September 5, 2017

Jerseys In My Closet

I'm turning September into jersey month here at My Swag Was Phenomenal. Here's the first of three posts on that subject.

After Martell Webster decided to early retire in 2015, I had a conversation with my friend Mike about what jersey I was going to buy now that Martell was gone from the game. Yes, I bought a Martell Webster jersey. And wore it to games. Mike's response was classic, something to the effect of "Why don't you buy a jersey of someone who's good?"

Sound advice, no doubt. I've always had an admiration for the contributing role player on the Wizards and so time after time, it seemed (with the exception of my Arenas gold jersey), I had to that point in my Wizards fandom been clad in a no-way-is-this-guy-ever-making-an-All-Star-game player's jersey every so often at Verizon Center. A couple of months later I took Mike's advice and bought my first John Wall Wizards jersey.

Over my 17 year tenure as a Wizards fan, I've owned (and still own, for that matter) nine Wizards jerseys. Their story is a story of my decade and a half plus journey of me being a member of the Wizards faithful. Here's what I've worn over the years. Try to be gentle with your criticism, especially about halfway through this post. I was misguided. Nothing more.

Brendan Haywood
My first favorite Wizards player ever was Brendan Haywood. The year was 2001 and it was my second year as a Wizards season ticket holder. I'd just sat through parts of an awful inaugural (for me) Wizards season that saw my new favorite team go 19-63 and end up in last place of the Atlantic Division (this was back when there were just four divisions in the league).

Through the first 12 games of the 2001-2002 season, the Wizards didn't look a whole lot better than they did the prior year, winning just three times in 12 tries. Brendan Haywood was a rookie that year and didn't play in the first dozen games due to a hand injury. But when he did play starting in late November he just looked like he was trying way harder than anyone else on our team. And he seemed to be blocking a ton of shots, including seven against Atlanta on December 19 of that year.

Here was a guy I could get behind and follow: a role player who played hard, played D and did things like block shots. Instantly he fit neatly into the category of players I loved in this league. In the first 20 games Brendan played in a Wizards uniform, the team went 15-5. I'm not saying it was all due to B-Wood but there may be a cause and effect.

Over the years, Brendan had some high spots and low spots with the Wizards: fighting with teammate Etan Thomas (yes, literally fighting), some pouting due to loss of playing time, statements about not wanting to teach JaVale McGee how to be a professional (although he may have been really smart here) but also being the defensive anchor and a model of consistency on the court for years for a team that in its prime was really pretty good.

I didn't buy a Brendan Haywood jersey that first season when he wore 3 nor the second season when he wore 00. I finally broke down sometime after that and sprung for an authentic jersey which cost about $160 or something like that back then. I remember getting yelled at by some fan ("Hey Haywood, make your free throws!") after a game in which B-Wood missed some free throws towards the end of the game. I assume the dude could tell the difference between a 5'-11" (basketball height; not actual height) 30 some year old white dude and a 7'-0" black professional athlete but didn't care anyway. Brendan signed both 3s on the back of his jersey at some Washington Auto Show in the mid-aughts which I appreciate.

Gilbert Arenas
I remember being at my parents place watching television when the announcement that the winner of the NBA's 2003 Most Improved Player was Golden State's Gilbert Arenas scrolled across the bottom of the screen. My first reaction was to tell my dad "the Wizards should sign THAT guy." And they did. Gave him everything we had in cap space to sign him. Gilbert pretty much tied B-Wood for my favorite Wizards player that day without ever having played a second in a Wizards jersey.

When he got to D.C., I started hearing more and more stories about Gilbert that proved to me that this guy was not just an ordinary basketball player: the locker room hijinks as a rookie refusing to be hazed, the reason he wore zero as a chip on his shoulder, the gym rat mentality, the hyperbaric chamber, the playoff guarantee from his first press conference, his single parent upbringing. What was not to like about Gilbert?

Then he started playing. The first year in D.C. Gil was good. The next few, he was awesome. We had a guy who could go off for 50 points seemingly when he wanted. And of course there came with it all sorts of nicknames and crazy behaviors: hibachi, Agent Zero, the turning around on buzzer beaters before they hit the bottom of the net to kill the other team, throwing his jersey into the crowd at the end of each game, guaranteeing financial support to a local boy who'd lost his family in a fire, staying and signing autographs at fan events when all his teammates had split when the allocated time was up. Everything about Gilbert Arenas, I loved.

I bought the gold alternate jersey because that was Gil's jersey more than anyone else's. Gilbert made that jersey special. He set the all-time franchise single game scoring mark (60) in that jersey. He was Agent Zero in that thing. And of course I had to get the authentic jersey again which set me back again north of $150.

Gilbert's ending in Washington wasn't special. It was marred by a devastating injury to the best player I'd seen in a Wizards jersey to that point by far and then by a locker room gun showdown that I won't recount here because I just don't want to. Before he got traded to the Orlando Magic and started his farewell tour of other NBA franchises, Gil signed my jersey in the best way possible, with an "Agent 0" signature. I love Gil for that and for his time in D.C.

