August 27, 2012

123 Lexington Avenue, New York, New York

Last Wednesday, I attended a portion of the 2012 Obama Classic, a basketball fundraiser in New York City benefitting President Barack Obama's re-election campaign. The schedule details of that event were fuzzy at best until the day right before and when they were finally released with an apparent 4 p.m. finish, I thought I might have a little time to kill before my 6:45 p.m. train home. Turns out I was right. What better way to spend it than with a quick trip over to Kalustyan's on Lexington Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets? I needed some supplies anyway.

What is Kalustyan's? Well quite simply, it's THE one stop shopping destination for all foods dried, canned, jarred, bottled and more and if there's anything in this world that might rival my fanaticism for the Washington Wizards, it's my love of food (notice I said "if" and "might" in that sentence). There are so many wonderful products from mustards to spices to seasonings to sauces to oils and more packed into this tiny store; just everything you could want, except maybe habanero and chipotle flakes, which are mysteriously absent. And you just can't find all this stuff in one spot in the Washington DC area. Not like this; no way! I'll add it to my list of reasons why New York is just the greatest city in America. Although honestly, I still don't want to live there.

This is about a quarter of the spice section at Kalustyan's.
I first discovered Kalustyan's in late 2010. I cracked open a recipe book that fall and decided to make tacos al pastor, a dish which required 40 guajillo, 20 ancho and 20 pasilla chiles. Since I couldn't imagine traipsing round to grocery store after grocery store in northern Virginia in search of that many chiles, I opened up Google and searched for spice stores in New York. I was headed up to the Big Apple a couple of weeks later with my friends Mike and Bryan and decided I could wait that long to make the al pastor. That first trip I think I spent about $100 on chiles, chile powder and Mexican oregano. The irony is that I never did make tacos al pastor. But I've kept returning to Kalustyan's.

Venturing into Kalustyan's is like an event for me. I could go in, grab what I need, and split but what would be the fun in that? I think it's amazing to just wander around the store and check out everything that man uses to make food, some of which I would never ever buy or use, but I'm sure I buy things some others would never use. On this trip, I checked out the selection of fish sauce, bulk salts and pickled vegetables. Who knew there were this many types of fish sauce? Sometimes I wonder how long some of this stuff has been on their shelves. There's actually one part of the store which has a dead end passage that you have to turn sideways to walk down. It's just not wide enough to walk straight ahead. I didn't go down there; afraid of getting stuck maybe.

The object of my desire!
But ultimately, I had to get what I came for: a very large jar of hot mango chutney and some ancho chile powder (because you can never have enough ancho chile powder). This chutney is the nuts. If you ever come across it, grab some. I've been eating it in tacos: warmed flour tortillas with ancho cumin chicken thighsa smear of the chutney and some homemade pickled onions. You get warmth from the tortillas and chicken, heat from the chicken and chutney, sweetness from the chutney and a sour crunch from the onions. And it's really quick and cheap too. I should be set with the 40 oz jar of chutney for a few months at least. The last 10 oz jar I bought disappeared in less than two months. And of course I impulse bought on the way out. I can always put lime pickle and Mexican chocolate to use, right?

Before I left, though, I had to wait for the cashier at checkout because she was talking someone through a recipe on the phone in Indian. Love this place!

The final haul: 40 oz jar of hot mango chutney, ancho chile powder, Mexican chocolate and a jar of lime pickle.

August 23, 2012

My First Political Fundraiser

I know you're thinking "Hey! This blog's supposed to be about the Washington Wizards. What does politics have to do with the Wizards?" Well, before Barack Obama was elected president of the United States...nothing. But on Wednesday of this week, NBA basketball and politics became intertwined, at least for a few hours, at Chelsea Piers in New York City. If you follow sports, you probably know Obama is well known as a hoops junkie: he appears on ESPN annually to reveal his NCAA bracket (both men's and women's); he's attended Georgetown, USA Basketball and Wizards games at Verizon Center (his Bulls lost to the Wizards in front of him - just saying...); and last season during the NBA lockout, there was talk of a fundraising basketball game in DC to raise money for his re-election campaign. That fundraiser never materialized because the NBA owners and players settled their dispute over splitting billions of dollars and got back to work, but it somehow morphed into Wednesday's event.

