December 29, 2014

The Quest

Chicago, November 2010. Sunday morning at the Bean after a Wizards loss the night before.
About a couple of weeks ago, I was in south Florida to watch my beloved Washington Wizards take on a team I am equally but totally oppositely passionate about…the hated Miami Heat. The game was sloppy, but the Wizards prevailed ultimately because they are a better team than the Heat, not because they played better on that particular night. That still sounds weird after almost a decade and a half of disappointment watching the Wizards lose a lot.

My stop into AmericanAirlines Arena right on the water in downtown Miami earlier this month represented the tenth different NBA arena in which I have seen the Wizards play an NBA game. Overall, I have now seen an NBA regular season or playoff game played in fourteen different buildings over the last almost two decades. Since there are only 29 different arenas (the Clippers and Lakers play in the same building), I'm pretty much figuring I should see them all at this point, right? Right! I mean I'm about halfway done anyway.

So this is not exactly a new thing for me to try to achieve. I've been thinking about knocking off every arena in the Association for a good six or seven years now. This is just the first time I have put it all down in writing for the record. My ultimate goal here is to see the Wizards play in every current arena in the NBA against each home tenant. I figure once I get to that point, maintaining the complete collection will just mean traveling to any new arena the year it opens. The tough part will be getting there to begin with.

For now, I'm contenting myself with some interim goals, which allow me to declare more success than seeing the Wizards play in every opponent's arena. The first is to make it to an NBA event in each city, whether it be a regular season game, playoff game or All-Star event. This allows me to take credit for watching hoops in arenas before I was a Wizards fan and taking in random NBA games just because I happen to be in an NBA city on game day. The second is to see an NBA event in the current arena in each city. This group should be a subset of the first. Watching a Wizards road game will be a subset of both, unless I'm way off in my logic here.

So with all that said, here's my progress to date. I'm proud of what I've accomplished so far, but I realize as I wrote this post that I need to do a whole lot more traveling away from home. And fast!

Atlantic Division
I've lived in the northeast of the United States pretty much constantly since my family moved to this country in 1979, so it's no surprise to me that I've made out pretty well in this Division. I have just one arena to visit (in Brooklyn) and I'll take care of that when I take in the Rising Stars Challenge at Barclay's Center during All-Star Weekend this coming February. There's still some work to do Wizards-wise here but I'm feeling pretty good about the Atlantic.

The first game I ever saw in person was a New York Knicks / Toronto Raptors game at Madison Square Garden two days before Christmas in 1995. I was a Knicks fan at the time living in upstate New York and I surprised my dad (who was also following the Knicks in Connecticut) with a pair of tickets for an early Christmas present. The only memories I really have of that game are sitting in the upper deck end zone in MSG while my dad continually expressed amazement at Damon Stoudamire's last name. For some reason he just couldn't get the pronunciation right and Stoudamire's name was called a lot that night as he was pretty much all the talent the Raptors had that season.

My dad and I would end up at four more Knicks games over the next couple of years always in the upper deck and always in the end zone. To this day, I haven't seen a ball game at Madison Square Garden closer than those seats my dad and I had those three years. Each time I went to see the Knicks, New York seemed overwhelming to me despite the fact that I sort of knew New York pretty well at that point. We rarely seemed to know what we were doing and our time in New York seemed to last less than an hour longer than the game itself. It was in and out. I have tickets to the All-Star game there in a couple of months. I can't wait to go back as a more experienced hoops fan.

Our time at MSG was confined to the upper end zone because the Knicks in the late 1990s were good; the Boston Celtics, who were located about the same distance from our house in Connecticut, were not. In fact, they were pretty terrible. This was the Rick Pitino era when the Celtics seemed to have about 35 small forwards on their roster who Pitino would constantly be switching in and out of the game. So after the first couple of years of my dad and I seeing Knicks games in person, we decided to travel to Boston a couple of times to see some games in some better seats, which were plentiful in those days.

Ask my opinion of Boston teams and I'll tell you I pretty much hate them all. But I love the city of Boston and the neighborhood around the TD Garden (or the Fleet Center as it was known in the late '90s) is no exception. Heading to Boston was an opportunity to stop into an Irish pub for a pint or two and some shepherd's pie before heading over to the arena to watch the C's lose. I can't wait to get back there to watch the Wizards sometime in the next few years. 

While the Gardens in New York and Boston were my first two pro basketball experiences, Philadelphia and Toronto have been knocked off the list this year. I think the Atlantic is in good shape, although I need to make sure I go back to a few places when the Wizards are in town.

Central Division
My progress in the Atlantic Division is almost 100 percent complete in a couple of columns but remains incomplete from a Wizards perspective because of the sort of haphazard way I've engaged the NBA since I became a serious fan in 1994. My progress in the Central Division, which pretty much covers the Great Lakes states, is less comprehensive but more complete Wizards-wise. I love the midwest from my four years at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s so any opportunity to get back to this area of the country is a welcome one, especially if it's to watch some live hoops.

In each case where I have seen a Central Division team at home, it's been against the Wizards because I have taken trips to these cities specifically to get closer to the finish line of this quest. I hit Indianapolis in 2009, Chicago a year later and then Milwaukee this past winter. I managed to get about a minute of air time from Steve Buckhantz and Phil Chenier in Indy (where they mentioned this quest); argued with a cab driver in Chicago about the best dunk in the Bulls-Knicks rivalry of the 1990s (Starks over Jordan is still the best); and picked up a whole host of free Bucks swag courtesy of the Bucks PR department so I could fill up this blog. Good times in all three cities.

I am dying to go to a game in Cleveland, although I may postpone that trip until the post LeBron era and I'm thinking Detroit is one of the last places I'm hitting just because the Palace is so far in the middle of nowhere in Auburn Hills, Michigan (a full 33 miles outside of Detroit). I'm definitely partial to seeing basketball in the middle of a city where it belongs. Maybe if I wait long enough, I'll see hoops back downtown in the motor city.

Southeast Division
It should come as no surprise that of all the divisions in the NBA, I am most complete with the Southeast Division. I live close to most all these cities, I can get to each one with relatively inexpensive non-stop flights and some of these teams have been pretty terrible recently, meaning tickets have been pretty inexpensive. Plus I get a freebie with the Wizards in this group.

One trip to Charlotte could kill this group off pretty quickly, so I'll likely make a visit to the Queen City sometime in the next couple of years. After all, it's a pretty easy flight down to North Carolina on US Airways. I have seen an NBA game in Charlotte many years ago, when the Hornets were the original Hornets before they moved to New Orleans then Oklahoma City after hurricane Katrina then back to New Orleans before re-naming themselves the Pelicans allowing the Bobcats to take back the original Hornets name. The playoff game I saw down in the old cavernous Charlotte Coliseum outside of town was the first postseason NBA game I had ever seen and I'll never forget the defeated atmosphere that the crowd had down there, having lost all faith in the team's ownership and waiting for them to just split town one day. The fans got their way a couple of months later.