Caron Butler
OK, so my Caron Butler 2008 NBA All-Star Game jersey is a bit of an oddball in my collection because it was gifted, not bought. The Wizards gave one to each season ticket holder who renewed their full season plan in 2008. That's not to say that I wouldn't buy a Caron Butler jersey (because I totally would; I love Tough Juice), just that I already had my perfectly good Arenas jersey at that time and I didn't need to drop any more money on a new kit.

Of the big three of Butler, Arenas and Antawn Jamison, I appreciate that Caron has been the most vocal about what a missed opportunity his time in D.C. was and how much he genuinely thought that team would achieve greatness before (through no fault of Caron's) the team imploded and collapsed in on itself. The result of all that was Jamison playing with LeBron James and the hated Cleveland Cavaliers (and winning nothing) while Caron, B-Wood and DeShawn Stevenson ended up getting a ring each with the Dallas Mavericks. The Wizards meanwhile rebuilt around rookie John Wall which right now looks like a smart choice.

Of course, just like the other two earlier jerseys in my collection, my CB jersey is autographed. It came that way. Otherwise the Wizards would just be handing out old stock that they couldn't sell to their season ticket holders.

Andray Blatche
I'm a smart guy but sometimes I make silly decisions. Actually sometimes I make really dumb, naïve and ignorant decisions.

At the beginning of the 2009-2010 season, Andray Blatche made a decision. He decided to change his number from 32 to 7 as a signal to the world that he would now be dedicated to becoming a professional basketball player and the best he could be in a Wizards uniform all seven days of every week. This was a guy who was a second round pick of the Wizards right out of high school and had just completed the best season of his four year career, starting more games (32) than any other year, finally averaging double digits in scoring and having increased his scoring and rebounding number each year since his NBA debut. I bought it because I wanted to believe in Andray Blatche and the power of Ernie Grunfeld to pick a unknown gem out of the second round of the draft. I bought it so much that I dropped $170 on an authentic jersey, the last one (to this point) I have bought because the cost is just so freaking out of control now.

So there are some logical questions behind this move, right? The first is why would a professional athlete NOT be dedicated to being a professional seven days a week? What did Dray's number mean before he donned a number 7 jersey? 32 days a year? That answer is not out of the realm of possibility by the way. There were certainly flags about Andray's past that would raise some doubts. Before he even played a minute in the NBA he was shot in some kind of incident with a prior Wizards questionable second round draft pick Peter John Ramos and he'd been famously casual about his diet and work ethic, relying on his natural talents to keep him going despite being questioned seemingly daily on this issue by team captain Antawn Jamsion. As a fan, you could see Dray lacked any sort of real chiseling in his physique.

Of course, all this nonsense didn't work. Andray had his moments in a Wizards jersey after he started working full-time, twice scoring 36 points in a game and combining those two scoring efforts with 19 and 15 rebounds in those two games. But one of those games per year just ain't enough and before the 2012-2013 season the Wizards used the amnesty provision in the Collective Bargaining Agreement to part ways with Andray, still having to pay him but not having his salary count against the cap.

After being released by the Wizards, Dray spent two years with the Brooklyn Nets and became one of Wizards' fans favorite targets for booing. He didn't look like he was in any better shape as a Net than he did as a Wizard. I remember one game at Verizon Center when he looked especially winded and was grabbing his shorts while standing on the edge of the lane during a Wizards free throw attempt. Because the arena was especially quiet at that time, I yelled "Hey, Dray! What are you, tired?" from my fifth row seat and I swear he looked right at me and smiled like a kid who didn't know what he'd gotten himself into. I felt bad about yelling that.

To his credit, I guess, Andray signed my jersey gorgeously before a road game in Indiana. I think it's one of the best and clearest signatures I have. Too bad the jersey and the signature are not only worthless but also really pretty embarrassing that I actually have this jersey in my collection. Like I said, sometimes I make silly decisions.

Chris Singleton
At the end of the 2010-2011 season (John Wall's rookie year), the Wizards decided it was time for a re-brand. They rolled out a couple of new logos (while also inexplicably refusing to kill off the Wizard logo for a year or so) and some gorgeous new threads. I still think the home whites are the best unis in the league. I had to get a new jersey. I mean after all, even if I could be seen in public in a signed Andray Blatche jersey, there's really no way I wanted to wear those hideous old blue, black and gold things any more.

Almost inexplicably (although I can and will actually explain), I picked rookie Chris Singleton's 31 as my new jersey. Singleton was the 18th overall pick in the 2011 draft and the Wizards second of three, selected between number six overall pick Jan Vesely and number 34 overall Shelvin Mack. It was a disaster of a draft for the Wizards. Vesely made it through all four years of his rookie deal but only just. Singleton made it just three years. The only one of the trio still playing in the NBA is Mack and the Wizards cut him not once but twice. To make matters worse, the Wizards selected opted for Ves ahead of Klay Thompson and Kawhi Leonard.