The Obama Classic, as the event was called, was comprised of three separate parts: a $5,000 per couple, two hour basketball fantasy camp, a $250 per person post-camp autograph session and a $20,000 per plate dinner at night co-hosted by Michael Jordan and Obama himself. The event was advertised featuring players like Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and the Wizards' John Wall. While the fantasy camp and dinner were a little rich for my blood, I figured I could stomach the cost of the autograph session especially considering the attendees, although Magic Johnson didn't end up attending. I kept my expectations very low considering the lack of information forthcoming and took the plunge, figuring if nothing else, I'd end up donating some money for Obama's re-election campaign. There are worse ways I could spend my money.

Eventually, details about the autograph session emerged via email about two days before the event with the start scheduled at 2 p.m. and ending by 4 p.m. Of course, I received this email after I bought train tickets that got me to New York at 10:45 a.m. with a return departure of 6:45 p.m. but I can always kill extra time in New York. That email also told me the players would be split into four groups and I had the right to choose who I got to meet, as long as I acted quickly and the room with my selected players wasn't already full. I opted for a subject-to-change-at-any-time-without-prior-notification group which included Alonzo Mourning, former Wizard Antawn Jamison, Dawn Staley, Brandon Knight, Dahntay Jones, John Wall and Rajon Rondo. As it turned out this was not the most popular group. In fact, it might have been the least popular. From talking to others at the event, it sounded like the groups which included Patrick Ewing and Carmelo Anthony filled up the quickest, which makes complete sense considering the New York Knicks affiliation of those two.

Brandon Knight, Dahntay Jones, John Wall and Rajon Rondo.
The session started with a question and answer portion and the discussion that emerged from the audience's questions summed up just how difficult the Wizards' situation the last two years have been. Rajon Rondo was asked about how his transition to the NBA was helped by being part of a veteran laden, championship ready team. After Rondo talked about how wonderful that was, John Wall talked about the exact opposite situation, where he was drafted by the Wizards as the face of the franchise with questionable veteran leadership to lean on (those words about questionable leadership are mine, not John's). A few minutes later, Alonzo Mourning was discussing how difficult he had it when he entered the league because of the strength of the center position in the NBA when he was a rookie having to play against grown men like Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon. Rondo, Brandon Knight and Wall all responded at once to Mourning's comments and explained that the point guard position in the NBA is probably the most talent laden position today. I'm not sure I'd disagree. Wall talked about having to play a stretch of games against Steve Nash, Rondo, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook, essentially being a young player in the league with no easy nights. I didn't fully realize until this point that the Wizards had placed high expectations for franchise turnaround on a 20 year old (as a rookie) guy playing the position with the most competition from the opposition with little to no help from his "veteran" teammates. I may need to revise my prediction about our finishing second in the Southeast Division this season.

The autograph signing was pretty much as pedestrian as these things are: a little assembly line like with opportunity for a comment or two between player and fan. I've been through enough of these things to know how it works. There was a specially designed poster available for signature that, while not incredibly creative, I think is actually pretty attractive. I feel like I got at least something worthwhile for my $250. I was happy to see the prohibition on signing personal items (which these events often stipulate, I assume to discourage autograph memorabilia sellers from attending) was not enforced and all the players seemed very open to taking pictures and to signing items other than the event sanctioned poster. While my expectations were set suitably low, the only thing I found disappointing about the event was that Antawn Jamison wasn't in attendance. It would have been great to ask AJ how he felt about what is probably his most realistic shot at an NBA title.

John Wall signing...
The most fascinating part of the whole event for me, though, was Rajon Rondo. Rondo is regarded by many as the best point guard in the game, an opinion which I happen to share. He is also sometimes labeled as a surly, moody malcontent. He reportedly withdrew from interaction with Boston Celtics management after they traded Kendrick Perkins to the Oklahoma City Thunder and there were rumors about his relationship with Ray Allen being a factor in Allen signing with the Miami Heat for half the salary offered by the Celtics this offseason. He has also until recently been the subject of regular trade rumors. But in watching Rondo it is clear that he is more engaged and aware of his surroundings than most people. I've seen a lot of NBA players sign autographs but I've never seen anyone interact with fans the way Rondo did. He didn't just say hey or answer questions from fans. Instead, if he saw or heard something that intrigued him, he pursued it by asking questions. Pretty amazing. I came away even more impressed than when I entered the room.

