, has turned into a legitimate star and more importantly, a legitimate Figure in the NBA.

Of course, the Warriors did wind up picking up B-Diddy in the trade That Never Happens to The Warriors. It was a day of uncertainty, of wondering if we really knew who we were anymore, walking around seeing the world as if we were children, half-believing that Stern would fly down from the sky on fairy wings and make the whole deal evaporate before our eyes.

Indeed, there's a real parallel here with the Wizards: by the end of the year, the Warriors were playing some of the most attractive basketball in the Association and were everybody's trendy pick to sneak into the playoffs next year.

This year, the Warriors are nearly unwatchable, a team centered around jumpshooting without a reliable jumpshooter. Launching up incredible amounts of 3s (and missing most of them) while getting the crap kicked out of them on the boards. And Warriors fans collectively wonder "Why aren't we running? Is it Montgomery? (yes) Is it Baron? (no) Do I hate or love J-Rich?"

Another parallel: both teams had *clean* unis that have been re-designed into generic 90s Sports Team forgettable-wear. One can only hope that both teams decide to pull a Pistons in terms of jersyes, if not on the court.

At 1/26/2006 3:37 AM, Anonymous pitydfoo said...

I know it's too late for anyone to care, but I just found it so gratifying, on such a basic level, for anyone to pay any attention to the Wizards/Bullets. I too gave them my heart for all those lean years, to the extent that that became my understanding of what it meant to be a fan: transforming meager kernels of hope into ridiculous semi-expectations. Puncuated by brief moments of actual semi-relevance: Bernard King, Chris Webber, etc. (In my mind, Pervis Ellison counts as an "etc", but that just shows how sick I still am.) In any case, thank you, Burns, for your leadership and loyalty. And maybe somehow this year won't end in disappointment (though of course we're all sure it will).

At 1/26/2006 2:45 PM, Blogger TJ said...

Gheorghe Muresan has an amazing amount of time on his hands, as he is at virtually all Wiz home games and allows his freakish being to serve as Good Will Ambassador for the tenants of the MCI Center...and let me just say, seeing Big Gheorghe on the Jumbotron every game makes me laugh without fail.

At 1/31/2006 2:08 PM, Blogger Kelvin said...

You said:

"Yet Washington’s failures during the early period of my infatuation with them can be traced to two simple problems: horrible drafting and bad luck. Over a 10-year span (1991 – 2000), despite missing the playoffs all but one year, the Wizards failed to win a single top-three pick, the odds of which occurring was less than 7%."

You really think it was the bad drafting? Can you really ignore all the terrible trades and FA moves?

Chris Webber for Otis Thorpe and Mitch Richmond

Rasheed Wallace for Rod Strickland

Rip Hamilton for Stackhouse

Ben Wallace and and bunch of other dudes for Ike Austin

More to blame for the Wizzzards woes is their crappy general management. Drafting is all luck and they had their share of good draft picks, they just didn't keep them. If they had gone with what they'd drafted, their potential lineup could be

PG Steve Blake
SG Rip Hamilton
SF Jarvis Hayes
PF Rasheed Wallace
C Ben Wallace

Juan Dixon
Kwame Brown
Jarred Jeffries
Andray Blatche
Peter John Ramos

and 2 free agents with whatever remaining cap room they had to shore up the roster. That looks good enough to finish top 4 in the East....


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