October 28, 2013

The Wrong Teams

Early evidence of me as a Jets fan.
Wednesday night in Detroit, Michigan marks the start of my 14th season as a Washington Wizards season ticket holder and I'm still waiting for my team to win something. That's right, the Washington NBA franchise has not hoisted a banner of any sort for winning something since 1979, when they won the Eastern Conference championship as the Washington Bullets en route to their second consecutive NBA Finals (they won in 1978 and lost in 1979). Now before you take pity on me for the plight of my beloved Wizards, let me just say I'm used to losing. I've had a ton of practice. In fact, I'd say if I had tried to be more strategic in picking teams in the four major U.S. sports that would not win much at all, I don't think I could have done it.

When my mom and dad moved themselves, me and my sister to the United States in 1979, I was forced to abandon my allegiance to football (soccer) and pick a new sport. This was not a quick emotional decision; it wasn't possible to get any coverage of domestic soccer in this country in the late 1970s, let alone a league all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Fortunately for me as a sports crazed 11 year old kid, America offered four major leagues to choose from and follow. No longer was I limited to a late summer through early summer sports schedule like I was in England. Now I could follow sports all year round. Unbeknownst to me, I was about to embark on a horrible series of choices in this regard. 

The first American city I set foot in was Boston on the day I immigrated to this country. My family took off from London and landed seven or so hours later in Massachusetts with our eventual destination just east of Hartford, smack in the middle of Connecticut about equidistant between where we had landed and New York City. Over the next 34 years, those two cities would produce a rich sports winning tradition over all four major sports which is probably unmatched in the nation. But I was not destined to take part in any of that. In the months after I got off a plane at Logan Airport in mid-summer of 1979, I'd set in motion a series of events that would prepare me very well for the last 13 seasons of being a Wizards season ticket holder.

The first American sport I took to was probably baseball and the first games I ever watched were between the Baltimore Orioles and the California Angels in the 1979 American League Championship Series. This was back when only four teams made the playoffs in Major League Baseball. I'm not sure why I started rooting for the Orioles although if I had to take a guess, I'd say it was because of the orange in their uniforms (I've always been partial to orange for some reason). The Orioles defeated the Angels before losing to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series but I stuck with the Orioles as my team.

All things considered, the Orioles were not a bad choice at that time for a first American sports team. They had been one of baseball's most successful teams over the past decade and a half and were stocked with future hall of famers like Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and manager Earl Weaver. In 1983 the Orioles would win the World Series with that lineup and rookie Cal Ripken, Jr. who I can still remember leaping to catch the last out of the decisive game against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Next up was football. My initial choice of professional football teams was the New England Patriots. I mean, that's logical, right? We lived in New England. But somewhere between July 25, 1979 when we landed in this country, and the end of the 1979 NFL season, I had become a New York Jets fan. I believe my switch in allegiances was made solely on the basis of helmet design. And I think it occurred while ordering a dessert.

When we first lived in the United States, my dad used to take us to Dairy Queen a lot (my dad loves ice cream!) and in those days DQ used to serve sundaes in miniature football helmets. I believe my memory of this is fairly vivid. I remember looking at all the helmets available and picking the Jets sleek modern looking 1970s helmet over the Patriots' crappy looking Pat patriot helmet for my sundae one day and that was it. From then on until this day, I was a New York Jets fan. Ice cream. It's almost cruel what it left me.

The last American sport I picked up in the '70s was hockey. No basketball yet (ironically); hoops wouldn't enter my life until college, and then only in a casual way. For hockey teams, there was only one choice. In 1979, the World Hockey Association had forced a partial merger with the National Hockey League and one of their four teams to survive the merger was the Hartford Whalers, making the Whalers the only team in the four major sports to reside in Connecticut. The Boston Celtics played a game every now and again at the Hartford Civic Center but the Whalers were Connecticut's only real team. Sold! I'm proud to say I followed the Whalers from their inaugural 1979-1980 season until they split for North Carolina in 1997.

Champions at last in 1998! 20 years in and only one division title.
How smart were my initial choices of American sports teams? Not very. Despite the rosy start to my Orioles fan stint, the team soon faltered. After their championship run in 1983, the Orioles embarked on an unprecedented (for that franchise) run of futility, punctuated by an 0-21 start to the 1988 MLB season, the worst starting mark to open a season then and to this day.