...and then the no look pass.
I'm glad I went. It was actually one of the most low key NBA events I have ever attended (I know it wasn't run by the NBA). If you didn't know what was going on, you would have had no idea that a few of the best basketball players on the planet were gathered together. There were no announcements, no signs and the press was excluded. It was well done. Before I left, I asked Wall about the playoffs this year. I got a "hope so" in return. Not exactly filling me with confidence there, John. What else could I really expect, right?

My $250 poster!

August 17, 2012

The Things We Do With Our Lives...

If someone from about 500 years ago managed to find a time machine and took a trip forward to 2012, I am sure they would look at some of the things we do today and marvel at some of the useless, non-productive stuff we spend/waste our time on. Case in point: ESPN's NBArank project.

Last fall, ESPN canvassed a group of 91 NBA "experts" to rank players who play, have recently played or are likely to soon play in the NBA on a ten point scale. The network then compiled all the results and published the top 500 list, in reverse order, over several weeks on their website with announcements through Twitter. The result of all this time and effort is theoretically a list of the best to worst NBA players. I have no idea how these experts would have spent their time, let alone how they would have earned money, before ESPN existed but whatever. Well, this year it's back but this time with 104 experts to make it even better.

Having sort of argued this is a total waste of time, if there are two things I could spend all day doing, it's making lists and examining statistics so of course I love this stuff. I'm sure I'll be spending the next few weeks awaiting the next batch of results as the list counts down from 500 to 1. 500 seems like the right length, by the way, since there are 30 teams carrying a maximum of 15 players thus capturing all the players from last year, recent draftees and maybe a handful of free agents.

So since this is the first day of the list, I thought I'd take a look at how my beloved Washington Wizards fared last year in the eyes of the experts. Since the list was published at the beginning of last season, I figure it makes sense to start with the players that made the team on December 25, the first day of the season. If the experts were right, I'd expect our players to rank pretty low on the list, although the case could easily be made that last year the Wizards collectively performed at a level below the sum of their parts, at least until shortly after the trade deadline when we shipped out JaVale McGee and Nick Young and told Andray Blatche to just stay home and keep collecting a paycheck. The ultimate point of this whole exercise will be to make myself feel better about this upcoming season.

The Wizards opened last season with 15 players and all 15 were on last year's NBArank. Here's our roster from opening day last year:

  • 40: John Wall
  • 99: JaVale McGee
  • 124: Rashard Lewis
  • 146: Nick Young
  • 147: Andray Blatche
  • 210: Jordan Crawford
  • 247: Ronny Turiaf
  • 279: Roger Mason, Jr.
  • 313: Jan Vesely
  • 320: Maurice Evans
  • 321: Trevor Booker
  • 360: Chris Singleton
  • 435: Kevin Seraphin
  • 469: Shelvin Mack
  • 486: Hamady Ndiaye

Of the top eight on the list, six are gone: McGee, Lewis, Young and Turiaf were traded away; Blatche was released via the amnesty provision in the collective bargaining agreement; and Mason departed via free agency. Of the bottom seven on the list, five are still around: Maurice Evans remains an unsigned free agent and Hamady Ndiaye was released last year. On the surface it doesn't seem too smart to jettison six of your supposed eight best players, unless what we got back was greater in value and/or you subscribe to my theory that the reason our team underperformed in the first half of last season was due to lack of team cohesion rather than lack of talent. Don't get me wrong here, lack of talent was still a contributing factor.

Considering last season's results, I'd change the order of the list for the seven guys remaining on our roster. I'd put Wall first without a doubt, but then follow him with Seraphin, Crawford, Booker, Vesely, Singleton and Mack. I also think Wall was ranked too high at 40 (as was McGee at 99, in my opinion) and Seraphin too low at 435, but I'm not sure I'd expect dramatic movement out of anyone else remaining from Christmas Day last year.

