May 27, 2012

Rebuilding: 2010-2011 Through 2011-2012

The 2009-2010 Wizards season was pretty much an unmitigated disaster: the core of the team which had led the franchise to four straight playoff berths was traded away; our former superstar player, suspended for the majority of the prior season, was a shadow of his former self on the court; and our owner was dead. There was clearly a rebuilding period looming.

Despite all that had gone wrong, however, the team managed to finish with a better record than three other teams in the NBA. We pulled into a tie with the Golden State Warriors for the fourth worst record when Cedric Jackson hit a three point shot at the end of regulation in the final game of the season against the Indiana Pacers. The fourth worst finish meant the likelihood of securing a franchise-altering draft pick in the 2010 NBA Draft was fairly low. That likelihood decreased when we lost a coin flip with the Warriors and learned we would receive one fewer number combination in the upcoming Draft Lottery.

Ownership transition started immediately following the 2009-2010 season. For the first time since 1963, ownership of the team passed out of the hands of the Pollin family. The new ownership group headed by Ted Leonsis, which already owned the NHL's Washington Capitals, intended to rebuild through the NBA Draft, using a similar plan that had turned the Capitals from the worst team in the NHL to one of the top teams in the league. The upcoming 2010 Draft featured a consensus number one overall pick in lightning fast John Wall, the freshman point guard from the University of Kentucky, but not much more if you wanted to start rebuilding a franchise immediately. The Wizards chance of winning the Draft Lottery stood at only 10.3% based on their fourth worst finish and subsequent lost coin toss.

In theory, the Wizards could have chosen free agency to rebuild. The 2010 offseason featured one of the most anticipated free agent classes in NBA history: Chris Bosh, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudamire, Paul Pierce, Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, Dirk Nowitski, and the prize most teams coveted, LeBron James. Franchises had been maneuvering for years for this class. But the Wizards would not engage in bidding wars for any of these free agents. Ted made it quite clear that the way he wanted to rebuild was through the draft.

As it turned out, a 10.3% chance was good enough. The Wizards were lucky enough to win the Draft Lottery and on June 24, the Wizards selected John Wall with the number one overall pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Maybe the good luck which the team needed to turn the franchise's fortunes around had just happened. Thank God Cedric Jackson hit that three pointer to beat Indiana. If he hadn't, we might be rebuilding around Ekpe Udoh, whom the Warriors drafted with their first round pick that year.

June 24, 2o1o produced two other building blocks for the Wizards. The team parlayed the number 23 pick, which they had obtained in the deal the prior season for Antawn Jamison, into Trevor Booker, a defensive power forward out of Clemson University who graded out the fastest man in the Draft, faster even than John Wall. They also picked up another pick from the Chicago Bulls, who were desperate to clear salary cap space so they would have enough money to sign either Dwyane Wade or LeBron James to pair with Derrick Rose. In what may be one of the great swindles in team history (although the jury is still out), the Wizards swapped Vladamir Veremeenko, their second round selection in the 2006 Draft, for Kirk Hinrich and the number 17 pick, who turned out to be Kevin Seraphin, a center from French Guiana with tremendous upside but little command of the English language. Three picks in the first round of one NBA Draft, including the number one overall selection; not bad for a first stab at rebuilding.

But there was other work to be done. The team clearly had a culture problem. The leadership and professionalism that Antawn Jamison and Caron Butler had brought to the locker room was gone and nobody seemed ready or willing to fill the leadership void. Arenas, the team's longest tenured player, had tried to decline the captaincy the first and only time the organization had asked. And there was no way the team could turn to Andray Blatche, Nick Young or JaVale McGee. So the team named John Wall and Kirk Hinrich captains and hoped for the best. As it turned out, the best included a franchise record 16 game losing streak and an almost NBA record 25 game road losing streak to start the season. Changes needed to be made to make the team into a credible franchise with aspirations toward consistent winning.

While the team ended up with a less than mediocre 23-59 record, which was three games worse than the prior season, they did manage to trade the seemingly untradeable contract of Gilbert Arenas to the Orlando Magic in exchange for Rashard Lewis, a player perhaps equally overpaid as Arenas but with one fewer year on his contract. They also managed to move Kirk Hinrich during the season to the Atlanta Hawks, in a deal which brought in return Jordan Crawford, the 27th pick in the 2010 Draft, along with Atlanta's first round pick in the 2011 Draft. Maybe four first round picks from the 2010 Draft and jettisoning  Arenas would be a good enough start to the rebuild.

After the 2010-2011 season, the franchise prepared for the 2011 NBA Draft and for the future. The 2011 Draft Lottery yielded the number six pick in the Draft, the worst possible result based on our finish the previous season. The 2011 Draft brought three new players: Jan Vesely, a forward from the Czech Republic whose nickname is the dunking ninja; Chris Singleton, a small forward from Florida State who was possibly the best all-around defender in the Draft (Atlanta's pick); and Shelvin Mack, a guard from Butler University, fresh off two consecutive appearances in the NCAA championship game.

Following the Draft, the franchise took another important step forward by unveiling new uniforms which freshened up the uniforms of the 1977-1978 Washington Bullets NBA championship team. But any enthusiasm gained from the draft or the re-brand was squashed by a labor dispute and ultimately a lockout. The lockout meant the team's players could not access team facilities or training staff, which could be especially tough on a young team. For veteran players, like Nick Young and JaVale McGee, the lockout gave them time to create home videos of cinnamon eating contests (I'm not kidding). I'm not sure which was more discouraging: the lockout or the cinnamon eating. The lockout lasted until Thanksgiving weekend, when the labor dispute was unofficially settled. Training camp would be abbreviated and the season would start on Christmas Day.

When the 2011-2012 season finally started, it was clear the Wizards just weren't going to be very good at all. The core of our team from the previous year (Blatche, McGee and Young) seemed to care more about personal statistics than winning and the effects of having to start the season quickly with a shortened training camp were obvious. The team had lost its first six, including blowing a 20 point lead on opening night against the New Jersey Nets, when the veterans on the team called a players only meeting. The results were not encouraging. Mo Evans publicly questioned the attitude of entitlement that existed on the team; clearly some of the players on a team that had averaged less than 23 wins in the previous three seasons felt playing time was given, not earned. About three weeks later, with the team's record sitting at 2-15, Flip Saunders was fired as head coach. Flip's overall record with the Wizards was 51-130 with zero playoff appearances. Things looked really bleak.