The Jets were a poorer choice. They didn't win anything until 1998 when they finally won the AFC Eastern Division. Yes, it took 20 seasons before my football team won a division title in a division with only five teams. We had a good run as a non-division winner in 1982 when we made the AFC Championship game but couldn't get past a rain soaked Orange Bowl field against the Miami Dolphins.

The Whalers were a little more successful (sort of) than the Jets as a division champion but still only won a total of one division title and one playoff series in their 18 seasons in the NHL. While I can credibly argue that the Whale would have gone on to win the 1986 Stanley Cup if they had just been able to get by Montreal (they lost in overtime in game seven), they didn't. My love for the Whalers died the day they left Hartford and I won't root for the Carolina Hurricanes ever but the team in Hartford sure didn't have much success.

I stuck with the teams I picked as a pre-teen for a long time. I'm still a Jets fan, I picked up the Washington Capitals when I moved to the Washington D.C. area in 1999 (since I had no hockey team at that time) and I defected from the Orioles when the Montreal Expos moved to D.C. and became the Washington Nationals. No great winners in the Caps (despite many many division titles in the last decade) and the Nationals, although the Nats did finish with the best record in baseball in 2012 before bowing out in the first round of the playoffs.

All of that long narrative of hopelessness brings me to the Wizards, who are sort of the subjects of this whole blog. Between living in Connecticut and moving south to northern Virginia, I latched on to basketball as a sport and fell in love with the game. When I lived in upstate New York, I became a Knicks fan, a fantastic choice of teams considering the franchise made the playoffs every year I was a fan between 1994 and 1999 and managed to reach the NBA Finals twice in that span. When I moved to Washington and was presented with a pro basketball team less than ten miles from my apartment, I switched teams and started buying season tickets. Making that decision was like a flashback to the late '70s and it set me on the course of mostly misery I have been on ever since.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post and in my preseason blog post last year, the Wizards have won nothing in my time as a season ticket holder or in fact for a long time before that. Sure, there have been four playoff appearances and one playoff series victory in the last 13 seasons, but in terms of winning something which is represented by a banner in the rafters, the Wizards have nothing. Nada. Zip. And all of that's par for the course for me.

So as if all the whining and complaining in the previous 14 paragraphs weren't enough, let's sum up my lamenting with some graphs to prove my point about how poor my professional sports team choices have been. Each of these graphs have been prepared assuming each team in their respective leagues stands an even chance of either making the playoffs or winning their division, conference/league or championship. I know there's no way this is true in any one year, but over time, it should start to even out a little, right? We'll start with a look at playoff appearances.

In assembling these graphs, I was surprised to see my teams didn't fare worse when it came to making the playoffs (that's optimism, right?). The Capitals and Knicks exceeded the league average during the time I supported those teams which is no surprise considering how good they were or have been in the stretches when I was or still am a fan. The Jets and Orioles also represented pretty well over the last 34 years, finishing at about 90% and 80% of the league average respectively. The real disappointment is in the rest of the teams, which of course includes the Wizards who finished with about half as many playoff appearances in the almost last decade and a half as they should have.

Let's move on to division championships.

While I was pleased with my playoff appearances graph, things start to fall apart when we start looking at actually winning championships of any sort. These are the victories that mean something. Making the playoffs as a non-division winning team is an important step and many teams in all four sports have won championships the same year they didn't win their own division. But if you don't win it all, winning your division counts (at least in my book where I'm craving wins).

Once again, the Capitals show strongly in this category, having dominated the NHL's now defunct Southeastern Division over the past ten years or so. But the rest of the bunch is not so impressive. The Knicks are a touch above the league average in the six years I was a fan but the rest don't look so good. All my other teams have struggled in this category but the worst of them all is the Wizards, who have no division wins with me as a fan.

When we get to the conference championships graph, my teams' performance starts to look really really thin. Now instead of just the Wizards with nothing to show, five of my seven teams are posting a goose egg. Only the Orioles and Knicks have any success in this category and maybe only because when I picked those two teams, they were winning at the time. The other five teams I have supported since I moved to this country are zero for 87 combined seasons.

Finally, there's the championship graph. Despite making the NBA Finals in 1994 and 1999, the Knicks came up empty both times, leaving only the Orioles with a single championship in professional sports since I moved to this country. I've been here 34 years plus and have only one championship to show for all the blood, sweat and tears I've poured into professional sports in that time. It's been 30 years since the Orioles won that lone championship in 1983 by the way. That's a lot of suffering so don't feel bad for me that the Wizards haven't won anything in my 13 years as a season ticket holder. I'm keeping the faith and will continue to do so until it pays off.