I'd love to finish this division off soon. When I'm taking on a job like this one, I love getting components of the task entirely completed and then I can move on to another part of the same job. Soon. I promise myself.

Southwest Division
While I am feeling pretty good about the Eastern Conference portion of my mission to see the Wizards take on all other 29 teams in their home arenas, I feel a lot less than confident about my progress in the Western Conference. There's a good reason for this: it is generally more complicated and expensive to visit cities further from where I live and some of these places are very far from where I will most likely ever live. When we are talking about cities outside of the Eastern time zone, flights are longer and most often not direct, which just sort of sucks.

My progress on the Southwest Division, therefore, really looks pretty pitiful. And this is the closest of all the Western Conference divisions. In early 2013, I took a basketball trip down to Texas for almost a full week, driving from Dallas through San Antonio all the way down to the Mexican border before heading back to Dallas through Austin. I saw four hoops games that week but the focus was the D-League, not the NBA. The only NBA game I saw on that trip was a Mavericks - Golden State Warriors game in Dallas. I stopped in at the Spurs' arena in San Antonio but it was to see the rodeo, not basketball.

There's for sure a lot of work to do here but Texas is relatively easy to get to from Washington and I'd love to go back and listen to some jazz and blues in New Orleans and Memphis. I'm missing a golden opportunity to see a Saturday game in Memphis on April 4 (opted to go to Italy instead; go figure) this season. I'm hoping the basketball gods will not punish this transgression and instead serve up a Saturday night game in either Memphis or the Crescent City next year.

Northwest Division
The first road trip I ever took to see the Wizards was to Minneapolis in 2007. It was the only road game that year that was not televised locally so in an act of self indulgence, I decided to fly into and out of Minnesota on the same day so I could see my Wizards knock off the Timberwolves. So many things went wrong here with travel. The Wizards flight got diverted the previous day due to weather which got them into town late and I ended up staying in Minneapolis overnight because of weather back home postponing all flights back to DC. But this is the trip that got me hooked and the night downtown convinced me that spending some time in a city instead of just focusing on the game itself was a great way to cover the U.S.

That '07 trip to the Target Center is all I got here. Denver is likely the next city in this division to see me in town. It's a long way to go to Portland and Utah and there are no direct flights from D.C. to Oklahoma City. Maybe I can hit OKC when the Wizards sign Kevin Durant away from the Thunder in a couple of years.

Pacific Division
If it was no surprise that the Southeast Division is the most complete for me, then it should come as an equal non-surprise that the Pacific Division is the least complete. Four of the five teams in this division play in California, a place I have visited a ton in the last 20 years but only once since 2006. I've never seen a hoops game in person in California. The only credit I can take here is a couple of games I saw in the desert in Phoenix on a vacation in 2001. I've got as much work to do here as I do in the Southwest division, only the Southwest cities are a heck of a lot closer.

A couple of years ago, my friend Mike told me I'm going to have to visit more than one road arena per year if I want to hit them all anytime soon and he's absolutely right. I have a ton of work to do here. I think my trip to Miami just before Christmas represents the last Wizards road trip I'm taking this season, although as I mentioned I do plan to make it to Brooklyn's Barclay's Center about the middle of February. I might be lucky to complete this quest by 2025 but I'll remain committed to it until I do. Can't wait for the 2015-2016 schedule release in August so I can project where I'm going next season.

Milwaukee, March 2014. Me and the statue of the Fonz before a Wizards win over the Bucks that same day. 

December 28, 2014

Beat The Heat!

Nine days ago, on a Friday night in south Florida, the Washington Wizards won their 19th game of the 2014-2015 NBA season by beating the home Miami Heat 105-103. 14 years ago, my first as a season ticket holder, the Wizards won 19 games all season. ALL SEASON!!! And no, it was not a strike or lockout shortened season; it was a full 82 games. In some ways, it's amazing I came back for more. The fact that the current Wizards won 19 before Christmas is in many ways a microcosm of how this franchise has grown over the past decade and a half. I think this team is without question the best the Wizards have fielded since I've been a die hard fan. The 19 win fiasco that was that first season was repeated by the way in 2008-2009. Not good.

About seven years ago, I started traveling to see the Wizards play on the road. It started in Minnesota in 2007 and continued as much on as off each year until last season, when I ramped my road trips up to two games, one in Philadelphia and one in Milwaukee. This year, I decided to travel to two away contests again. The game in Miami a week and a half ago was the second of my two trips this year.

Road games fill me with a certain amount of dread. There's something brash and cocky about walking into another team's building wearing the visitor's colors and applauding every good Wizards play and booing the home team. Other fans do it in our building in Washington and I hate it. And the absolutely last thing I want to have happen to me on vacation is to be mocked for being a Wizards fan after a loss to the home team. 

I assume most people around us at Verizon Center wearing Heat / Cavaliers / Thunder / take your pick of team shirts and jerseys are fair weather fans and I have to assume some road game fans view me the same way, although admittedly Washington Wizards fans or "fans" are still somewhat rare and I'm hoping the autographed Martell Webster jersey pegs me as a bit more than a bandwagonner. It's difficult to find Webster jerseys in Verizon Center; in fact, I don't believe I've ever seen another unless Martell is wearing it on court.

If you had told me before that Friday's game that Nenê and John Wall would tie for our leading scorers with 20 each; that Wall would tally 10 assists; that we would out rebound and shoot 14 more free throws than the Heat; and that both Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts would miss the game, I would have relaxed significantly before tip off. On the other hand, if you told me that we would shoot 3-14 from three point range; give up 53.3% shooting and 103 points to the Heat; and that Rasual Butler would shoot only a single shot from downtown, I'd be really worried about showing up for the game at all.

The Wizards actually got off to a good start in Miami, unlike the following two games against Phoenix (loss) and Chicago (loss). While the first quarter was tight at 29-25, I felt that the Wizards would play their traditional ramping-up-the-defensive-pressure-as-the-game-goes-on game plan and we'd end up cruising to a victory. It certainly seemed that I was right when we jumped out to a good start in the second quarter, extending our lead  a couple of minutes into the second half before a Heat timeout.

And that's just when the Wizards relaxed and let the home team start to dictate the pace, like we allowed the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic to do earlier this month. We got lucky against the Magic on a buzzer beater game winning alley oop pass from Andre Miller to Bradley Beal and managed to emerge with a one point double overtime win against the C's in Verizon Center after falling behind by seven in each extra period, but the sloppiness got us in the game in Boston and goes down as our only terrible loss so far.