The team replaced Saunders with top assistant Randy Wittman, but only after Randy made sure he would have the last word on who played and who didn't. Randy coached the team as if he had nothing to lose, which was probably absolutely the case. He held players accountable for effort and performance and made changes and handed out discipline when required. He benched starters JaVale McGee and Nick Young for the entire second half in a game at Milwaukee on February 28 after a lackluster first half and then extended the benching for the start of the next game at home against Orlando. He apologized to the fans after an early March home loss to Golden State, vowing to make changes to ensure something like that would never happen again. And on March 21, he held Andray Blatche out of the game against the New Jersey Nets due to conditioning and then worked with the front office to send Andray home for the season to get in shape. I think there were two turning points in the 2011-2012 season that will pay dividends in future years. I believe putting Randy in charge of the team was the first. We'll see if I'm right.

The second turning point happened at the trade deadline on March 15 when the Wizards traded away JaVale McGee and Nick Young and got back Brazilian center Nenê from the Denver Nuggets. The trade was panned by some in the national media, saying the Wizards got fooled into accepting an oft-injured 29 year old center in exchange for a budding superstar in McGee. But to those closest to the team and to the DC media, the trade for Nenê was an obvious and instant upgrade. The trade brought a team player with a high basketball IQ and good leadership skills who understands how to play the game at both ends of the court. Trading away McGee and Young brought credibility to the franchise and signaled that the team was serious about winning. The team went 10-14 after the trade but in games when Nenê played, the team was 7-4 and the team finished the season 8-2 in their last ten games and won their last six. There seems to be a lot of hope heading into the offseason, despite the fact that we finished with the second worst record in the league. Again, we'll see if I'm right.

The Collapse: 2008-2009 Through 2009-2010

At the conclusion of the 2007-2008 season, Antawn Jamison's contract expired, making him an unrestricted free agent. Then, Gilbert Arenas, despite having played only 17 games in the one plus seasons since his knee injury in April 2007, exercised an early termination clause in his contract and also became an unrestricted free agent. All of a sudden, two of the Big Three were no longer under contract. Gilbert indicated he wanted to return to the Wizards, but only if the team took care of Antawn Jamison first. There was no doubt the team would have re-signed Jamison. Owner Abe Pollin had a soft spot for Jamison and he was coming off an All Star season as the team's leading scorer. But Gilbert's demand seemed entitled and set an ominous tone.

The team re-signed Jamison to a four year deal at an average salary of $12.5 million per year then turned their attention to Agent Zero. Gilbert was really looking for the maximum deal he could get under the NBA's collective bargaining agreement, but to create a little goodwill, he said he would agree to take less so the team could sign other free agents for a championship push. In the end, though, he only ended up taking about $1 million per year less than the maximum deal, effectively handcuffing the team for years to come with a deal that would pay him over $20 million each year. Bad decision. Really bad decision. Gilbert played a total of two games in the 2008-2009 season due to the same knee injury that ended his season two years prior.

Training camp started and the team received another injury blow: Brendan Haywood tore a ligament in his right wrist which caused him to miss all but the final six games of the season. Without Brendan, the team was lost at their own basket. Brendan called the defense and kept everyone in the right spots on the floor. His absence was obvious and the team struggled to a 19-63 record, matching the franchise worst record for an 82 game season first achieved in 2000-2001. I have only attended every Wizards home game in one season, and that season was it. I hope I never have to go through something like that again.

Our 19-63 record yielded us the number five overall pick in the 2009 draft and just like they did with the fifth pick in 2004, the team traded it, this time to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Randy Foye and Mike Miller, two veteran players who were in the last year of their contracts. Clearly the team was going for it, hoping that the trade along with the return of Arenas and Haywood combined with Jamison, Butler, Stevenson and young players Andray Blatche, Nick Young and JaVale McGee, would right the ship. Head coach Eddie Jordan had been relieved of his position during the previous season so the team went for a marquee coach, bringing in Flip Saunders, who had previously been the head coach in Minnesota and Detroit and had a string of playoff appearances with those two teams. It didn't work. If I thought a second 19 win season in nine years was bad, I had no concept of how awful things could get until the 2009-2010 season.

While the team won two of its first three games that year, including an impressive road victory over the Dallas Mavericks on opening night, they lost eight of the next nine to start the season 3-10. Then, owner Abe Pollin, who had been in deteriorating health due to a rare brain disease over the previous few years, died. Pollin had owned the team in part or in whole since 1963, the team's third year of existence and first as the Baltimore Bullets. The loss of Pollin meant a lot to players like Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison, whom Pollin had championed in the media as players with the kind of character  that he wanted to play for the Wizards.

Then it got worse. On the team flight back from Phoenix on December 19, JaVale McGee and Javaris Crittenton were playing a card game called Boo-Ray, a game similar to spades, when an argument broke out over money. Apparently, JaVale had borrowed money from teammate Earl Boykins and was not paying back Boykins as he won money from Crittenton. As Boykins continued to ask JaVale for money during the game, Crittenton demanded McGee hand over the money he had won to Boykins. Somehow, Arenas got involved with Crittenton and the two went at each other all the way to the airport terminal with Arenas ultimately threatening to set Crittenton's car on fire and Crittenton threatening to shoot Arenas in the knee in retaliation.

Two days later, Arenas brought four guns to Verizon Center, laid them in front of Crittenton's locker and wrote a note saying "Pick 1, so the day you want to shoot me let me know, I'll be ready to get shot." Gun possession is illegal in the District of Columbia so what Gilbert did was a felony offense, although I'm sure he didn't think about that at the time. When Crittenton arrived, he claimed he didn't need Arenas' guns and pulled out his own and pointed it at Gilbert. The incident died down from there but word got out through word of mouth and ultimately made it's way into the press. On January 10, NBA commissioner David Stern suspended Arenas and Crittenton for the season. Arenas was convicted of a felony and had to spend time in a halfway house. Crittenton would never play NBA basketball again and is currently free on bond after being charged with murder in the death of a 22 year old mother of four in his hometown of Atlanta.