Now I know there may be fans out there who think they are long suffering. In the past ten years or so, I've heard the laments of Washington Redskins, Boston Red Sox, Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins and even St. Louis Rams fans bemoaning their teams' lack of recent success. For all those people, I'll just ask you to re-read the above. But if re-reading all of the above still isn't enough to convince you that I have it worse than you and have picked absolutely the wrong combination of teams, consider these three additional facts:

1. For the first 12 years I lived in the United States, I resided either full-time or part-time in Connecticut. Despite my residence in New England, I have never been a fan of any Boston sports team. During the past 34 years, each of the Boston sports teams in the four major sports has won a championship. The Bruins have won a Stanley Cup, the Red Sox have won two world series, the Patriots have won three Super Bowls and the Celtics have won four NBA Championships. If only...

2. When I arrived in this country, there were seven New York teams in the four major sports: baseball's Yankees and Mets, football's Giants and Jets, basketball's Knicks and hockey's Rangers and Islanders. Of those seven teams, only two have not won a title in their respective sport since I set foot in America. The Yankees and Mets have won a combined seven world series, the Giants have won four super bowls and the Rangers and Islanders have combined for five Stanley Cups. The two teams who haven't won a championship, the Jets and Knicks, are the two teams I picked.

3. Not only have my teams only won one championship when I have been a fan since living in this country, most haven't even won either before or after I have been a fan. The one exception has been the Carolina Hurricanes, the one team I refuse to follow ever for taking my Whalers away. The Hurricanes hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2006.

What a downer!

The 2013-2014 NBA season tips off tomorrow (the Wiz have to wait a day) and once again, I have high hopes for the Wizards' chances of at least making the playoffs. It's the second year in a row that I am hoping for a playoff appearance before the season starts after a few years of really having very little faith whatsoever. I honestly believe that this team is on the right track. I know I'm not winning anything this year but I hope maybe a few years from now I might. I'll just keep hoping.

October 19, 2013

Free Stuff! 2013-2014 Edition

Last year's Wizards promotional haul!
Every day for the past week or so I have been checking the Washington Wizards website for one very important piece of information: the 2013-2014 Wizards promotional schedule, the last missing planning tool for my fall, winter and early spring of basketball activities. Yesterday, it finally showed up. And today, I'm sharing that schedule with my loyal blog readers. Thank you, all 12 of you!

Usually, I find out the promotional schedule dates and items by grabbing one of the little fold out paper schedules they keep in special little holders at one of the Verizon Center customer service desks. But with both home preseason games happening early in the schedule this year, I was forced to wait until the schedule was posted to the website. Not my preferred way of getting at this information.

So without further ado because I know three paragraphs is a long time to wait for the good stuff, here's my guide to the 2013-2014 promotional schedule, with expert analysis about the long term significance of each item to get you worked up into a frenzy about the new season, which is at this point a mere 11 days away. I can barely contain my excitement.

Schedule Magnet (Essential)
November 1 vs. Philadelphia
The annual opening night magnetic schedule is a must have. There's no way I can exist during hoops season without this planning tool staring me in the face right next to my Elvis in gold lame suit magnet each time I open my refrigerator. I'm just not sure how I'd exist without it. I'm sure I've had one on my icebox door for the majority of the past 13 years. I can't imagine stopping now. It's a constant reminder of the joy that the Wizards bring into my life.

Nenê Bobblehead (Essential)
December 28 vs. Detroit
If there's a giveaway more essential than the schedule magnet, it's any bobblehead, no matter the player. This year it's Nenê. Not my first choice of players considering I got an awesome Nenê bobblehead as part of my annual season ticket holder gift last year but I'm always happy to add to my collection. At least it's not another John Wall bobble. In his first three years, the Wizards have given away three Wall bobbleheads so one more this year would seem just silly. Although I'd take another in honor of John's new contract if they made one with him holding bags of cash and a gold bar or two. 

Koozie (Pick it up; 50/50 chance of discarding)
February 7 vs. Cleveland
I'll say this about koozies: there have been worse giveaways at Wizards games over the years. This may actually be a keeper; it all depends on the appearance. I've never been much of a koozie user, probably because beer (which is the only bottled or canned refrigerated beverage I drink these days) doesn't stay long in its container when I'm drinking it. We'll see what it looks like. I could concede the need for a koozie on an extremely hot day or after about six beers when I start to slow down.

