May 27, 2012

Switching Teams

In the fall of 1999, I decided to call it quits in upstate New York and move to Washington DC. I still consider that day the third most important day of my life, after my birthday and the day my family moved to the United States 20 years earlier. Instead of living in a town of slightly less than 2,000 people, I was now part of a metropolitan area boasting more than 5.5 million residents. While comparing a town to an entire metropolitan area may seem unfair, Cooperstown is the seat in a county with a total population of slightly more than 62,000 and only one town in the county has more than 10,000 residents. It's a different world.

In a basketball sense, my world had also changed. Instead of being 190 miles away from the closest NBA arena, I was now just 12. But the local five in DC was not the New York Knicks of the 1990s. In my six seasons as a confirmed Knicks fan, the team had posted at least 55 wins three times,  only once finished worse than second in their division and had made it to the NBA Finals twice, in 1994 and then again in the lockout shortened 1998-1999 season. Before that season, it seemed the team had lost its way by trading away Charles Oakley and John Starks for Marcus Camby and Latrell Sprewell only to have Camby prove to be the difference maker in the series against the Indiana Pacers, the team that had sent the Knicks home the previous year. Along the way, there were battles against teams that were so easy to hate: Reggie Miller's Pacers, the Pat Riley coached Miami Heat and Jordan's Bulls. While the Knicks never bested Jordan's Bulls in the playoffs during the 1990s, the 1999 Finals run included satisfying series wins against both the Heat and Pacers, including Larry Johnson's incredible four point play to win game 3 in the Garden over Indiana in the Conference Finals, best seen in completely unexpurgated fashion here: in a video that also sums up how special that 1999 Finals run was. The entire Garden standing in unison when the shot falls is something I will never forget.

The Washington Wizards were an entirely different kind of franchise. While the Knicks had been one of the more successful franchises in the NBA during the 1990s, the Washington Bullets, renamed the Wizards in 1997 after owner Abe Pollin's friend Yitzhak Rabin was slain two years earlier, at best could be described as mediocre, and that may be a real stretch. While I was watching the Knicks in upstate New York, the Washington franchise had made the playoffs only once, in 1997, losing in three games to the Chicago Bulls. At the time, that team was described by some as an up and coming team, with Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland and 7'-7" Gheorghe Muresan. But the team failed to make the playoffs the following year and management decided Chris Webber was not the answer, trading him to the Sacramento Kings in a swap for Mitch Richmond. It turned out Chris Webber was the answer for the Kings, who prospered after the trade, and Mitch Richmond was not the answer for the Wizards. But the recent history of the Bullets and Wizards didn't tell the whole story. The Bullets had won the NBA Championship in 1978 and followed up the next year with a 54 win season, a division championship and a return trip to the Finals. Since then, the franchise had enjoyed just five winning seasons with no division championships and no more than 44 wins in any one season. They had also won only one playoff series, in 1982.

I absolutely hate moving. I moved to DC for the long haul, to find a place to call home after living in a series of places that I no longer had any real connection to and I was here to stay. Despite all the history of the Wizards franchise staring me in the face, I knew I had to switch teams and become a Wizards fan. I watch sports to see my team win, not to see the sport itself and NBA basketball is my number one sport. I can be a disinterested viewer if I have no stake in the game, so the idea of sitting in an NBA arena and not rooting for one team or the other doesn't appeal to me at all. I could no longer watch every Knicks game on TV and I wanted to go to more than just the two games each season that the Knicks visited DC. So I switched to a team with a less than glorious recent history unaware how committed I would become. But there was some good news. Nobody really wanted to go see this team so tickets were available. I didn't have to ask my mom to spend hours on the phone buying tickets. And I could sit somewhere other than the end zone of the upper deck. And I didn't have to travel hundreds of miles and worry about blizzards and deer in the road. All good.

That first year in DC, I attended only two games: one against the Clippers and one against the Knicks. It was difficult and unnatural to root against the Knicks and I'm sure I applauded by accident sometimes when they scored that year. Then during the 2000 offseason, a co-worker and I looked into the cost of Wizards season tickets. Michael Jordan had been hired as the general manager and given ownership of part of the team that year. If he could be anywhere near as good as an executive as he had been as a player, then things would surely turn around. The cost of Wizards season tickets in the upper deck for the 2000-2001 season? $410! For the whole season!! 41 games!!! And these were pretty good seats, in the seventh row of the upper deck on the side. After the struggles my dad and I (and my mom) had getting basketball tickets the previous few years, I think I bought season tickets as much out of spite as thinking this season ticket holder stuff would become a long term gig. But its 2012 and I still have them and I no longer accidentally applaud when the Knicks score.

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