April 1, 2013

Sunshine State Hoops: Magic And Wizards

From 2007 to 2010, I attended four Wizards road games, an average of one per year. With my team falling on hard times over the past couple of seasons, however, my motivation to shell out some cash to see my underperforming Wizards on the road (where they underperformed worse than they did at home) had waned. But with our resurgence earlier this calendar year, I decided it was about time to set out and see my favorite team in a new city. So this past weekend, I spent a few days in sunny Orlando sandwiched around the focal point of the trip, the Wizards - Magic game Friday night.

The first time I took a Wizards road trip, the destination was governed by the television schedule, or more precisely by when the Wizards were NOT on television. Since that first trip to Minnesota and sort of unbelievably, every Wizards road game has been televised, so my choice of road games has been decided by a few other factors. My standard formula for picking a road game is a combination of chance to win (so picking an opponent with a not so good record); availability and price of lower level tickets on the bench side of the court (important for getting on TV); proximity and availability of non-stop flights; and day of the week, with preference for a Friday, Saturday or Sunday game, with Sunday afternoon being ideal. This year an analysis of the schedule pointed to one of two destinations: Brooklyn or Orlando. Since I'd been to New York a lot recently and considering the weather in Orlando in late March vs. Brooklyn in early March, I opted to hop on a flight down to Florida.

Displays on the concourse lauding Dwight Howard's accomplishments. Wonder how fans feel now?
In 2009, just four years ago, the Orlando Magic rode All-Star center Dwight Howard and a bevy of three point shooters to the NBA Finals, where they lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games. But during the subsequent offseason, they traded their starting backcourt that got them to the Finals to the then New Jersey Nets for Vince Carter and Ryan Anderson and went downhill from there, losing in the Conference Finals the next year and following that season with two straight first round playoff exits. This year, the Magic started the season 12-13, an unexpectedly strong start considering they traded Dwight Howard to the Lakers for spare parts in the offseason. But the years of poor management and bad trades caught up with them and they have dropped quickly to the second worst team in the NBA. The Wizards meanwhile were the last team in the NBA to win a game this season but since January have rocketed past the Magic and sit comfortably ahead of them in the Southeast Division.

This was my fourth trip to Orlando. I went once shortly after we moved to the United States with my parents and sister then returned with my sister in 1999 after I finished the Architectural Record Exam to get my architecture license. The primary focus of those two trips was to visit various Disney and other amusement park properties. My third trip was to speak at a conference a couple of years ago and involved a taxi ride straight to the hotel/conference center and a ride back to the airport two days later. None of these trips involved visiting downtown Orlando. In fact I wasn't even sure there WAS a downtown Orlando. The Magic play downtown so this time I explored somewhere new in addition to seeing an NBA game in an 11th different arena (in case anyone other than me is keeping track, which they are probably not).

In past road trips, I have purchased tickets on StubHub, which I absolutely love, but they didn't have the exact tickets I wanted so I tried out nbatickets.com and got some great seats: first row above the tunnel to the Wizards' locker room. The seats were on the side facing the TV cameras and we were guaranteed to have nobody sitting in front of us. After a quick meal downtown (awesome lamb sandwich at The Rusty Spoon), I headed over to the almost brand new Amway Center for the game.

Pre-game photo with two of the Magic Dancers. Yes, they covered the Washington on my jersey on purpose.
The Amway Center is, I believe, the newest arena in the NBA. It bears a striking resemblance to other recently constructed NBA arenas I have visited around the country except for the fact that the court is placed on grade rather than being sunken into the ground, presumably because there is water right below grade in pretty much the entire state of Florida. I like Amway's wide concourse areas (unlike Verizon Center's which are constrained by D.C.'s tight city grid) which allows space for exhibits about the Magic's history and the large bar area at the end zone similar to VC's Acela Club but without being restricted to those with club level access in D.C. The arena is downtown, which I love, in an area of town packed with restaurants and bars. My experience getting to and getting into the Amway Center was all positive, including the pregame picture with the Magic Dancers.

Pre-game warmups. Didn't get much more competitive after this.
After all the positive pre-game vibes though, I was definitely set up for a let down after tip-off. Despite the Magic missing starters Glen Davis, Arron Afflalo and Nikola Vucevic and even after starting point guard Jameer Nelson went down in the first half, the Wizards couldn't manage to contain a team that was clearly inferior to them. We allowed the Magic to open up a 12 point halftime lead behind a clear and quite honestly unacceptable discrepancy in field goal percentage and assists. We made the Magic's Tobias Harris look like an All-Star in the first half. Team basketball, solid rebounding and defense seemed to be concepts we didn't quite understand.

It got better after halftime for a while when the Wizards erased the halftime deficit and took the lead about eight minutes after the break but then apathy or whatever else it was set in and we ended up playing the same type of ball that we did in the first half, ultimately losing by only five in what should have been a very winnable game against a weakened opponent. It was a bad performance all around. Nobody on that team should feel good about that game, including John Wall, who managed to score 31 points but only dished out two assists. This experience, by the way, drops my record in Wizards road games to a paltry 1-4 and at least two of those games we should have won going away. So much for my formula for picking winnable games.

The game wasn't a total loss. I had a great time and this one loss isn't going to be the difference between making the playoffs and spending the postseason at home. One of the things I love the most about traveling to Wizards games is the people I meet and how basketball fits into their lives, whether it's a cabbie in Chicago debating the merits of Michael Jordan's and John Starks' dunks or hanging out talking hoops in general with the Wizards' coaches and scouts in Vegas.

After watching pregame warm ups, I roamed around the concourse and picked up a beer ($7.75 for 24 oz. of Budweiser, way better than Verizon Center's $8.00 for 20 oz.). When I got back to my seat, there were two kids (Joe and Sam) sitting next to me dressed in Magic stuff holding #kevinseraphinlife (Kevin Seraphin's Twitter and Instagram hashtags) signs and yelling to get Kevin's attention at the top of their lungs. We eventually got Kevin's attention and a thumbs up. Talking with those guys about the game we were watching, the NBA and the Magic's and Wizards' chances in the next few years mitigated the effects of the loss a little. These kids knew every player in the NBA (including Twitter addresses) and love the sport and their Orlando Magic. I respect fans who don't abandon their teams in lean times and I appreciate Joe and Sam's perspectives on fairweather fans like all those Oklahoma City Thunder "fans" who have appeared from seemingly nowhere. I hope the two of those guys stick it out over the next few years because I don't see the Magic getting back to the playoffs any time soon.

Looking forward to my next road trip next season.

The kids are alright: my new friends Joe (left) and Sam (right). Check out the gold Arenas jersey on Joe.

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