Team Poster (PASS!)
March 29 vs. Atlanta
Once again, the team poster gets a PASS! rating from me. I guess this is an OK giveaway for the kids, but I'm certainly not going to tape a flimsy Wizards poster on my bedroom wall or tack it to the tackboard in my office. I'll avoid being handed this at all costs.

Cooler (Useful but not essential)
April 12 vs. Milwaukee
What's with the drinking giveaways this year? Koozie AND cooler? I'm on board! If this is the same type of portable cooler I picked up at a Capitals hockey game a couple of years ago, I'm keeping this thing. The Caps cooler was just the right size to hold four 24 ounce cans of beer, perfect for a three hour plus trip up to the Meadowlands with my friend Chris for a Jets game. Hopefully this is the same size. I need one since I left my Caps one on that Jets trip when I transferred at Newark Airport. I'll hold on tighter to this one.

I think overall that's a pretty decent schedule, despite the relatively low number of games with giveaways. Ted Leonsis needs to get some more sponsors to open their wallets for fans like me. But I have to confess that there's a little disappointment at the lack of a Martell "My Favorite Wizard" Webster bobblehead. When we re-signed Martell to a pretty big deal in the offseason, my hopes were he'd demand his own bobblehead giveaway as part of that contract. I thought I'd confirmed that suspicion in our first preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets when the team advertised a free Martell Webster bobblehead with each Wizards Kid Club membership. But I'm denied on this gift. Gotta figure out how I get my hands on one of those...

Despite the lack of Webster bobbleheads on the schedule, hopefully you will circle the season opener, December 28 and April 12 on your calendars and make sure you have tickets in hand when the doors open at Verizon Center so you don't miss out on this vital Wizards fan loot. Remember, promotional items are not for sale, despite the generally lower quality of craftsmanship inherent in these items, so if you aren't at the doors early, your opportunity to snag one of these things is likely gone. Don't say I didn't warn you.

October 15, 2013

Pizza, Lobster, Oatmeal Stout

The menu at Luke's Lobster.
I have spent almost a decade and a half being a Washington Wizards season ticket holder and as of today, the start of the 2013-2014 NBA season is only two weeks away. As a loyal season ticket holder from October to April (and sometimes, God willing, May) over the last 13 years I have spent a lot of time in Penn Quarter in downtown D.C. before, during and after basketball games. In addition to watching a ton of hoops, I've also needed a lot of liquid and solid sustenance, meaning I've scoured the blocks around Verizon Center for the odd meal or two and a few pints over the last baker's dozen years.

Since I made the commitment in 2000 to becoming a Wizards season ticket holder, I've had more pre- and post-game meals than I care to make a note of at all sorts of places, from countless 99 cent McDonald's double cheeseburgers to noontime lunches at the now closed China Doll (my dad and I used to go there because Red Auerbach used to eat there weekly) to excellent grilled cheese sandwiches at the also-closed Zola to multiple multiple small plates at each of Jose Andres' restaurants. Over the years, I've developed favorites, whether they be whole menus at awesome spots or finding one shining dish that I can't stop going back for at an otherwise unremarkable establishment.

The two home Wizards preseason games of the 2013-2014 NBA season are now in the books, so I've once again been thrust into what is inevitably an exciting culinary melting pot. It's always interesting to get back to this area and see what has cropped up after almost six months away. So to help fellow Wizards fans (or Caps) fans or just the casual visitor to Penn Quarter, I thought I'd put down some thoughts on three places I really love eating around Verizon Center. Two of these places are recent discoveries and I'm very much hooked; the other is a spot I've been visiting since before I became a Wizards season ticket holder.

Two final notes before I start. First, there is a Chipotle on the 8th Street side of Verizon Center. I never eat at this Chipotle because the lines are just way too long and there's one a block from where I live, but Chipotle is one of my absolute favorite places to eat. I would never recommend against eating here. Second, of all the Jose Andres restaurants around Verizon Center, my favorite is gone. If Jose ever reads this, please please please please bring back Cafe Atlantico.

OK, that's enough about what's not here. Let's get to the food.

Graffiato, 707 6th Street NW (across the street to the east from Verizon Center)
I can remember a time I didn't love pizza, but only just barely. If I thought it was healthy, I'd eat pizza every day as my one and only food for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Unfortunately, I know better and my cholesterol level won't let me talk myself out of it.