The end of the Big Three era in DC was in sight. The team made it official just before the trading deadline. First, they sent Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson to the Dallas Mavericks for Josh Howard, James Singleton, Drew Gooden and Quinton Ross, the third major trade with the Mavericks in the last nine years. A few days later, they traded Antawn Jamison to Cleveland essentially for the Cavaliers 2010 first round draft pick. At the time it was thought the Cavaliers needed a scoring big man to take them back to the NBA Finals. I had the opportunity to talk to Jamison a few days before the trade, when it was already obvious the team was shopping him. I told him I hoped the team put him in a position where he could win a championship as long as it wasn't in Cleveland. He laughed but I think he was glad to leave Washington that year. As it turns out, he didn't win a title in Cleveland but Butler, Haywood and Stevenson did a year later in Dallas. The Wizards finished the 2009-2010 season with a 26-56 record, good for last place in our division, a full 18 games behind the fourth place Charlotte Bobcats. 45 wins total in two years. Not good.


Minneapolis: Camera phones in 2007 just weren't what they are today.
When the television broadcast schedule was announced for the 2006-2007 NBA season, it appeared to me that I would have to miss the February 25, 2007 game at Minnesota because it just didn't look like it would be on TV. It was a Sunday afternoon game and ABC, who owned the national TV contract with the NBA that year, had the broadcast rights. That usually works out fine because the game would be shown on national TV, but this particular Sunday, ABC had the rights to several other games in that same time slot and would only be showing one based on the perceived popularity of the teams playing. Reviewing the schedule that day, it didn't look to me that the Wizards-Timberwolves game would be the one shown by ABC. When the NBA's national TV network owns the rights to a game, they prohibit the same game being shown on local cable television to eliminate competition. So on Sunday, February 25, our local cable network, Comcast SportsNet, had no plans to show the game.

Instead of resigning myself to missing the game, I decided to go to the game in person. I looked for airline tickets and it appeared we could leave Washington in the morning, see the game, and fly back the same day. My friend Mike checked for tickets on Ticketmaster and incredibly found two tickets in the second row at center court. Sold! We were going to Minnesota for the day to see the Wizards.

Sunday morning, February 25, came and it was snowing. Our flight out of National Airport was delayed. That was ok, we had some time for our connection in Chicago. As long as the flight wasn't too late, we'd be alright. And we were. We landed in Minnesota about an hour before tip-off, got off the plane with no luggage (we were just going for the day, after all), took a cab directly to the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis and walked to our second row seats wearing our gold Arenas and Butler road jerseys. Other than the loss, the game was great. We had great seats, had beverage service because we were essentially courtside, and the game was close. The Target Center is dark and quiet and the fact that the crowd is almost completely racially homogenous is strangely unnerving but everything went according to plan. After the game, we hopped in a cab back to the airport for our trip home. We would just make our flight and be back home in DC that night. Except that last part didn't happen.

After we left Washington, it had continued to snow and as it turned out, National Airport had closed. So had Dulles and BWI, so we were stuck in Minneapolis for the night and would have to miss work the next day. It was snowing in Minneapolis too; worse, in fact, than in DC, but they are equipped to deal with more than a few inches of snow. Washington  sometimes has difficulty with rain, let alone snow. I still struggle with this concept after nine years in upstate New York, by the way, but it is what it is. Fortunately, we were able to get a hotel downtown and found a bar with a friendly bartender and talked for a few hours about what it was like living in Minnesota. The next morning, we got up, put on the same clothes we had worn the previous day and went to the airport. We got lucky and managed to get a direct flight home, albeit to a different airport than we had flown out of. My trip home that day involved light rail from downtown Minneapolis to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport; a flight from Minneapolis to Dulles airport in northern Virginia; a bus from Dulles to the West Falls Church metro station; a metro ride to National Airport; and finally a trip home from National in my car. Still, it was worth the trip and we got home safe.

After that game in Minnesota, my dad said he recalled seeing an interview with Gilbert Arenas where Gilbert talked about the growing popularity of the Wizards and pointed to the fact that there were two fans in gold Wizards jerseys in the second row at the Target Center when the Wizards played the Timberwolves that year. I've never found that interview but it would be ironic if it were true.

Front row seat behind the Wizards bench in Atlanta. I LOVED these seats. The Wizards soonafter abandoned the gold names on the jerseys in favor of gold trimmed with white.
Despite the unplanned overnight stay, the missed day of work and the trip home, I was determined to take more Wizards road trips, perhaps even make it an annual event. I just resolved to make sure I didn't pick a game in a cold weather city in the dead of winter. So when the 2007-2008 season schedule was released, I looked for the next opportunity. That year, as it turned out, all the Wizards road games were on our local cable TV channel so the decision as to where to go see was not driven by anything other than personal preference. I decided on an early season game against the Atlanta Hawks and decided the trip should include an overnight stay and a little bit of an exploration of the city, rather than just going to see the game and leaving. I'd never been to Atlanta and had always wanted to see the High Museum of Art so it seemed like a good idea. That blueprint has formed the basis of all my road trips since.

The trip to Atlanta was notable from a basketball standpoint for a couple of reasons. First, the team won despite being 0-5 at the time and it got a winning streak of six straight started that got our season on track. It's the only time in four road trips that the Wizards have won a road game I have attended. Second, we managed to get some seats right behind the Wizards bench from a seller on StubHub. I have never sat courtside and I am sure my opinion will change if I ever do, but watching a game from right behind the team bench is definitely the way to go. Basketball is a game which changes as you get closer to the action. You can't see plays develop quite as well as you can from a seat in the upper deck of an arena, but you see and hear nuances of the game which are just not evident until you get up close. From our seats immediately behind the bench, we could hear pretty much everything that was being said by the players on the bench and by the coaches in the team huddles. It gave an insight into the game that we couldn't have had from anywhere else in the building.

Since it worked so well on the Atlanta trip, we sat in the same spot in 2009 at the Conseco Fieldhouse in Indiana, a gorgeous facility which that November night hosted a terrible showing by the Wizards in what was supposed to be (but wasn't) a season when we made some serious noise in the playoffs. On that trip, we managed to talk to Wizards play by play announcer Steve Buckhantz and we were actually featured in the broadcast. I got an incredulous text message from my friend Chris during the game saying that the camera had just focused on me and Mike, they had mentioned us by name and talked about some of the trips we had taken. It was almost as if Chris couldn't figure out how Steve knew all this about us. To his credit, Chris captured it and you can see us on the broadcast here: If I actually get 15 minutes of fame in my life, this is surely and sadly 1:03 of those 15 minutes. Yes, I am wearing an Andray Blatche jersey and no, that doesn't necessarily make me a loser. I was just misguided by Andray's enthusiasm at the beginning of that season. 