When the Wizards drafted Chris Singleton, I saw that as a commitment by the front office to put someone on the team who might be a defense first guy and I loved that. Chris had alleged he could cover the 1 through 4 positions in college and I supposed he would being some heart and toughness to a team that finished solidly in the bottom ten of the league in defensive rating. It didn't work. Chris proved too slow to cover the 1 through 3 spots at the NBA level and wasn't big enough to cover the power forwards in the league. 

I'm not sorry I bought a Chris Singleton jersey despite the questions I got on it (usually "did I attend Florida State?"). I talked with Chris a couple of times during his tenure with the Wiz and found him relatable and open to talking with a fan of the team and I appreciated that. 

And yes...I do have two Singleton jerseys (I downgraded to the cheaper Swingman version starting with this purchase) as shown in the picture above. I ordered the home white before the season started from the NBA store online. After a couple of weeks of it not showing up, they sent me an email saying the product I had ordered was not available so I ordered a road red one instead. About a day later the original white jersey I ordered showed up. I called the NBA store and ended up with a 2-for-1 deal. So I didn't really buy two Chris Singleton jerseys. I just own two now.

When I handed Chris the white jersey to sign (which you can just make out in silver on the "3", his comment was "Now that's what I'm talking about." I have a feeling the NBA didn't sell too many Wizards 31 jerseys from 2011 to 2014.

Martell Webster
After a couple of misses in the jersey department I was determined to right the ship with the next one I bought. I picked Martell Webster, a guy who was a lottery pick in the draft but had a history of back issues and had struggled to score the ball in his prior contracts with both the Portland Trail Blazers and the Minnesota Timberwolves. Surprisingly, Martell fit into the Wizards' offense perfectly and would become the first of a string of guys who put up gaudy numbers from beyond the three point line by playing on the same team as John Wall.

What I liked most about Martell was his team first attitude and his appreciation for playing in Washington and playing for Randy Wittman (who remains, barely, my favorite Wizards coach of all time). Martell didn't care how many points he scored or how much playing time he received. He (correctly) was concerned with the team winning. If that meant he played zero minutes some days or played 30 minutes and scored nothing, so be it. He was absolutely correct: individual accomplishments are secondary to the team's performance.

I also appreciated Martell's life story. Not that it's unusual for an NBA player to have a difficult upbringing, but his reaction to what he experienced through how he deals with his own family is what impresses me. He was raised by his grandmother after his mom disappeared when he was four years old. And when I say disappeared, that's true. Nobody knows what happened to her, although there are theories that she was a victim of a serial killer. His dad left before he was born but lived nearby in silence until after Martell was drafted and was then predictably and appropriately rejected by his son. Martell's response to his personal history is to put his own family first above all else, determined to not repeat anything like his father's mistakes.

I bought my Webster jersey right after the team eliminated the center horizontal stripe from the back of their uniform (see the jersey below) that made some of the numbers (particularly 2s, 3s and 5s) too difficult to read so when it showed up in my mailbox it was already a throwback. Of course, I got the jersey signed and wore it to games with Martell's ink on the back.

John Wall
Ultimately, I took my friend Mike's advice and made my next jersey someone good by picking up a John Wall jersey. It's been the only jersey I've worn to games for the last two years at Verizon Center and I anticipate it will be the only one I'll wear (although I may need a new one at some point) for the foreseeable future.

John Wall is without question in my mind the best player who has ever pulled on a Wizards jersey. By the time he's done in D.C. he seems pretty determined to be one of the best, if not THE best, who has ever worn a Wizards or Bullets or Zephyrs or Packers jersey. And he may get there, either with or without a championship.

I love that John works constantly to improve his game. I love that he takes every slight anyone in or out of the league throws his way (and there have been a lot) and uses those to push himself to get better. I love that he wants to be in Washington in an era when loyalty doesn't matter much to teams or players or even fans sometimes (the author of this post is definitely excluded). I love that he's deservedly a four time All-Star and has been named to an All-NBA team and an All-NBA Defense team. I love that he's getting better every year. I love his commitment to the community and those less fortunate than himself. And I love watching him throw passes from my seat in Section 105 of Verizon Center and now Capital One Arena. I am proud to wear this jersey each time I slip it over my head. I can't see myself wearing another jersey until John no longer plays for the Wizards.

So I sort of lied. By the time I asked Mike for some advice about my next jersey purchase, I already owned a John Wall jersey (below). I had the extreme good fortune to attend the 2015 NBA All-Star Game in New York a couple of years ago and sprang for a John Wall All-Star jersey as a souvenir of that experience, which coincidentally is the only All-Star Game start of John's career. I have worn this jersey exactly once and that was at the game itself. After that, I had John sign it, which looks great in silver against the blue number, and retired it. I have no idea what I'm going to do with this and my other signed jerseys. For now I'm just holding on to them.

17 years and counting. Nine jerseys and counting. They are some of the most expensive and useless (it's not like I can wear them at time or anywhere other than to games) Wizards souvenirs I own. But collectively they tell a story of my love for the Wizards, as passionate and frustrating and glorious and misguided as it has been since I first ponied up some dough for a full season back in the year 2000. I don't think I need to get my 10th jersey anytime soon but you just never know in this business.

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