From our corner seats near the top of the upper bowl at American Airlines Arena we could see perfectly the lack of defense being played in the lane as drive after drive from the Heat resulted in easy layups. On the other end, we could see equally perfectly the Wizards offense stick on the perimeter and the absolute refusal of most of our players to enter the wide open paint area possession after possession. With less than one quarter to go, the Wizards were still kicking, down only five, but showing little desire to win the game over a clearly crippled opponent.

Ultimately, our guys did manage to pull out the game behind a series of good plays from the largely absent for the first 46 minutes of the game Bradley Beal. Brad managed to hit four free throws in the last couple of minutes and his steal from Dwayne Wade sealed the deal, even if Wade did manage to hit a buzzer beating three as the final horn sounded. Too bad for the Heat that he needed four points, not three. Make no mistake, the Wizards won this game not because they played better than the Heat but because they have more talent. That's a strange sentence for me to write but it's true.

The Miami game was followed by two consecutive losses by the Wizards where they allowed easy lane penetration and focused on a perimeter shooting offense. Maybe they figured out what they were doing wrong after the Chicago game because the last two games against New York on Christmas Day and the Celtics two days later looked far more polished. Or maybe it's just that the Knicks and Boston are just terrible teams. We'll see how we fare this week in Texas before making any judgements I think.

One of the things I love most about traveling to away games is laying eyes on another arena. Most folks would likely argue that the amount of individuality in arenas where the sport is played on a standard sized court or rink or field is limited, unlike baseball stadiums where the dimensions of the playing field can vary from park to park. I wouldn't necessarily disagree with the argument that baseball offers the arena designer a ton more flexibility but I know from visiting a dozen or so NBA arenas that there is enough variation between buildings to make each new visit a voyage of discovery.

I've offered the opinion in past posts on this blog that of all the arenas I've visited in the last seven plus years that Verizon Center in D.C. is one of the more space limited arenas. Squashing a building suitable for playing basketball and hockey into Washington's city grid has left the Wizards a building with tight concourse spaces with little room for expansive lobbies like Banker's Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis or the types of historical displays about the team's history like they have at the Amway Center in Orlando.

The AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami definitely does not have the type of urban constraints we have in Washington. In fact, the building is probably the most gorgeously sited building in the NBA, right on the water facing the harbor where all the cruise ships are loaded up with passengers eager to spend a week or more packed into a mobile building which allows them to get away from home but not really see anything of the world. The siting of the building and the tropical climate allowed AAA's architects to effectively expand the lower concourse of the building to a plaza facing the water on the back side of the arena. I imagine it must be great to spend halftime outside with a drink during a late spring game.

On the city side of the arena, the front facade of the building is approached on foot up a huge staircase, which gives the building even more prominence relative to the street. The steps are a necessity here. There's no way the court could be located below grade in Florida, where the water table is a few feet or maybe even less below the surface of the ground. In the case of the AmericanAirlines Arena, the court is raised over the parking garage which makes the entrance to the arena that much more spectacular. 

Inside the walls of the arena, the place is less impressive than it is on the outside. The concourses are really wide in spots which allows a dizzying array of food vendors serving the 100 level of the building. There's no question the availability of different kinds of cuisine kills the selection at Verizon Center. There are Asian, barbeque, Latin (makes total sense), burgers, chicken and frozen yogurt and ice cream food options to choose from in addition to more standard Papa John's and popcorn vendors. The arena also reflects the city of Miami being a more liquor based town than Washington's beer based sports going fans. There are huge Grey Goose and Bacardi bars on either side of the arena in addition to several smaller Bacardi bars around the remainder of the building.

The only other comment I have on the AmericanAirlines Arena is that it exists solely for the Heat as a permanent tenant. The NHL's Florida Panthers play in Sunrise, Florida, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale about 35 miles north downtown Miami. As such the Heat can afford to deck the building out in red, yellow and orange and have a sort of flame design laid out in the seating areas, which is unfortunately all too visible during the games when the apathetic Heat fans show up late or not at all for a mid-December game against a division opponent that nobody in south Florida cares about.

I will say I was relatively impressed by the amount of passion displayed by the Heat fans. There were clearly a lot of fans in Heat apparel and I think I only saw one LeBron James jersey in my roamings around the building (just get a new jersey, dude). I also got booed by two of the arena staff for wearing Wizards colors and got sarcastically welcomed to the arena by a third staff member. During the game, the fans seemed to be making a lot of noise during critical parts of the game, although admittedly, it was difficult to tell over the piped in noise from the arena's sound system. I've never heard a building so loud after a relatively meaningless mid game jumper like Shawne Williams' two point basket in the second quarter.

I'm glad I made the trip down to Miami, especially after the blowout loss I attended earlier this season in Toronto. That's one more arena checked off my list and a lot more to go. Hey, maybe it would be a good idea to write about that in this blog. Maybe very soon.

Heat fans headed for the exits with a  little time left on the clock. Pretty satisfying after a poor game.

December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

It's December 25, 2014 and for the first time since 2008, the Washington Wizards are playing a game on Christmas Day. This is kind of a big deal. It's only the second time in the 15 years I have been a Wizards season ticket holder that the team has had a game scheduled on Santa day, which is typically reserved for the best or most popular teams in the league. And I can attest based on the spotty attendance at Verizon Center during the first two months of the season that the Wizards are more "best" than they are "popular" right now.

The last time I watched the Wizards play on this day definitely made Christmas worse rather than better. The game was in Cleveland against the hated Cleveland Cavaliers who had just eliminated the Wizards from the playoffs during the previous three seasons. The two teams loathed each other. It was perhaps the fiercest rivalry in the NBA at that time and the 2008-2009 season was supposed to be a year in which both teams contended for the NBA crown or at least the Eastern Conference title.

Unfortunately, things never seem to work out for the Wizards the way we fans think they are destined to. Our hope that year was that Gilbert Arenas would return from his major knee injury in the spring of 2007 at full strength after being limited to a handful of games the previous season and that his return, along with a mix of veterans and younger draft picks would yield a Wizards squad better than the team which had made the playoffs the prior four years. It didn't work out that way. Gilbert, as it turned out, was no longer Agent Zero and we lost Brendan Haywood, one of the only Wizards inclined to play any defense, during the preseason for the entire year. On Christmas morning, the Wizards were 4-22. The Cavaliers were 24-4.

