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.