Caron Butler staring me down in Indianapolis. He's probably trying to figure out why I would spend money on the authentic Andray Blatche jersey I was wearing.
One of the great things about traveling is the people you meet, like our bartender in Minneapolis. For those who know me well, this may actually come as a surprise, but it's true. In our road trips, I have met some interesting people whose lives are nothing like mine but in some ways are connected. It's encouraging to me when those connections come from basketball, which sometimes they do. On our way to the United Center in Chicago in 2010, I got into an animated exchange with our cab driver about the Knicks-Bulls 1990s rivalry. Turns out he hated John Starks and I certainly hated Michael Jordan so we had a lot to discuss during our debate about the best dunk from that rivalry. I didn't convince him of my position, but Starks' dunk over Jordan was way better than Jordan's dunk on Patrick Ewing. Just hands down, it is.

So far, I've been to four NBA cities to see the Wizards play on the road. I'd better pick up the pace if I intend to make it to all 29 like we told Phil Chenier in Indianapolis. I wonder where the schedule will take me this year.

Vegas, Baby!

Double Down Saloon: Halfway between the Hard Rock Hotel and the Thomas and Mack Center. Somehow, I doubt their claim about being the happiest place on Earth.
I love Las Vegas. I wouldn't exactly say I enjoy gambling because I'm not crazy about the possibility (or probability) of losing money. To be honest, it’s incredibly stressful for me and it gets more and more stressful as the table minimums go up. I can’t enjoy the free drinks even at a $5 table, which are about impossible to find on the Strip anymore. But there are a lot of other things about Vegas I love. It’s like a microcosm of the excess of America rolled up into one 4.2 mile stretch of road, complete with a ton of neon and deep fried Twinkies if you want them. I’ve made the trip 13 times in the last 11 years, mostly scheduled around the NBA season. I’ve traveled there in March several times when the Wizards were on their annual spring west coast swing, been once just before Thanksgiving (another Wizards road trip) and made the trip five times in July, when it’s hotter than hell at 8 am, even though you tell yourself it's a dry heat. I made the first two July trips because I really didn’t understand what I was doing; I made the last three because July in Vegas is NBA Summer League time.

In 2004, six NBA teams (Boston, Cleveland, Denver, Orlando, Phoenix and the Wizards) participated in a new summer basketball league in Las Vegas. At that time, the league was one of several around the country designed to allow NBA teams to work out first and second year players, unsigned free agents and recently drafted rookies against competition from other NBA teams. In the eight years since the league started, participation has grown to 23 NBA teams and the number of other summer leagues has shrunk to one. The other league, in Orlando, is not open to the public so Vegas is really the only place I can go to see semi-sanctioned NBA basketball in the offseason.

I went to Summer League for the first time in 2008 with my friends Mike and Bryan. That year, Mike and I were sitting at Dulles Airport after checking in for our flight via self-service check-in while Bryan checked in with an agent at the ticket counter (apparently B was on some sort of watch list that year). As we waited for Bryan, we were debating if we would bump into Ivan Carter, who was then the Wizards beat writer for the Washington Post. I said no; Mike said yes. Despite the fact that we knew Ivan was going to Vegas that morning, I figured what are the odds? There are three airports in the DC metropolitan area, right? We had just finished our conversation when I looked up and said, "Hey, it's Ivan Carter." We introduced ourselves and talked to Ivan for a bit about the team and Summer League before getting on the shuttle to the terminal. As Ivan was leaving us he pointed to first me and then Mike and said "Mike and Tony, right?" We corrected him but he put us in the Post's Wizards Insider blog as Mike and Tony anyway ( Just for the record, he got both our names wrong.

The "New Big Three", 2008; That didn't really work out how they planned.
Watching Summer League is utterly unlike watching basketball at Verizon Center or any other NBA arena. Most games are played in the tiny Cox Pavilion at the Thomas and Mack Center, which is the home court of the UNLV women's basketball and volleyball teams and seats about 2,500 for a Summer League game. There is no overhead mounted scoreboard, no instant replay, no fancy sound system and no in-arena entertainment. It's just ten guys on a court playing basketball. The team benches are the first of two rows of folding chairs on the sides of the court and the second row of folding chairs separates the benches from the fans so you are about as close to the action as you can get. You watch what you want to watch and it costs you about $20 for the whole day.

The crowd is totally different, too. The "fans" who show up at Verizon Center to watch Kobe or LeBron or some other star playing for whatever team they happen to be playing for are thankfully absent; it's just pretty much hard core basketball junkie nerds with too much time and money on their hands. In short, people like me. I once had a 15 minute conversation with two guys about how thin Corey Brewer's ankles were. I just wouldn't have those same conversations anywhere else.
Sometimes at Summer League it seems like the whole NBA has moved to the desert for the week. In addition to sharing the stands with other fans, you may end up sitting next to a general manager, coach, scout or player so you have the opportunity to pick their brains about important stuff or minutia that you always wanted to know about the game or the league. In 2010, I went out to Vegas by myself early for Summer League and stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel, which is really (for me) the closest acceptable hotel to the Thomas and Mack Center. I was eating dinner at the Pink Taco at the hotel after watching the first day of games, wearing a shirt with a huge Wizards logo on the back, when the bartender approached me with a beer that I didn't order. He told me it was from the two guys at the bar because I was a Wizards fan and there weren't too many of them in Vegas.

Now, usually I am not a huge fan of accepting drinks from men I don't know, but I figured maybe they were from DC and out there to watch hoops. So after I was done with dinner, I walked over to say thank you and see if they were Wizards fans. They weren't. They were actually Tim Connelly, our Director of Player Personnel, and Mike Wilson, our Director of College Scouting, so I had the opportunity to get some insight into the process of evaluating and scouting talent from the people who actually do that for a living. At one point in our coversation, they claimed responsibility for assembling the entire Wizards roster before remembering we had won only 19 games the previous season and backing off that statment a little. I just wouldn't have the opportunity to get into those discussions other than at Summer League in Vegas.

You might think I'd be alone in supporting my team out there, but despite being 2,500 miles away, Wizards fans are surprisingly well represented at Summer League as the Post's Dan Steinberg found out during his Vegas trip in 2009: I love the description of us being "fond of standing tall in their strange little identity as devoted D.C. basketball fans" and I'm happy I made the article. Bryan would have made it into the photo with me and Mike but Dan ushered him out of the frame for not wearing Wizards paraphernalia.