That year the Wizards put up a pretty good fight after getting behind early, but ultimately fell to the Cavs 93-89. I'm hoping this year's game, set for a noon tip-off against the mostly hapless New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, will go the same way our last Christmas game went, with the team with the better record prevailing once again. The Wizards are prone to lapses in concentration and this is an ideal trap game early in the day against a seemingly easy opponent. Just for the record, the Cavaliers didn't win the Eastern Conference in 2009 either. The Orlando Magic knocked them off in the Conference Finals.

Regardless of the outcome of the game, this Christmas is incredibly special for our family because my niece is two and half or so years old and at this point in her life understands what presents are. She may not understand why they are here or how they got here but she knows there may be something new and exciting beneath the brightly colored wrapping paper that might distract her for a few minutes, an hour or so, or the better part of the next year or two. We'll see how that goes when she gets here in a couple of hours and the tearing open of presents begins, likely accompanied by a lot of shrieking and looks of wonderment. This will likely outweigh any sort of joy from a Wizards victory. Those are not words I write lightly.

For my part, I'm hoping Santa brings me some Wizards loot and a Wizards victory to help my turkey and everything else I plan to eat as part of my minimum three platefuls of food go down a little smoother. I'm making my family wait about a half an hour longer to eat today and I appreciate that just as much as I appreciate the NBA scheduling this as a road game; I know there's no way my mom lets me go to a game on Christmas Day. For everyone else that reads this, including the dozen or so people who read this blog semi-regularly, I hope the rest of Wizards fans out there have a happy Christmas day. Go Wizards!

December 13, 2014

The Lone Bobblehead

Me and G Wiz: Both with the organization 15 years. Coincidence? Totally.
I've done plenty of complaining in this blog recently (see here and here) about the lack of Wizards bobbleheads being made available from the team this season for hardcore Wizards fans and bobblehead collectors. I'm still not quite cool with the complete absence of in game bobble giveaways but I figure it's time to stop complaining and start celebrating. Why celebrating? Because I finally got my hands on a team issued bobblehead this year. It wasn't exactly free and it isn't one of our players, but it's on my bobblehead shelf just the same and I know it's all I'm getting this year so I'm coping.

Last year for the first time ever, the Wizards decided to make an exclusive Martell Webster  (my favorite player) bobblehead available through membership in the G Wiz Kids' Club. Now in past years, I would have been upset about this since the G Wiz Kids' Club is technically only for kids 14 years and younger and I would likely have resorted to making up a child so I could get my hands one of the only two bobbleheads the team decided to issue last year. But last year was different than past years and so instead of inventing a son or daughter for myself, I did the only thing any doting uncle and godfather should do for his niece. I signed her up for the G Wiz Kids' Club so WE could add Martell to OUR growing collection of Wizards bobbleheads. Makes sense, right?

This year, the Wizards did it to us again and made an exclusive G Wiz bobblehead available to Kids' Club members. This year, however, instead of showering fans with free bobbleheads, this is the only one the team is issuing. Since I can't very well deny my niece a critical piece in her future bobblehead collection and we are not getting any others this year, she is once again back as a member of the Kids' Club, courtesy of my hard earned $20. How excited can I get about a G Wiz bobble vs. a player bobble? Well, let's just table that discussion.

This year's G Wiz bobblehead is not the first G Wiz bobble the team has ever released. A few years ago, the team gave away a G Wiz bobble belly, so named because his entire upper torso is on the bobble spring, imitating the signature G Wiz jiggling the stomach motion that whoever is inside the costume performs for the entertainment of kids and adults alike. But this is the first G Wiz bobble issued since the 2011 team's red, white and blue rebrand, so it's good to get an updated mascot bobblehead to "support" the bobble team of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Martell Webster and Nenê I have on my shelf while bobblehead Phil Chenier and Steve Buckhantz call the game. Yes, I know I only have four current players, which is precisely why the Wizards should have scheduled Marcin Gortat bobblehead day sometime this year. I believe I have made this point before.

This G Wiz bobblehead is significantly more athletic looking than the G Wiz bobble belly I have. He's dribbling a basketball in the same sort of pose that John Wall was depicted in free bobble form when he was a rookie. His fur is about as realistic looking as you can make fur look in hard plastic form and he's wearing the absolutely completely up to date jersey, complete with the NBA logo moved to the back of the jersey just below the neckline and the gold championship patch the NBA introduced this year right above that. The shorts are missing the monument ball logo on the waistband but other than that, it looks like they made a decent attempt to make the uniform as accurate as possible.

I predicted last month that the quality of this bobblehead would be pretty much the same kind of quality as the free in game giveaways we have received in past years and I'm almost right here. The paintwork looks pretty good, maybe even a bit more than a touch above average, but there are some telltale signs of imperfection which makes these free bobbleheads so endearing. I'm missing some paint on the G on the base of the item and the gold championship patch (below) is more of a darkish gray rather than a gold. Not sure how they got that wrong. Maybe it was the end of the shift or something.

I'm taking this bobblehead for what it is. I'd rather have a Marcin Gortat, Paul Pierce, Drew Gooden or even Randy Wittman bobblehead (please, please, Wizards!) but I clearly am not going to have one of those this year. I'll have to make do with this one until next season. You can bet I'll start campaigning early next year, rather than waiting to see what the team decides. Overall, I'm as happy as I really could be to add Wizards bobblehead number 31 to my growing collection. Considering the beatdown we put on the Clippers last night, nothing can really upset me today.

December 6, 2014

Stop Yelling "O!"

This is about the strangest opening to a blog post you will ever read from me but there have been so many damn home Wizards games recently that I haven't had any time to do any blogging. Over the past four weeks there have been an astounding nine home games with only two road contests in there. Not a complaint exactly; I'm just saying…

We are about 20 to 25 percent of the way through the 2014-2015 NBA season and I couldn't be any happier. The Wizards are 13-5, a mark they haven't had at this point in the season in about forty years (not a typo), and they have just finished a 4-0 four game home stand including three victories against Western Conference opponents. They are in first place in the Southeast Division (one game ahead of Atlanta) and they sit just one game out of first behind the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference. 

The Wizards have beaten every team they should have beaten, with the possible exception of Atlanta. They have shown improved poise in getting out of difficult spots in games; the offseason signings of Paul Pierce and Rasual Butler have paid off really well; and Randy Wittman's in game coaching adjustments have seemed to be spot on all year. All this while missing Bradley Beal and Nenê for a handful of games and being without the services of Martell Webster entirely. Wow! What a season already.

Going to Wizards games over the last 14 years has been like waiting for the other shoe to drop. No matter how well the team was doing game to game or in the season in general, there was always the feeling that something, somehow would go wrong. And it usually did. Maybe I'm letting my guard down but these days the only thing I get overly anxious about is the anthem between the end of pregame warmups and the opening tip. That's right, the anthem. I got something to say here and so that's what this post is about.