I think my first memory of loving pizza was eating what I am fairly sure was terrible pizza at Pizzaland restaurants in my home country of England in the 1970s. My parents used to take my sister and me shopping on Saturdays to Leicester or Nottingham and sometimes I was rewarded with a stop at Pizzaland where I always ordered the chicken pizza (a whole pie by the way). I always ate it with a knife and fork and I'm fairly certain it was unsliced. Since then, I have had a list of amazing pizza (to me) touchstones throughout my life wherever I have lived: Papa Gino's and Mystic Pizza in Connecticut; Cottage Inn and The Brown Jug in Ann Arbor, MI; Bonzai Pizza (chicken and feta) and Varsity (vegetable pizza with carrots, cauliflower and lima beans) in Syracuse, NY; and Pizza Boli's and Liberty Tavern in northern Virginia. Last year, I added Graffiato to that list.

Papa Smurf 2.0 on top; Jersey Shore on the bottom.
I first visited Graffiato because I had watched chef Mike Isabella compete on Bravo's Top Chef and Top Chef All-Stars, liked what he cooked and was excited when he went out on his own. I think my first trip to his 6th Street spot was just before the 2012-13 NBA season where I ate his Italian interpretation of tapas and came away not super eager to go back based on the food. But on that first trip, I sat at the bar downstairs and while I waited for my food I watched pizzas being cooked in the 900 degree plus oven behind the bar; they looked delicious. So I figured it was probably worth another shot for the pizza alone. Great thought on my part.

Since that first trip about a year ago, I think I've eaten at Graffiato a dozen times. I've had pizza on every one of those trips and I've loved them all. I love the regularly featured Jersey Shore, which combines fried calamari and cherry pepper aioli with tomatoes and provolone on Isabella's incredibly light and crispy-chewy at the same time crust. I also love the Shark Bait (shrimp and pesto) and the Goodfellas and Porky's Revenge, although I'm looking for someone to split these last two with due to the grease factor.

But perhaps the best part about Graffiato's pies are the pizzas which you wouldn't ordinarily think of ordering. I've never ordered pizza with kale on it except at Graffiato and it was amazing with the blue cheese agrodolce. But the pizza which made me a believer more than anything else was the cheese-less Classic pizza which is nothing more than cherry tomatoes, garlic and oregano on bread. Look, there are people out there who are lactose intolerant and can't eat cheese, right? But this pizza doesn't need it. It is so incredibly good, tangy and sweet at the same time that honestly, you don't need the cheese. Go to Graffiato and get the pizza. Trust me. you won't be disappointed.

Luke's Lobster, 624 E Street NW (one block south of Verizon Center)
Let me write two things before I get to my adoration of Luke's Lobster. First, I do not understand why people think lobster is so great. I mean, it's tasty shellfish, but for the money, I don't get it. I'd rather have crab or shrimp than lobster any day and keep the couple of bucks I've saved in the process. Second, I am almost completely anti-New England which I am sure is a product of growing up in the hotbed of the American Revolution as a recent immigrant from England. I don't like Cape Cod or Boston or lighthouses or beaches or quaint fishing villages or the Boston Celtics or the New England Patriots or Maine lobster. I'm just anti-all of it.

Having written all that, I love Luke's Lobster. I first ate a Luke's in Georgetown just before the holidays last year while searching desperately for a Christmas present for my sister who doesn't need anything at all. I'd heard good things about Luke's and thought I'd stop in for some lunch while not buying anything. Because I am not a lobster guy (see previous paragraph), I ordered the shrimp roll. Luke's shrimp roll is a cold buttered simply salted and peppered oh-so-sweet bay shrimp salad stuffed into and overflowing a warm buttered New England hot dog roll (split on the top rather than the side, for those of you not in the know). It's full of shrimp and is so satisfying yet it leaves me wishing I could eat these things all night.