The real improvement on the court this coming season (if there is any real improvement) is going to come from the guys who were not on the team last year. Perhaps NBArank can help portend these results. Right now we have six guys under contract who didn't start last year with the Wizards: Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza, Nenê, Cartier Martin, Emeka Okafor and A.J. Price. Beal is a rookie and wasn't ranked last year. Nenê and Okafor were 31 and 71 respectively and Trevor Ariza was 113. So basically we traded away 99 and 124 (McGee and Lewis) and got back three guys all ranked higher in the eyes of the experts. All three should be starters when the season starts on October 30. Price is potentially our backup point guard; he was ranked higher than Shelvin Mack last year, but not by much. Having Price and Mack backing up John Wall continues to be a question mark. Cartier Martin came in at 432 last year but I believe Cartier will end up higher on the list this year. I think he will prove to be useful as a clutch shooter as the season progresses.

So are the Wizards a better team on paper in the eyes of the experts? I think so. I think our starting frontcourt will grade out well and our starting two guard will be the weakest link in the starting lineup. I also think NBArank will demonstrate this weakness and our lack of depth at point guard. I'll follow over the next few weeks and see how it goes.

August 10, 2012

Apparently I Was Wrong

Only one day after I stated that we probably don't have to deal with paying attention to Dwight Howard's nonsense until mid-January, the Orlando Magic just went and traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers in a four team deal involving the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers. Just one day! Shows how much I know, I guess. So what does this mean to me and the Washington Wizards? Five things, I think.

One: The 76ers sent away Andre Igoudala, one of the 85 small forwards on their roster, and got back Andrew Bynum. This instantly makes the Sixers a more complete team and a real contender in the Atlantic Division. I was hoping the Sixers had slipped backwards a little. There's no way that's the case now.

Two: The Nuggets acquiring Igoudala means JaVale McGee is no longer the highest paid player on their team. That seems right, especially since JaVale doesn't even start.

Three: The Magic losing Howard for three players, two of whom are on their rookie deals including one who hasn't played in an NBA game yet, means the Wizards now finally have a real shot at finishing second in the Southeast Division this year. Yep, that's right, I'm probably setting my own expectations waaaaaaay to high here (note I'm skipping over the Hawks here too). Don't worry, as a New York Jets fan the last 34 seasons and a Wizards season ticket holder the last 12, I have a lot to rely on to remain grounded on this issue.

Four: Lakers-Wizards games at Verizon Center are going to have even more Lakers fans-who-have-never-set-foot-in-California-let-alone-been-to-Los-Angeles in attendance. We'll have more people  around us in section 402 offering lame excuses for their Laker fan-dom like claiming they have either always been a Lakers fan "for some reason" or that they admire Kobe Bryant. Memo to all Lakers fans who show up to VC who aren't from LA: you like the Lakers because they win, and you'd rather root for a sure winner than show some backbone and actually follow a team you have some actual connection to for years. I might be bitter on this one, but it sure is sweet to watch the Wiz come back from a 20 point deficit in the third quarter to take the game while the Lakers "fans" around sit in stunned silence and mutter to themselves about still being a better team.

Five: If it comes down to a Lakers-Miami Heat NBA Finals, I'm actually going to have to root for Dwight Howard to win. Ugh! I'm not a fan of either Howard or LeBron James for the way they turned their backs on the fans of their former teams. I think both guys are completely disingenuous. But Howard hasn't scorched my team in the playoffs even once, let alone three times, so I can't root for LeBron's team ever. If it comes to that, I'll focus on rooting for former Wizard Antawn Jamison and tell myself that Jamison's classiness sort of counterbalances Howard. Looks like AJ will probably have some very real hope in pasting the picture of the Larry O'Brien trophy in his locker this year. I hope it doesn't come to this, but I fear it might.

After being so wrong yesterday, maybe I should write about other things I am sure won't happen just to see if they do. In closing then, I guess we'll never see Kevin Durant in a Wizards uniform any time soon. Hopefully I'll be up early Saturday morning retracting that statement as well. I won't set my alarm.

August 9, 2012

The Dog Days Of An Olympic Summer

We are definitely into the dog days of summer. The average high temperature over the past two weeks in the Washington DC area has been 94 degrees. Brutal! And while the temperature and humidity at the end of July and early to mid-August is going up,  NBA action for the serious fan slows down and stays that way for a couple of months. Summer League is done, trades are few and far between and free agency is pretty much over. Most teams at this point have managed to get 12 or 13 players under contract and are willing to wait for guys without teams to take veteran minimum deals or just wait until training camp to fill out the roster. This year, all this likely means Dwight Howard is stuck in Orlando until mid-January at the earliest and we don't have to deal with paying attention to that nonsense for the next few months.