Summer league is July 13 through July 22 this year. Can't wait to go back!

The Playoff Years: 2004-2005 Through 2007-2008

The Wizards 25-57 record in the 2003-2004 season was poor enough to earn the team the number five pick in the 2004 draft. With the fifth pick, the team drafted Devin Harris out of the University of Wisconsin, but Harris never played for the Wizards. Instead, the team sent him along with Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner to the Dallas Mavericks for reigning Sixth Man of the Year Antawn Jamison. It was the second major trade with the Mavericks in the last four years, but unlike the 2001 in-season trade which was essentially a salary dump, the acquisition of Jamison was designed to make the team substantially better. And it did.

That year, the combination of Jamison at the power forward spot with Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes in the backcourt were just spectacular. Arenas and Jamison were voted by the NBA coaches to the Eastern Conference All Star squad and Hughes might have joined them, had he not broken his wrist in the January 15 victory over the Phoenix Suns, a team at that time as hot as any other. After the season, Arenas was voted to the All-NBA Third Team and Hughes was voted to the All-NBA Defensive First Team but it was the team success, and not the individual honors, that made that season so special.

The team posted a 45-37 record, the best mark for the franchise since the 1978-1979 season, good for fifth in the Eastern Conference and a return trip to the playoffs for the first time since 1997. The team clinched their playoff berth on April 13 after a home victory against the Chicago Bulls and a loss the same night by the New Jersey Nets to the Indiana Pacers, which we watched on the scoreboard screen from our seats in Section 402 of the MCI Center after the Wizards took care of the Bulls. It would be the first of four consecutive playoff appearances, the longest streak since the Bullets made the postseason five years in a row from 1984 through 1988. Brendan Haywood, who had been my favorite player since his rookie year in 2001, and Jared Jeffries rounded out what would become a solid starting five. The bench on paper was a concern, with Juan Dixon, Jarvis Hayes, Etan Thomas and Michael Ruffin being the top reserves, but the team won. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat, posting a 26-9 record against teams that ended the season with losing records, and they were clutch in close games, going 20-10 in games decided by five points or less.

The first round playoff opponent that year was the Chicago Bulls, a team that had won two more games during the regular season than the Wizards. The Bulls took the first two games in Chicago before the Wizards evened it up at 2-2 with two victories at the MCI Center. The fifth game was tight and the Wizards would end up with the final possession of regulation in a game tied at 110. Then, with time winding down, Gilbert Arenas let fly a step back jumper over the outstretched arm of the Bulls' Kirk Heinrich with 0.3 seconds remaining. The shot hit the bottom of the net and the Wizards took the game and came home up three games to two. The photograph of that shot is awesome. I have a copy signed by Arenas and I pull it out and look at it sometimes when I'm longing for better times. I like to study the faces of the crowd; there is almost every emotion you can possibly experience at a sporting event on the faces of the Chicago fans. I'm sure their faces looked a lot different 0.3 seconds later. When Hinrich was traded to the Wizards before the 2010-2011 season, I thought about asking him to sign the photograph too, but I decided to not be that cruel.

The Wizards took game six and the series at home after being down big early, going ahead for good when Jared Jeffries stole the inbounds pass off the back of Chris Duhon and ran the length of the court for the slam. The crowd was going absolutely crazy; I can't wait for the now-Verizon Center to be like that again. In the second round of the playoffs, the team laid down and lost in four straight to the Dwayne Wade, Shaquille O'Neal and the rest of the Miami Heat, a team we had not beaten in seemingly forever. Despite the second round performance, the 2004-2005 season was memorable in so many ways and gave us something to build on and look forward to. The Arenas game five winner ( and Jeffries' steal in game six ( are still fun to watch. I just hope those aren't the best moments I'll have as a Wizards fan.

In the 2005 offseason, the Cleveland Cavaliers decided Larry Hughes was the guy they needed to pair with LeBron James to make the team into a winner and offered him a five year, $70 million dollar deal. Ernie Grunfeld and the Wizards decided not to match. Good decision. Despite the team's success in the 2004-2005 season, Boogie had a history of nagging injuries like the broken wrist he sustained that year and $14 million a year was just too much to pay, something the Cavaliers would find out during the next two and a half seasons, before they elected to ship Larry to Chicago in a mid-season deal. To replace Larry, Grunfeld sent Kwame Brown along with Laron Profit to the Los Angeles Lakers for Caron Butler and Chucky Atkins in a deal that still defies common sense. Brown was almost a certified bust and Butler was an up and coming small forward in the last year of his rookie deal. I guess the Lakers felt it was worth taking a chance on Brown or maybe they knew that they wouldn't be able to retain Butler at the end of the season. Whatever the reason, the Wizards immediately inked Butler to a contract extension. Another good decision.

The 2005-2006 season was successful, but just a little bit less successful than the previous season. The team again made the playoffs, finishing the season with a record of 42-40, good for the fifth best record in the conference for the second year in a row. Individual success also continued: Gilbert Arenas was selected to the Eastern Conference All Star team and the All-NBA Third team for the second year in a row.

In the first round of the playoffs, the team drew Larry Hughes, LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The two teams split the first four games, each team winning once at home and once on the other's floor. In game five in Cleveland, the Cavaliers edged out the Wizards by a single point in overtime, meaning we had to hold home court in game six in Washington or be done for the season. Game six also went to overtime. Toward the end of the extra session, Gilbert Arenas got fouled and stepped to the free throw line for two shots which, if he had made both, would have given the Wizards a three point lead. Then the first notable incident between Lebron James and the Wizards franchise happened. Rather than allow Gilbert to shoot the free throws unimpeded, LeBron decided to step to the charity stripe with Gilbert and talk some trash, telling him that if he missed the two free throws, the series was over. It should be noted that this sort of act is now an automatic technical foul, but the officials in that game six decided what LeBron did would not draw an infraction of any sort. Of course, Gilbert missed them both and on the ensuing possession with a few seconds left, Damon Jones hit a jumper to seal the game for Cleveland and our season was over.