Totally New England: Shrimp roll, Cape Cod salt and vinegar potato chips and Shipyard beer.
Shortly after my visit to Luke's in Georgetown, I found out they had opened another store just one block south of Verizon Center. This discovery has instantly made Luke's my quick low cost but still amazingly delicious food option before Wizards games.  A shrimp roll with chips and a beer is a mere $13. Try beating that deal in Penn Quarter. And it's served fast, hot/cold and friendly.  And we're not talking Lay's and a Miller Lite on the side here. No New England sandwich is complete without Cape Cod potato chips and I can't think of a better beer to serve with a shrimp (or lobster) roll than a Shipyard ale from Portland, Maine. For all my ranting about things New England that I dislike, there is no better potato chip brand than Cape Cod chips. No way, no how. If you are in a hurry before a game, go to Luke's. Heck, even if you are not in a hurry, go to Luke's anyway. There is no way you will be anything but satisfied.

A quick disclaimer about lobster: while I don't love it, my girlfriend does and she loves Luke's lobster rolls. I've had them and prefer the shrimp rolls but she swears the lobster rolls are good. Take her word for this not mine. She knows what she is talking about here way more than I do.

District Chophouse and Brewery, 509 7th Street NW (half a block south of Verizon Center)
A year and a half ago, I hadn't yet eaten at Graffiato or Luke's Lobster. I can't say the same about the District Chophouse and Brewery which is the third and final place around VC to get some grub that I will gush over in this post. When I first moved to the Washington, D.C. area in late 1999, my idea of incredible food was any place that brewed their own beer or served a great variety of beer on tap. So it's understandable to me that I would find the Chophouse on one of my first trips downtown to watch some Wizards hoops. And while my palate has evolved and I no longer drool over every dish on the menu, I've been eating and drinking here ever since so it must be good on some level. And it is.

I'll be honest, what first drew me to the Chophouse was the beer and what I interpreted as the upscale American comfort food they served in their dining room. It was a steakhouse without the ridiculous prices. Don't get me wrong, I think there are some good entrees on their menu but I think I've outgrown the slabs of meat with sides of mashed potatoes that make up pretty much every main dish. Over the years, I've migrated away from the entree portion of their menu and onto the starters section. And as with every restaurant that I have been eating at for years, I lament what's no longer available. They used  to serve a killer vegetable, olive and goat cheese flatbread that I loved to get after a Wizards game but there's still enough good stuff served here to draw me in four or five times a year or more.

When I look over the Chophouse's current menu, I am always tempted by the New Orleans style barbeque shrimp (although it's sometimes a bit salty) and the calamari. The shrimp is a true cajun barbeque dish served over a generous piece of garlic bread and smothered in delicious beer butter sauce. The calamari is perhaps my favorite in D.C. served fried with black and white sesame seeds and an apricot ponzu sauce which is awesome despite the hint of stone fruit.

But the true food star for me at the Chophouse is the chicken tenderloins, which are some of the best, if not THE best, I have ever had. First of all there is a ton of food on the plate; there's no doubt this dish can stand as a meal on its own. These things are always hot, juicy and tasty and are paired with two sauces: a honey mustard sauce which I don't care for because I'm not that big a honey mustard fan and a barbeque ranch dressing which is completely and utterly awesome. I always order two ramekins of the barbeque ranch instead of one of each.

And then there's the beer. You can only get their homemade beers on tap here. No Bud Light or Coors or any sort of nonsense like that. They usually carry a full range of light to dark beers and typically have a couple of seasonal taps. But my favorite is the oatmeal stout, which is quite literally a top 20 beer of all time for me. I don't have a top 20 beers list but I'm pretty confident it would make it. It's served a little warmer and a little flatter than most American beers and it's sweet and chewy and the foamy head is like a meal unto itself. This drink is truly a reason to go downtown to a basketball game some days.

A final thought on the Chophouse. The caramel apple pie is pretty darned good. Trust me!

So those are my thoughts on where to eat near Verizon Center. Those three spots should hold me or anyone else until I venture out the next six months and find out what else sprung up during the summer. Bon appetit!

Chicken tenderloins and oatmeal stout. Yum!

October 8, 2013

A New Perspective

For the past 13 seasons that I have been a Wizards season ticket holder (or since I first took the plunge into those very icy waters), I have had two seats waiting for me each year in row G of Section 402 in the upper deck of MCI Center / Verizon Center. My first season tickets were seats 12 and 13; a few years later, I moved towards center court to a spot on the aisle in seats 4 and 5.

In the beginning, those seats were my only season tickets. But eventually, I supplemented them with a 10 game plan in Section 103 so we could see the action a little bit closer to the court once in while. That 10 game plan got moved to Section 109 on the other side of Verizon Center and in time, we upgraded that plan to a 21 game plan and finally to a full season two years ago, when Ted Leonsis slashed the prices of those seats and made us an offer we just couldn't refuse.