The Star Spangled Banner has been a little bit of a crap shoot over the last decade and a half at Wizards games. Unlike the Capitals, who generally stick with Bob McDonald and Caleb Green for the anthem, the Wizards like to share the wealth and have different performers sing (or play) the anthem on most of the 41 home nights. Now I get that people can get nervous and flub a line every so often but it happens way too much for my liking.  If you are allowed on the court to sing the anthem, you ought to be able to get it right. Guaranteed that we are going to get a few "For the land of the free"s over the season and maybe one or two other more egregious mistakes like the dude who asked us "Who brought stripes and bright stars?" to the Mavericks game earlier this year. I certainly didn't pack my stripes and bright stars that night.

But all that in the previous paragraph is a bit of a tangent, because that's not the complaint I have to offer here in this post. No, not at all. What annoys me about the anthem at Verizon Center on game nights is what happens right after "our flag was still there." That's right, I mean the "O!" that about 25 percent of the crowd lets fly for a reason that they may or may not understand, although let's face it, they probably don't.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the Baltimore Orioles were one of the most successful teams in baseball. From 1966 to 1983 (a span of 18 seasons), the Orioles made the playoffs seven times, went to the World Series five times and won it all twice. This was an era where only four teams made the postseason in baseball, not the 10 teams who make it these days. They also fielded teams with a slew of future hall of famers: Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, Jr.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of the fixtures at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore was Wild Bill Hagy spelling out O-R-I-O-L-E-S with his body on top of the Orioles' dugout while the fans in the stadium spelled it out loudly with their voices. Hagy performed his routine on the dugout near Memorial Stadium's Section 34, where a number of die hard Orioles fans sat every night. According to the story told by WBAL TV's Jason Newton, one night a single fan, Mary Powers, in this section yelled "O!" at the beginning of the "O say can you see" line in the national anthem. The next night, Hagy joined her and it snowballed from there.

Now I know I'm not the first person to ever write about this and I don't have some fundamental objection to people yelling one part of The Star Spangled Banner like some writers have noted. I'm honestly torn between this being an important part of sports tradition and it being totally stupid. Because it's the first butchering of the anthem, I think it's kind of cool. Much better at least than Capitals fans yelling "RED" during the "rockets' red glare" line. Orioles fans are the original; Caps fans are just copying. I'm sure if I went to a pro ball game in Houston that the whole arena wouldn't yell "ROCKETS" during the same line. Maybe they would. I don't honestly know.

The problem I have with this whole "tradition" is the exporting of it to events other than Orioles games. The "O!" chant has meaning in Baltimore and Baltimore only. In fact, it really only has meaning at Orioles games. Nowhere else. Not Ravens games, not Capitals games, not Wizards games, not the Washington D.C. NFL team's games and certainly not Nationals games. It's not about Baltimore or Washington or any other team. It's only about the Orioles.

I wonder how many inside Verizon Center on a Wizards game night know this. I'm guessing not too many because if they really knew what they were saying when they yelled "O!", I have to believe they would cut it out. I've been to Wizards games in a number of places in this country and I've never heard the "O!" anywhere else and that's because it's stupid and not relevant outside of Oriole Park. There weren't even any at the Philadelphia 76ers game I attended last year and I struggle with the notion that Philly fans are smarter than Wizards fans here.

So here's my plea for folks heading to Wizards games. When the anthem singer finishes "our flag was still there" stay quiet. Don't say a word. Let him or her or them finish out the anthem with you being silent and attentive. And when the anthem's over, applaud, except maybe if they screwed up the lines really badly. Let's not perpetuate this nonsense any more. Go Wizards!! I'm hoping for a quieter crowd during the anthem at Monday's game.

The Stars and Stripes in Toronto's Air Canada Centre. No "O!" here.

November 16, 2014

Bobblehead Nation

It's November 16 and by now, most all of the NBA teams have announced some sort of promotional or giveaway schedule for the 2014-2015 NBA season. I found out about the Wizards' promotional schedule at our second home preseason game against Maccabi Haifa on October 15 and previewed it in my annual Free Stuff! column on this blog. In case you didn't read that post or just want the quick synopsis, I have two words for you: No Bobbleheads! 

So now it's about a month later and I'm still steamed. I know, there's a G Wiz bobblehead available from the team as part of the G Wiz Kids Club package this year, but it's not the same as an in game giveaway and it sort of costs money, although I am sure it will retain the "free" quality level that all promotional bobbleheads seem to have. From my perspective, the Wizards lack of bobbleheads this year is all about money. We have plenty of folks to choose from for potential bobblehead giveaways (my top three in order would be Marcin Gortat, Randy Wittman and Drew Gooden III) so it must be strictly a dollar saving cut. That's my take anyway. 

So I started the Wizards lack of regard for the serious bobblehead fanatic a league wide epidemic? Turns out it's not. Not really anywhere close. There are plenty of teams without bobblehead giveaways this year, but there are plenty with them. And those teams that are giving away bobbles are not the worst in the league just looking to lure fans in to watch a pitiful squad lose. So based on my scouring of the internet over the last month or so, here's my "comprehensive" list (see qualification below) of bobblehead giveaways in the NBA this year. 

21 Andre Iguodala (Golden State Warriors) 
24 Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors) 
I know what you are thinking…there are no regular season games this early in October, right? Right! The Golden State Warriors this year gave away bobbleheads DURING THE PRESEASON! Are you kidding me? What a way to get folks in the door for some meaningless exhibition games! And they are not giving away Justin Holiday and Ognjen Kuzmic bobbleheads. You get two of their best players in Stephen Curry and Andre Iguodala. Awesome. This is not the last we will hear from Golden State in this post. 

1 Hugo the Hornet (Charlotte Hornets)
It feels so right to have Hugo the Hornet back in Charlotte where he belongs. I think it's totally fitting that he is the first bobblehead giveaway of the regular season! Hugo finished second in my mascot rank this summer. There's only one better. Great move by the newly renamed Hornets to start the season with this killer giveaway.

7 Markieff Morris (Phoenix Suns)
Markieff Morris is the first player in the 2014-2015 regular season to get his own bobblehead. Really? Phoenix has something up their sleeve here. It can't be this simple. I'm not sure I could even recognize Markieff Morris if he were standing in front of me. More on this later.

29 Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
I don't think I'm too far off base by writing that the Milwaukee Bucks view Giannis Antetekounmpo as the savior of their franchise these days. If he pans out to be the player the Bucks' management thinks he will be, they may be right. Plus, I've never seen a player more thrilled with his own bobblehead. More Giannis for everyone!!!