The Wizards re-loaded in the 2006 offseason, signing free agents DeShawn Stevenson and Darius Songaila. The team started slow in November, going 4-9, but caught fire in December and January, posting a 22-9 mark through those two months. But it wasn't just that they were winning; the team was hot and Gilbert Arenas for those two months was arguably the best player in the NBA. He scored a franchise record 60 points in an overtime game against the Lakers in LA on December 17 and followed that with a 56 point effort in another overtime game in Phoenix less than a week later. Both those games were big road wins for the team, which doesn't always happen when a superstar fills it up. Then the team came back to Washington and Gilbert continued to impress, this time with game winning buzzer beating shots against the Milwaukee Bucks on January 3rd and then again against the Utah Jazz in the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day matinee. I remember watching the Milwaukee game from our seats in Section 109. Gilbert let that shot go and turned around and headed for the locker room before it hit the bottom of the net. He just knew it was going in. And two weeks later he knew the Jazz had no chance at the end of the game with the ball in his hands and he was right again. At the All Star break, the team had the best record in the conference and Eddie Jordan would be named the Eastern Conference All Star coach, where he was joined by Gilbert in his third consecutive All Star appearance and Caron Butler in his first.

Then the wheels came off. On January 30, Antawn Jamison had injured his knee, and it showed in the team's February performance. Jamison would return, but a month and a half later, Butler went down, also with a knee injury, only to return and then fracture his hand on April Fools' Day in Milwaukee. But the biggest blow came on April 4 in a home game against the Charlotte Bobcats. Late in the first quarter, Gerald Wallace of the Bobcats fell into Gilbert Arenas' leg; the way Wallace fell twisted Gilbert's leg in a way it was not supposed to bend and Gilbert tore the meniscus in his knee. He would never be the same player again.

The Wizards ended that season with a 2-8 record in the final ten games and limped into the playoffs without Arenas or Butler as the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference with a 41-41 overall record. The team again drew LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs and this year went down in four straight. With a second playoff elimination in two years at the hands of the Cavaliers, Wizards fans were starting to really dislike both the Cavaliers and James, who often whined and cried his way through games and was routinely booed in Washington. I guess we were trendsetters in that regard. If there was a season in the last 12 years of being a Wizards season ticketholder that I could truly look back on with regret, it would be the 2006-2007 season. It all went wrong so fast.

Despite the 2006-2007 season collapse, the franchise still felt it had a winner in the Arenas-Butler-Jamison led team and made no major changes in the offseason. Arenas had major knee surgery to repair his torn meniscus and it appeared our Big Three were healthy going into the season and poised to take a run at an Eastern Conference championship. They weren't. Gilbert's knee wasn't right and the team shut him down after only eight games, with the team owning a 3-5 record. But the team gelled around Jamison and Butler, who both made return trips to the All Star game that year, and the team finished with a 43-39 record, an improvement of two games over the prior season.

For the third year in a row, the Wizards drew the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs, this time as the four-five matchup with Cleveland owning the better record and home court advantage. The series was highly anticipated due to the two teams facing each other in the playoffs the prior two years, but DeShawn Stevenson amped up the rivalry a little after the Wizards March 13 victory over the Cavaliers at Verizon Center. In a post game interview, Stevenson called LeBron James "overrated" and when asked to respond a few days later, James said "With DeShawn Stevenson, it is kind of funny. It's almost like Jay-Z saying something bad about Soulja Boy. There's no comparison. Enough said."

The 2008 playoff series between the Wizards and Cavaliers seemingly featured drama of every sort. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd believe that the NBA fixed this series to allow the Cavaliers to win. Realistically, it's silly to think that the series was fixed; I mean, who would fix a first round playoff series? But there were just too many things that either the officials or the league did or didn't do to handicap our chances for victory so I allow myself to think that we were doomed to lose that series sometimes.

It started in a close game one. In that game, a seven point loss, the Wizards would have benefited from the couple of free throws and possession from LeBron James' flagrant foul elbow thrown to the head of Andray Blatche. The foul was in retaliation for an earlier foul on James after which he writhed on the court in agony for a few minutes in a way only LeBron James can. Only the elbow wasn't called, either as a flagrant foul or as a personal foul. It was missed entirely by the officials. The league quietly handed down a flagrant foul after the fact, not that it did us any good. We were down 1-0 but there was plenty of time to recover.

Game two was a blowout 30 point victory for the Cavaliers, the largest margin of victory in a playoff game in that franchise's history. The game turned in the decisive third period, when Brendan Haywood picked up a flagrant two foul for a shove on James, after which James told referee Danny Crawford that the Wizards were trying to hurt him. Apparently Crawford believed him because he threw Haywood out of the game and the Wizards just couldn't recover after that. 2-0. Now it looked like we were maybe headed for another sweep like the previous year.

Back at Verizon Center, the Wizards took game three by 36 and made it a 2-1 series in a game that featured Soulja Boy in the front row dressed in a DeShawn Stevenson jersey. That game may have been the most entertaining Wizards playoff game ever as Soulja Boy rapped and we serenaded James with chants of "o-ver-rated" and just relished the blowout. But the Cavaliers rebounded to win game four in a game which DeShawn Stevenson received a flagrant foul for knocking off LeBron's headband during the game and the NBA piled on with a $25,000 fine after the game for what they described as a "menacing gesture" made by D-Steve in the first quarter.

So the Cavaliers headed back to Cleveland up 3-1 with a chance to close out the series in the next game. But they couldn't. Caron Butler made sure of that when he hit the game winning layup with 3.9 seconds to give the Wizards a one point victory. It was back to DC for game six and a chance to even the series at three games each.

But then the league intervened again. In the first quarter of game five, LeBron James became entangled with Darius Songaila on the baseline and in the process of getting untangled, Darius' hand hit James' face. LeBron acted as if he had been cold-cocked, snapping his head back and drawing a technical foul, continuing a sequence of over reactions and flops that he had been engaged in for the entire series. A day passed before the NBA handed a one game suspension down to Songaila late in the morning of game six. Despite our efforts, the team lost and went down to the Cavaliers for the third straight year.

After the series, DeShawn Stevenson summed it up perfectly, declaring "It just shows you he gets any call he wants." Even Papa John's, a corporate sponsor of both the Wizards and Cavaliers, understood James' fake histrionics, handing out t-shirts at Verizon Center with the number "23" and "Crybaby" on the back. In the end (and it was unfortunately really the end), the Wizards had been beaten three straight by the Cavaliers. I'll never root for that franchise or LeBron for the way he beat us those three years.