But despite having a full season in the lower bowl, I hung on to my Section 402, row G seats and continued to sit in those seats a few times a year when we either needed two sets of seats to entertain friends or when we found a way to make a couple of bucks by selling a game or two on the secondary market. 13 years is a long time but those seats have always been there for me.

The view from row G of 402 is awesome. It's just a bit behind the basket on the Wizards' bench side of the court and is close enough to the front of the upper deck to see everything clearly. It is actually pretty much just like watching on TV, except that basketball is simply way better live (even from the upper deck) than it is on the small screen. Because we are sitting on the bench side of the arena in section 402, the court is upside down from the picture on TV but that's OK; I can read the Wizards' logo at center court upside down and rightside up just fine.

Our new seats.
During games against popular opponents like the Knicks, Bulls and Heat, the front of Section 402 around row G is generally packed with other teams' "fans" and over the seasons there have been some great conversations with people wearing away colors including some hot tempers which needed to be cooled down once in a while when the Wizards ended up beating what were usually better visiting teams. Those conversations may have been fueled by some taunting from the home crowd, including me once in a very great while (I'm a sore winner when other teams' fans are in our building).

On the flip side, the seventh row of Section 402 is often deserted during mid-week games against less popular teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and Toronto Raptors, which allowed us to spread out a little, use some empty seats to store our coats and stand when the game got too exciting to sit without obstructing someone else's view. I've seen some great games over the past decade with a handful of folks in section 402 on a Tuesday or Wednesday.

Whether it's packed or empty, sitting in Section 402 is a great way to watch hoops, especially at $16 a game which has been the season ticket price the last half dozen years or so. Over the past few years, I've seen us beat Boston; New York; the suddenly chic Los Angeles Clippers; the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat; and the Oklahoma City Thunder with a Bradley Beal dagger with less than a second to go. Going back further in time, I've seen the Wizards clinch postseason berths and win playoff games from that same spot. Seems like a distant memory now but I know it happened.

But if there's a rub for me with row G of Section 402, it's the other people coming and going who obstruct my view during the game. Row G is above the entrance to the section and Section 402 is on the deep side of Verizon center so I am at constant risk of having other fans walking slowly or quickly, en masse or singly or sometimes clinging to the railing because it's "too high" in front of me and losing precious seconds of game action. In the past couple of years, we have had to tap the usher on the shoulder a few times a game to get him to stop watching the game and blocking out the entire west side of the court with his head and hair. There's ultimately nothing to be done about this other than to give up the upper deck seats or move. And there's no way I'm giving up good upper level seats while the cost is low, so moving is the only option.

So for the first time since I first bought season tickets way back in the fall of 2000, I no longer have seats in Section 402, row G for a Washington Wizards game. This past spring, I managed to upgrade our seats at a Select-A-Seat event, which allows season ticket holders the opportunity to purchase seats released by other season ticket holders before they are offered to the general public. Our new seats are in row C (still on the aisle) in Section 415. The four rows make a ton of difference. Because row C is level with the tunnel to the section, the only other patrons passing in front of me (slowly/quickly/singly/en masse) are headed down to rows A and B. The view is pretty much identical to our old seats in Section 402 except closer and the court is now the correct side up.

My first opportunity to sit in my new seats was tonight's preseason game against the Brooklyn Nets and I love them. Well worth the $0 cost upgrade. They are closer to the court, closer to the nearest Budweiser tap and closer to the men's room. I also get the express escalator for my convenience. Goodbye Section 402. Hello Section 415. Hopefully I can spend as long in 415 as I did in 402. Go Wizards!!

Our new view.

October 3, 2013

Requiem For The Paper Ticket

My 2013-14 Washington Wizards tickets showed up in the mail today. Well...not really. For the second straight year my season ticket holder packet contained no actual tickets. Instead, all four of my seats are again loaded electronically onto a single plastic card. If there were anyone else with me when I opened up the package, I am sure they could have cut the disappointment with a knife. Again. Even though I knew this year there weren't going to be any actual tickets inside.