3 Dynamic Duo (Houston Rockets)
I'm assuming the dynamic duo that the Rockets are referring to is Dwight Howard and James Harden. A two for one bobblehead is always a treat. My Phil Chenier / Steve Buckhantz broadcaster bobblehead is one of the prizes in my collection. I would feel remiss though if I didn't mention that this particular dynamic duo has a grand total of zero playoff series victories. I know, it's only one year but the word dynamic was used by the Rockets, not me.

4 Sarunas Marciulionis (Golden State Warriors)
Marciulionis was one of the first European basketball players to make it in the NBA, starring at Golden State for four years as mostly a bench player. But his influence on the game both worldwide and here in the United States was much much bigger. He played internationally for the Soviet Union and later (after independence was achieved) his home country of Lithuania. His story and the rest of the excellent early 1990s Lithuanian men's national team are wonderfully told in Marius Markevicius' film The Other Dream Team. This past summer, Saraunas was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Awesome choice. The first of three retired player bobbleheads issued by the Warriors this year.

5 Al Jefferson (Charlotte Hornets)
The Charlotte Hornets went 3-1 against my beloved Wizards last season and Al Jefferson was a big reason why. Despite not making it onto the All-Star team last winter, Al ended up as an All NBA Third Team selection. Not too shabby. It seems this bobblehead is well deserved. Charlotte wouldn't be half as good without big Al.

10 Tyson Chandler (Dallas Mavericks) 
The love fest between the Mavericks and Tyson Chandler seemed destined to produce a reunion. Chandler was under appreciated in New York and the Mavs were roundly criticized for letting him go after winning their first and only NBA title in 2011. Not only does Chandler now feel the love that he was missing in the big apple, he also gets a bobblehead. This is the first of six (SIX!) bobbleheads on the Mavs schedule this year, and that doesn't count the exclusive for season ticket holders Dirk Nowitski bobblehead or the most awesome surprise for fans in March. Keep reading. 

12 Marcus Morris (Phoenix Suns) 
I knew Phoenix had something up their sleeve. This past offseason, the Phoenix Suns extended the contracts of Markieff and Marcus Morris. I'm not fully familiar with the ability of either Morris twin (identical by the way) but I would think one was enough. But since you have two on your team, why not save a little cash and make two identical bobbleheads and distribute them on two different gamedays so you can take credit for two giveaways. Brilliant! Having mocked the idea, the interlocking bases making one coherent bobblehead ensemble is pretty darned cool. 

18 Clyde Drexler (Houston Rockets) 
Clyde Drexler spent 11-1/2 seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers and appeared in two NBA Finals series with that franchise in addition to being the team's leading scorer of all time. But he is probably just as much identified with the city of Houston as Portland. He grew up in Houston, made three NCAA final four appearances at the University of Houston and won an NBA Championship with the Rockets in 1995. Drexler is the second of eight retired players to be given away in bobblehead form this year, and the only one not handed out by the Golden State Warriors or Toronto Raptors. 

22 Devin Harris (Dallas Mavericks) 
Is this a guilt bobblehead or is something else happening here? Last year the Mavericks agreed in principle with Harris on a three year, $9 million contract before it was discovered he had a toe injury. The result? A one year, $3 million contract for Harris. Maybe a bobblehead makes up for that? Or maybe there's something else going on down in Dallas which is pretty exciting. 

27 Jabari Parker (Milwaukee Bucks) 
Jabari Parker was selected second overall in this past summer's draft and along with Giannis Antetokounmpo represents what Milwaukee fans hope is the dawn of a new era for the Bucks. We'll see. I could be wrong on this one but it appears Parker is the only rookie this year to have a bobblehead giveaway. Kudos to the Bucks here! 

No, this is not Jabari Parker. It's Giannis and mini-Giannis.
7 Brandan Wright (Dallas Mavericks) / Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors)
I know this news comes as a blow to some readers of this post because up until now, it was possible to pick up every bobblehead in person with a carefully coordinated travel schedule. This date kills that plan. There's no way you can pick up a bobblehead in Dallas and be at the gate for the start of the Golden State game the same night. I'm on board with the Draymond Green bobblehead but Brandan Wright? He's a journeyman backup who's never averaged more than 9.3 points per game and that is in this season. If I were a Mavs fan, I'd be thrilled. There's hope for me getting a Wizards issued Kevin Seraphin bobblehead if Mark Cuban somehow swapped franchises with Ted Leonsis.

17 Lance Stephenson (Charlotte Hornets)
Sure, why not give Lance Stephenson a bobblehead. If he's as good as he thinks he is, he deserves one. We'll see if he's as good as he thinks he is.

27 Manute Bol (Golden State Warriors)
When I hear Manute Bol, I think Washington Bullets, not Golden State Warriors. Bol played more games and more seasons or partial seasons for the Bullets than any other team. Joe Lacob pulled one over on Ted Leonsis here. Rest in peace, Manute. The lucky Golden State fans who get to this game early get a true collectible.

2 Jae Crowder (Dallas Mavericks)
Are the Mavericks just filling in the gaps in fans' bobblehead teams this season by making all their role players into bobbleheads? If they are, I think that's awesome. A year and a half ago I questioned the wisdom of the Mavericks selling Jae Crowder jerseys in their team store at the American Airlines Center (see above). Now he has his own bobblehead. Is America a great country or what? I can't wait to see the hair on this bobblehead by the way. And yes, I'm still using my Blackberry 18 months later. Me and Mark Cuban, baby!

6 Jerome Williams or Charles Oakley or Damon Stoudamire or Morris Peterson (Toronto Raptors)
This year is the Toronto Raptors' 20th anniversary season. They are planning on four alumni bobblehead nights but have yet to determine the order of the four. I guess in the history of the raptors, these four represent the ultimate blue collar worker in the the Junkyard Dog (Williams); their first legitimate truly been there done that player (Oakley); the first Raptor to win an individual NBA award (Stoudamire - Rookie of the Year); and a dude who put up a lot of points (Peterson). Let me just say I will always think Michael Ruffin when I see the name Morris Peterson.

7 Brandon Knight (Milwaukee Bucks)
Somehow Brandon Knight always seems to get the best of John Wall in his one on one matchups. I don't have anything else to say on this one.

8 Patrick Beverley (Houston Rockets) 
If you asked me to name anything notable about Beverley's playing career, I would say he knocked Russell Westbrook out of the season in 2013. That's it. I can't think of anything else. Admittedly, I don't follow the Rockets that closely. It seems like Houston is following Dallas' lead of getting some role players their own bobblehead only on a smaller scale. Daryl Morey should be thrilled with that statement, not that he'll ever read this. 