The First Four Years: 2000-2001 Through 2003-2004

What had I gotten myself into? Prior to my entry into the not-so-exclusive Washington Wizards season ticket holder fraternity, the Bullets/Wizards franchise mark for fewest wins in an 82 game season was 21, set during the 1994-1995 season. In the 2000-2001 season, the team "bested" that number by two games, posting a 19-63 record, good for third worst in the NBA ahead of only the Chicago Bulls and the Golden State Warriors. My first year as a season ticket holder and we are already setting franchise records! Leonard Hamilton, the coach Michael Jordan lured from the University of Miami before the season, was relieved after a single campaign.

The Wizards had just one second round pick in the draft prior to that season because our first round pick was owned by the Warriors as part of the trade made six years earlier to acquire Chris Webber, who finished the 2000-2001 season as the cornerstone of the 55-27 Sacramento Kings. With that 2000 pick, Michael Jordan decided the way to go was to draft Mike Smith, a forward out of the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Mike Smith turned out to be a Wizard for life, logging 17 games, 51 points and 22 rebounds in the 2000-2001 season, the only season he played in the NBA. Not a good start for our new general manager.

Unfortunately enough, the highlight of the 2000-2001 season may have occurred off the court, when Jordan managed to move Juwan Howard and the two plus years remaining on his seven year, $105 million contract along with Calvin Booth and Obinna Ekezie to the Dallas Mavericks for Christian Laettner, Courtney Alexander, Loy Vaught, Hubert Davis and Etan Thomas. While only Etan Thomas would last with the team long enough to see the playoffs, the purpose of the trade was to shed Howard's contract and create future flexibility for the team. This trade may have been the best move Jordan made as general manager of the Washington Wizards.

Then the team got a lucky break: they won the draft lottery and were awarded the number one overall pick in the 2001 NBA Draft. The 2001 draft would not be remembered as a deep draft, despite producing future all-stars Pau Gasol, Joe Johnson, Zach Randolph, Gerald Wallace and Tony Parker, but the number one overall selection can be the anchor of a franchise for years to come. For the Wizards, it came down to a choice between two high school seniors: Kwame Brown and Tyson Chandler. In what is now Wizards lore, the decision was finalized during a game of one-on-one organized by Michael Jordan on the practice court of the MCI Center. Brown easily bested Chandler and assured himself the distinction of being the first of what likely will be only three overall number one picks ever selected directly out of high school. LeBron James and Dwight Howard were the other two.

In addition to being fortunate enough to select first in the draft, the team made two big moves in the 2001 offseason. The first was signing Doug Collins as head coach. Collins had a reputation for turning losing teams around quickly based on his successes in Chicago and Detroit and he would do it again in Philadelphia in the 2010-2011 season. But whatever he had done for the Bulls and Pistons just wouldn't work for the Wizards and he lasted only two years with the team. The second big move was that Michael Jordan decided he would leave his post as general manager and return to the court and play, giving up his ownership stake with an alleged handshake agreement that he could have it back when he hung up his sneakers. As much as I detested Michael Jordan as a player when I was a Knicks fan, this could only mean good things for the Wizards, right?

Turns out I was wrong. The two years Jordan suited up for the Wizards, the 2001-2002 and 2002-2003 seasons, ended up essentially putting the franchise on hold for a couple of years. The team went 37-45 both years and finished tenth in the conference the first year and ninth the following year, meaning the team neither made the playoffs nor had a good shot at getting a franchise player in the draft. Jordan was 38 when he returned to the court and he was clearly the best player on the squad but the team he had assembled around him as general manager was too inexperienced and just didn't work. He also had too much input, spoken or unspoken, into playing rotations and couldn't either tolerate his teammates lack of ability or elevate their games like he did with his teammates in Chicago. Eventually he took to calling out his teammates in the press for lack of effort and ultimately just lost the team. Every home game Jordan played for the Wizards sold out and the atmosphere was incredible because on any given night you knew Jordan could do something spectacular, despite his age and his knees. But the team results weren't there.

Perhaps the greatest casualty of the two Jordan years was our number one overall draft pick, Kwame Brown. In all honesty, Kwame just wasn't ready for the NBA and the team had no business taking number one. He lacked basic life skills like being able to shop for groceries or understanding how to take clothes to the dry cleaner and he struggled to adjust to living on his own. But the pressure from Jordan and Collins seemed to break him and he ended up looking like an overwhelmed young man in his years in Washington. Sally Jenkins reported on Kwame great detail in her April 21, 2002 article, Growing Pains, published in the Washington Post Magazine which can be found here: The story is both funny and sad. On a personal note, I met Kwame Brown before the 2004-2005 season. I've met a lot of NBA players over the years but Kwame struck me as the biggest man I have ever met. He was absolutely huge. It wasn't difficult for me to believe this was a man who could post 30 points and 19 rebounds in a game on a regular basis like he did against the Sacramento Kings on March 17, 2004. But his discomfort at talking to a dozen or so fans was obvious and it wasn't difficult for me to see that his experience in the NBA was a little too much for him to handle. Kwame Brown has to date had a serviceable career, averaging 6.8 points and 5.6 rebounds per game over 12 seasons with six NBA teams. NBA player? Yes. Overall number one pick and franchise savior? No. Not even close.

During the 2003 offseason Michael Jordan called it quits as a player. Then something surprising happened: owner Abe Pollin fired Jordan and hired Ernie Grunfeld as general manager and Eddie Jordan as head coach. Ernie Grunfeld was general manager of the Knicks during my time as a Knicks fan in the 1990s and had put together the two teams that made appearances in the NBA Finals in 1994 and 1999, despite being fired during the 1998-1999 season because the team was failing to meet expectations. He had most recently put together a team in Milwaukee that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. I always liked Grunfeld and still do, despite some questionable personnel moves over the last nine years which has drawn the ire of many Wizards fans; my opinion on this matter is all general managers make mistakes and evaluating talent and personalities in the NBA is on some level a complete crap shoot. Our new head coach Eddie Jordan was the lead assistant to Byron Scott on the New Jersey Nets' staff which had just guided the team to back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals. Just like that, Michael Jordan was gone and Grunfeld and Eddie Jordan were in. I loved it!