I know we are moving towards most things in life being virtual but I'm not sure I'm on board with this electronic ticketing yet despite the obvious environmental benefits. I know three of the four major sports teams in the Washington D.C. area (the Wizards, Capitals and Nationals) are all electronic now but that still doesn't make it any more palatable. One of the most exciting things about receiving my season ticket package each year was seeing what the tickets looked like and who was important enough to the team to be featured on them. Now that anticipation is ruined. I mean I don't really care which players show up on the plastic card. In case you are wondering, last year it was John Wall and Nenê; this year it is nobody at all (just the Wizards' monument ball logo). 

I remember when I first bought Wizards season tickets before the 2000-01 season. I'd seen people at games with these gorgeous oversized glossy cardboard tickets and couldn't wait to stop using the crappy printed Ticketmaster tickets I always had and show off my own full graphic season ticket when I went through the turnstiles. Unfortunately, I must have ordered tickets after the main season ticket printing that year so I ended up with the same crappy Ticketmaster tickets that I didn't want. But the next year I was rewarded with what I really craved: full color tickets in four designs, all prominently featuring Michael Jordan's profile on the left of the ticket and one of our four "stars" on the right, Richard Hamilton, Kwame Brown, coach Doug Collins or Courtney Alexander. I'd finally got what I wanted and felt like I'd arrived. I'm not messing with you on the last player by the way; it's true.

Over the years there have been some great season ticket designs. I loved the 2002-03 season tickets which featured alternating blue and gold tickets with a single large font word (either "Pride", "Courage", "Passion" or "Commitment") and a single player in silhouette on them. My absolute favorite tickets (pictured above) were the following season's tickets which featured pretty much everyone on our team in black and white game photographs on 41 unique ticket designs. I also loved the playoff tickets we used to get, which featured multiple connected tickets which formed a single picture. My favorite playoff tickets were the 2006 playoff tickets, which featured our "big three" of Antawn Jamison, Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler with the Larry O'Brien trophy.

There have also been some terrible ticket designs in the past fourteen seasons. I'd put the first ones I got in the fall of 2001 that I described two paragraphs ago into that category and not just for the inclusion of Doug Collins and Courtney Alexander. I also wasn't crazy about the 2006-07 tickets which featured our team slogan that year ("Go All In") and a half inch by two inch (barely) photograph of either Jamison, Arenas or Butler. We've also had some questionable player selections to grace our tickets over the years: Andray Blatche and Al Thornton were two of the five players selected for the 2010-11 tickets (the last tickets to feature players), Jarvis Hayes made it onto the 2005-06 tickets and I think I've already mentioned Courtney Alexander, right?

The 2006 playoff tickets. Just missing Gilbert's signature.
I think the thing I miss most about paper tickets is the souvenir quality. I have saved my ticket from every concert I have ever been to (where it was possible) and I keep those in my CD jewel boxes. I also still have a lot of my old tickets from attending basketball games.  They bring back memories. Some of these basketball tickets are the same Ticketmaster tickets that I loathed, some are the Wizards tickets I described above and some are other NBA teams' full color picture tickets that I bought for Wizards road games on the secondary market through StubHub.

I don't really do anything with all my old basketball tickets: a couple of them are on display with some signed basketballs in my condo but most just sit either in my file cabinet or a box of souvenirs that I have in one of my closets. I've had a bunch of tickets signed by players and those signed tickets are sitting generally in the same place as my unsigned tickets. I just like to have them. If nothing else, they have helped me remember a lot of the facts that I have put into this blog. For that alone, it has been worth saving them.

Road tickets to Wizards games vs. Chicago and Indiana featuring Derrick Rose and Roy Hibbert. No Andray Blatche caliber players on these teams' tickets.
Admittedly, I'm resisting the transition from paper tickets. If you know much about me, you'll understand. I was pretty much the last person I knew to get a cell phone (and when I got it, I refused to turn it on); I didn't own a computer until 2009; I still pay bills by signing and mailing checks; I don't buy electronic music or books; and I still balance my checkbook by hand each month. But I know I'm not alone in my longing for paper tickets and the souvenirs that they can become. There was a mini uproar from some fans when the Washington Nationals introduced electronic only tickets this past spring. The Nationals thought they accommodated the upset fans by offering commemorative tickets for sale, but I can tell they just didn't get the emotional attachment fans had to paper tickets. See the awesome article from Dan Steinberg to understand what I'm saying.

I know I'm senselessly clinging to the past in some respects here but paper tickets make me feel good although I'd admittedly give all those saved tickets up if I could get a team on the floor that could contend for an NBA championship. The home opener is November 1 and I'll be there with my plastic card in hand to start another season. Go Wizards!!!