11 Monta Ellis (Dallas Mavericks) 
Who knew that the Mavericks signing Ellis before last year would make such a difference. It seems to have transformed him from a self-centered me-first player into a guy willing to play for a team. I think it would be awesome if the Mavs made this bobblehead with a removable shirt so we could see Ellis' tree of life tattoo on his chest. Even if they don't, the workers in China making this one are going to have to work pretty hard on his arm and neck tattoos. Can't wait to see this one. 

22 Chandler Parsons (Dallas Mavericks) 
Bobblehead number six from the Mavs this year and third this month! That's three more this month than the Wizards have all year. Starting to get really jealous of Mavericks fans at this point. 

23 Joakim Noah (Chicago Bulls) 
I think if I weren't a Wizards fan, Joakim Noah would be my favorite NBA player. I love how complete a player this guy is and how hard he plays. And since the Wizards managed to beat the Bulls in last year's playoffs, my opinion of Noah continues to be one of unbiased respect. 

26 Isaiah Thomas (Phoenix Suns) 
Thomas was Phoenix's big off season free agent acquisition so it makes total sense he gets a bobblehead right away. The Wizards should have a Marcin Gortat bobblehead for exactly the same reason. Yes, I know we get an action figure. They really should have both. 

27 Jerome Williams or Charles Oakley or Damon Stoudamire or Morris Peterson (Toronto Raptors) 
See February 6 above.

2 Mark Cuban Gnome (Dallas Mavericks)
Yes, I know a gnome is not a bobblehead but come on, how awesome a surprise is this for Mavs fans. I'd consider flying down to Texas just for this game to grab one of these things. After all, there's no Wizards game that night. We need (I mean really NEED) a Ted Gnome in D.C., don't we? I think we do.

3 Kyrie Irving (Cleveland Cavaliers) / Taj Gibson (Chicago Bulls)
Overrated prima donna point guard who plays for my least favorite opponent and a hard nosed defense first all hustle bench player on the same day? If I were trying to collect as many bobbleheads as possible this season, I'd head for Chicago for this day and skip the Kyrie bobblehead. At least 95% of NBA fans probably disagree with me on this one. And I really don't care.

13 Jerome Williams or Charles Oakley or Damon Stoudamire or Morris Peterson (Toronto Raptors)
See February 6 above.

18 Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls) / Jason Kidd (Milwaukee Bucks) 
It looks like Jason Kidd is the only coach bobblehead giveaway this year in the NBA. I'll withhold my real feelings about Kidd's defection and Bucks' management's poaching him from the Nets (oops!) and just add more fuel to the Randy Wittman bobblehead campaign. Come on, Wizards! PLEEEEEASE!!! Also, Derrick Rose the same day? Good choice. Hopefully he's still playing by then. 

23 Rick Barry (Golden State Warriors) 
By all accounts, most every teammate that ever played with Barry eventually hated playing with him, but he did help bring Golden State their only NBA title in 1975. They beat the Washington Bullets to get there and amazingly finished first in their conference with only 48 wins. I guess in the non-tanking era there were no really bad teams to take advantage of. Anyway, I guess Barry deserves this for getting the Warriors a banner. 

27 Pierre the Pelican (New Orleans Pelicans) / Jerome Williams or Charles Oakley or Damon Stoudamire or Morris Peterson (Toronto Raptors) 
There are two mascots on this year's free bobblehead slate in the NBA this year. Pierre's a pretty good second mascot to be memorialized this year after Hugo on opening night in the Queen City. He's only been around two years but I had him in my top 10 this past September. The only Pelicans bobblehead this year. See February 6 above for the Raptors description. 

29 Kevin Love (Cleveland Cavaliers) 
Is this Kevin Love's lone season in Cleveland before he bolts for the Lakers? If it is, this will be his only bobblehead as a Cavalier. I'm hoping this blog post is a foreshadowing. I'd love to get Love out of the East. 

No bobbleheads in April? That's correct. Not unless I missed some. For one month, the Wizards bobblehead output matches the rest of the league, meaning zero. April is the only bobblehead-less month on the schedule. There's always next year.

I am confident this is probably not the comprehensive list of bobblehead giveaways in the NBA this year because I just couldn't find schedules for some teams, namely the Celtics, Knicks, Pacers, Hawks, Magic, Spurs, Nuggets, Thunder, Timberwolves, Lakers and Kings. If anyone or those teams can send me their schedules, I'll update this post, add some analysis and give credit where credit is due. In the meantime, start booking your flights and getting your game tickets so you can grab the ones you see most value in. I'll be staying in Washington, although it's not for the bobbleheads because, well you know…

November 12, 2014

O Canada

I'm guessing there are folks out there somewhere in this wide world of ours that are considered experts in countries' national anthems, either through their own claims or by endorsement of others. If there are (and I'm really totally guessing here; I actually have no clue), I'm not one of them. I think my only real contact with national anthems these days is sadly enough through watching sports. And since I gave up watching the Olympics years ago, I'm left with pro basketball and the FIFA World Cup to keep my anthem recognizing skills sharp.

If you asked me to sing or hum some national anthems, I could get to those of four countries and that's it: my original home country of the United Kingdom, my current home of the United States, Canada and France. I could maybe loosely describe Germany's or Italy's anthem as some sort of dour military march music from watching those teams play soccer, probably because that's exactly what those tunes are, but I'd struggle with anything else. Of the four I know, I'm not particularly a big fan of God Bless the Queen/King (too much royalty), The Star Spangled Banner (too old) or La Marseillaise (too French), but I absolutely love O Canada. While I have a limited canon to choose from, I can without a shadow of a doubt declare O Canada is my favorite national anthem of all time.

The thing I love about O Canada is that it represents a sort of timeless love ("true patriot love in all thy sons command") and protection ("we stand on guard for thee") for the nation, including the land that makes up the country ("our home and native land"). It is not about a moment in time when a battle was won, like The Star Spangled Banner. Nor for that matter is about a person who just happens to be the head of state like the United Kingdom's anthem. And it's simple with not too many words so rock stars are less liable to screw it up during prominent sporting events.

In many ways, I see it as the Canadian counterpart to America the Beautiful, which I think is a way better choice for our own national anthem than The Star Spangled Banner. America the Beautiful to me celebrates a love of the land that is the United States in all its variety and wonder. And the places that make up our country are some of the most beautiful and amazing in the world, at least from my eyes based on the 41 states I've seen so far. It also celebrates the values that make this country what it is (liberty, brotherhood, law, etc.) just like O Canada does.

O Canada has been Canada's official national anthem since 1980, which is not very long at all, but it served essentially as the national anthem for decades before that because Canada hadn't adopted one. O Canada comes in both English and French versions; I naturally assumed from my self-centered personal viewpoint that it was written in English first and then translated into French. Not true. The song was written by Adolphe-Basile Routhier and Calixa Lavallee (yeah, they are of French descent) and was first performed in 1880. It was not until 28 years later that the current English version of O Canada was written. Since then, it has been tweaked a few times as these things tend to be when they get into the public domain and, more particularly, parliament.