Despite things slowing down, there have been some diversions to keep me focused on the Wizards at least part time. The NBA schedule was released on July 26 so I got to do a little schedule planning for the winter. The Wizards managed to sign A.J. Price, a point guard who spent the last three years playing for the Indiana Pacers and they managed to lose Roger Mason Jr. and James Singleton by just not being willing to pony up the kind of dough it takes to keep those two. Too bad. I think both Roger and James did a great job of bringing veteran leadership and production to the team after the trading deadline last year.

The biggest distraction to cure my lack-of-NBA malaise the last few weeks, though, has been the Olympic Games. And fortunately and unusually, the Wizards actually have some guys playing so I got to at least see some of our players in action. I spent my time rooting for Nenê playing for Brazil, Kevin Seraphin playing for France and of course my home country of Great Britain. No, I was not rooting for the US. I really don't like some of the guys on that team and I resent the fact that that team is basically like the playground bully. Having said that, if there were some Wizards playing for the team, I'd be watching every minute wanting them to win. Hypocritical, I know. Let it go!

In case you have been living in a cave, the Olympics were held in London this year, which is five hours ahead of Washington DC. That means basketball games which start at 9 a.m. in London start at 4 a.m. here so my alarm clock has been set awfully early some days: two 4 a.m. wakeups (including one on a Saturday) and one 6 a.m. wakeup on a Sunday. So much for sleeping in. The afternoon and evening weekday games in London fall in the middle of my work day so I had to sneak out of work on a Tuesday afternoon to watch Brazil play Great Britain followed by France edging Argentina and bailed early the following Wednesday for the quarterfinals. It's all worth it. When is missing work to watch basketball NOT worth it? Never, is the answer.

Saturday morning, 4:15 a.m. France vs. Tunisia.
True to form, my teams did not win much (do they ever??). The team I wanted to win most, Great Britain, lost their first three games to admittedly stronger competition although they only fell to silver medal favorite Spain by a single point. Then in their fourth game, it appeared for a brief moment that they might actually have a shot at getting out of group play. They extended a 10 point halftime lead over Australia to 15 a few minutes into the third quarter but then the bottom fell out and they ended up losing by 31. That's a 46 point swing in less than 20 minutes. Wow! They did manage to salvage their Olympics by beating China in the final game of group play but then were reduced to spectators after that.

Brazil and France actually only lost one game each and finished second in their groups during pool play but couldn't manage to win an elimination game, falling to Argentina and Spain respectively. Nenê came off the bench for Brazil, averaging 6.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per game in an average of 22 minutes per game. If those numbers can translate over about 35 minutes a game for the Wizards next year, I'll be pleased. I thought Nenê played good defense and showed smart passing, something the Wizards were sorely lacking at the center position prior to last year's trading deadline. He did miss one game due to a listed injury, although the real reason may have been that the game didn't matter. I know the injury concern with this guy nags at most real Wizards fans.

Kevin Seraphin represented the Wizards well. He managed only 15 minutes per contest and averaged 6.0 points and 3.3 rebounds in his time on the court. I think these numbers are true to his NBA production from last season and watching his game still demonstrates the need for improvement in boxing out and rebounding. Kevin had a critical seqence in the game vs. Argentina which sealed the upset victory for France, poking the ball away from Luis Scola at the defensive end of the court and then running the floor for a layup at the other end. He also was on the receiving end of an alley oop against Lithuania. I'd love to see some alley oops to Kevin starting this November. I think it's also worth noting that Kevin led France in field goal percentage, shooting 54.8%. I have to wonder if France made a mistake keeping him out of the last 16 minutes of their elimination game against Spain when they failed to connect on 13 consecutive field goals in the decisive stretch. Guess we'll never know.

Anyway, I know the Olympics are not yet over and there are four more hoops games to watch. But for the Wizards faithful, our guys are done. I assume the US will take the gold. I'll keep a casual eye on things to make sure.