I was watching the 2003 playoffs at my parents' house one weekend when the winner of the NBA Most Improved Player award was announced. That year, the award was conferred upon Gilbert Arenas, a point guard playing for the Golden State Warriors who had been selected in the second round of the same draft that had yielded Kwame Brown. Without understanding that he was even a free agent, I told my dad that Arenas was the kind of player the Wizards should sign. Turns out Ernie Grunfeld felt the same way and a few weeks later, the Wizards signed Arenas, giving him a deal that essentially used up all the money available under the salary cap.

Gilbert was a shot in the arm for our franchise. He came to Washington as the antithesis of Michael Jordan, complete with a monster chip on his shoulder and innumerable quirky stories: he wore number zero because his detractors claimed that's how many minutes he would play in college at the University of Arizona; he once played the second half of a game dripping wet, having showered fully clothed at halftime; and he once covered donuts with baby powder when his teammates in Golden State tried hazing him as a rookie. Arenas alleges he made his decision to sign with the Wizards based on a coin flip that the Wizards lost. He would kick off the most successful run for the Wizards in a long time and would eventually do his part to tear it down but in 2003, he was a much needed breath of fresh air. The Washington Times provided essential background reading on Arenas in an article I printed out that day and still have kicking around my place somewhere. It's available here:

For some reason, I received an email invitation from the Wizards to attend Gilbert's introductory press conference; So my friend Mike, who had replaced my former co-worker in sharing the cost of season tickets during the last season, and I ventured over to F Street and into the bowels of the MCI Center to hear what Gilbert had to say. I still have no idea why the team sent that invite. The room was filled with team personnel, the press and about six fans, including the two of us. It was just a regular press conference and somehow we had been asked to attend. The only thing I remember about Gilbert that day was that he guaranteed we would make the playoffs, despite not having been there in either of his seasons with the Warriors. We left that day with new hope for our team.

The 2003-2004 season, Gilbert's first, did not fulfill the playoff guarantee as Arenas missed 27 games due to injury and the team went just 25-57, finishing sixth in the Atlantic Division. Arenas was the team's leading scorer, averaging 19.6 points per game and he was about to lead the team to a four year playoff run on the way to enhancing his own legend but that was a year away and we didn't know that yet. All we knew in April 2004 was that another season had ended.

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.

Before The Wizards

I started watching NBA basketball in earnest in the winter of 1994 when I moved to Cooperstown, New York after finishing graduate school. Don't question why I moved to Cooperstown; let's just pretend for the purposes of this blog that it seemed to make some sort of sense at the time. The winters in Cooperstown can be long and to say there's not a whole lot to do there for someone in his late 20s would be an understatement. Watching basketball every other day or so gave me something to look forward to on weeknights after a long day of work and a white-knuckled ride home in my tiny Honda CRX over the snow-covered hills and roads between my job and my apartment. Sometimes the trip home was enhanced by me braking to avoid deer darting right in front of me or swerving between deer nonchalantly standing in the middle of the road. I hated that drive in winter, even without the deer.

When it came to choosing a basketball team, there were two teams on my cable system: the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks. Despite the Nets' recent success with Chuck Daly as coach, they were destined to be a time killer on a slow TV night. I'd been rooting for the Knicks to knock off Michael Jordan and the Bulls over the previous few years in the playoffs and was already a little invested in the team headlined by Patrick Ewing, John Starks and Charles Oakley. When the Knicks traded for Derek Harper with Jordan temporarily retired that first winter in Cooperstown, it seemed like Harp might be the missing piece that put the team over the top and on their way to bringing the NBA championship back to New York for the first time in more than two decades. The Knicks were good that year and made it all the way to the last game of the finals but lost to the Houston Rockets on my birthday in a seventh game where John Starks couldn't hit a shot to save his life and Pat Riley refused to stop him shooting. I was hooked starting with that 1993-1994 Knicks team.

At the same time I started watching the Knicks in upstate New York, my dad had started tuning in to the same broadcast on his cable system in Connecticut and watching Knicks games became something we enjoyed doing together even though we were 200 miles apart. When the team left the court, our own post game routine was to get on the phone to talk about what had happened that night, win or lose (usually win, in those days), with a pause in conversation for the press' post-game discussion with first Pat Riley and later Jeff Van Gundy, after Riley bolted for the soon-to-be-hated Miami Heat. After a couple of years of watching games apart, I decided to call Ticketmaster early in the 1995-1996 season to see if I could get some tickets for my dad and I to see the Knicks play at home in Madison Square Garden. As luck would have it, we managed to snag a pair of tickets to the game against the Toronto Raptors two days before Christmas.

I say "as luck would have it" because, unbeknownst to us, Knicks games at that time were typically sold out and you could not just call up and buy some tickets beyond the first few hours they went on sale. We found this out the next year when we called Ticketmaster only to  discover the entire season sold out. We only made it to a game that season because my sister found a ticket resale outlet on Staten Island. This was before StubHub or any of the other established ticket resale companies existed; if those tickets didn't work, we'd just have gone back to Connecticut empty handed. We finally figured it out the following year and called the minute the non-season ticketholder seats went on sale and managed to get a whole three pairs. Actually, we made my mom do it for us and she spent hours on the phone that day to get those tickets. Anyway, for whatever reason that first time I called, we got some tickets. Who knows, maybe nobody in New York wanted to go see the Raptors on Christmas Eve Eve.

I don't remember much about that first trip other than we could hardly recognize any name on Toronto's roster and the entry sequence to the Garden completely turned us around so we had no idea where in the arena we were relative to the street grid. Oh, and the Knicks won. And we loved it. And so we continued to go over the next couple of years, making the trek by car and train down to Manhattan and back again in all weather, including a trip home from a game against the Sixers on my dad's birthday during a blizzard when the entire state of Connecticut seemed to have just decided not to clear the roads that day. Thank God for four wheel drive that day; I'd rather have been dodging deer.

In those first few years, we always sat in the upper deck end zone (it was almost as if there were no other tickets for sale) and the Knicks almost always won. The only loss we saw in our trips down there was a double overtime loss to John Stockton, Karl Malone and the rest of the Utah Jazz, a game in which my dad and I sat behind each other (we couldn't get two tickets next to each other) and Allan Houston missed two free throws at the end of regulation which would have clinched the game. But really, how could it get much better? Big time hoops with a contending Knicks team in the Mecca of basketball. If I was hooked by watching the 93-94 Knicks on TV, I fell in love with the game at the Garden in the few years after that.