Each NBA season, I get to hear O Canada at least once and most seasons twice when the Toronto Raptors (worst nickname in basketball) come play the Wizards at Verizon Center. The NBA schedule consists of two games against every non-conference opponent, four games against each divisional opponent and three or four games against all the other teams in the league. So basically four out of every five years, you miss a home game against one of those "other" teams. Also, for some reason when the Raptors come to town, the anthems, which are usually played right after the warmup session, are played about halfway through. I've never been able to figure this out.

This year happens to be the fifth out of five years for the Wizards hosting the Raptors and the Toronto franchise will only be in town once (on January 31 which is also Marcin Gortat Action Figure Day) during the 2014-2015 season. That means I only get to hear O Canada once this year at Verizon Center, so I'm glad I took in the Wizards-Raptors game north of the border this past weekend to hear O Canada once more this year. The game was terrible for the Wizards but at least I got the Canadian national anthem out of it. I'm jealous of Raptors fans in this regard. They get to hear O Canada every game. Of course, they also have to listen to the Star Spangled Banner every game because there are no more Canadian teams so they play an American team each time they step on the court. Can't have everything I guess.

November 9, 2014

The Great White North

In case it wasn't obvious from some of my recent posts on this blog, I am just a little more than happy about the 2014-2015 NBA season being underway. It helps a ton that the Wizards got off to a 4-1 start in their first five games, their best start to a season since the 2005-2006 season. But the Wizards' fan-friendly schedule is also fueling my enthusiasm: seven of the first nine weekends of the Wizards season (so...the weekends in calendar year 2014) feature either a Friday or a Saturday home game, which means I get to see the Wiz in person at the Verizon Center every weekend but two before the new year. How awesome is that? "It's very awesome" is the answer.

This past weekend, however, was one of the two 2014 weekends without a home game; the Wizards played in Toronto Friday night and then in Indianapolis Saturday night. Now the second weekend of the season is a tough one to go without a home game, so the schedule this past weekend left me with basically two options: stay in D.C. (or Arlington actually) and watch on TV, or head out of town and see my team live. Rather than mope around our nation's capital, I chose to head to Canada for my first ever basketball game north of the border.

If my memory is at all correct, I believe it had been more than 20 years since I had last visited Toronto. Attending school in Michigan and upstate New York meant Canada was really close and Toronto was the closest (and really only) major Canadian city you could drive to so I think I visited three or four times in the seven and half years I spent in school. I was excited to go back to see how much the place had changed and how the city looked from a basketball fan's perspective. The last time I visited after all, Toronto didn't even have a basketball team.

My hope for this past weekend was to fly in Friday afternoon (which I did); see the Wizards either beat the Raptors or at least play a very competitive game Friday night; play tourist in Toronto on Saturday  and find somewhere to watch the Wizards-Pacers game despite the Maple Leafs playing that night (which I did); and come home Sunday (which I did) with a couple of more wins under the Wizards' belt, sitting comfortably at 6-1 and occupying the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Wow! That previous sentence was long. Let's move on.

Getting ready for the opening tip. The game was competitive to this point.
The plan worked perfectly. Except for the Wizards-Raptors part, which was the whole reason I went to Canada in the first place. It was a complete disaster and by far the worst performance of the young season. The game wasn't competitive at all; not even the opening tip was in doubt. The Raptors got off to a 14-2 lead and never looked back from there. They thoroughly dominated the Wizards in every facet of the game; we looked like a lottery team playing the best team in the league. And Kyle Lowry by the way is super impressive up close in a game watched from the first row behind the hockey boards. He was quicker and faster and on most plays a couple of steps ahead of everyone on our team (he ended up with a triple double). I know it was one game of 82 but this was the first real test of the season for the Wizards and they failed. Miserably.

So because the game was so terrible, the preceding paragraph is all I'm going to write about the actual action on the court. But I think there's a lot more that was interesting about the game experience in Toronto, starting with the Air Canada Centre. 

Historically, sports arenas in cities have occupied a significant place in the city's fabric. Sport is a public spectacle and the sporting arena, be it for basketball, baseball, hockey, football or any other sort of sport, essentially becomes a public space within the city on game day. These days, the actual building of course is restricted to paying customers, but the event is for the city really, not for the small percentage of the city's residents who happen to be attending on any given night. 

Given the public nature of what goes on there, the arena as a public building has historically been sited  in some important manner within the city, usually adjoining some grand public space or occupying a site with important relationships to other key structures within the city fabric. Most NBA arenas I have visited over the last 20 or so years follow this model, be it Madison Square Garden in New York or the American Airlines Center in Dallas. Even the US Airways Arena in Phoenix, which I find to be a city almost wholly lacking in urban planning, has significant plaza space outside some of its entrances.

The Air Canada Centre as seen from the CN Tower.
I have to say that the Air Canada Centre completely breaks the traditional mold of the sports arena being sited in a publicly important way. And I don't think that's a positive. The building is located in a tight urban neighborhood just south of the current Union Station in Toronto and it is packed up against the elevated Gardiner Expressway to the south, which limits an identifiable presence for the building from that side within the city, except to automobile traffic on the Expressway. The building is actually difficult to recognize, mostly because it is so close to other buildings and the signage on the arena is so reserved. You could use "difficult to see". I'm being nice with "reserved".

But the biggest reason the arena is hard to spot is probably the most admirable feature of the design, which is completely and totally ironic. And I'm talking actual ironic, not Alanis Morissette ironic (I figured that was appropriate since she's Canadian and any shot I can take against that stupid song is worth it). Before the construction of the Air Canada Centre, the site where the building is located was occupied by the Toronto Postal Delivery Building, an Art Deco building built in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The building, or more accurately the building's facades since the majority of the building is gone, was protected by the Ontario Heritage Act, which meant that the skin of the original building needed to be incorporated into the exterior walls of the Air Canada Centre.

This requirement to keep the majority of the exterior walls of the Postal Delivery Building causes two problems. First, the entire east facade and a significant portion of the north and south facades of the ACC are defined by the Art Deco remains of the Postal Delivery Building. This makes the arena look decidedly un-arena-like. Despite the preservation of the wonderful reliefs depicting the delivery of mail via all sorts of transportation, it doesn't scream public assembly space, which I think it sort of needs to.

The south facade of the Air Canada Centre. The roof of the arena can be seen at the top of the photo.
The second issue I have with the design is the original Postal Delivery Building is not large enough to hold a basketball and hockey arena so the envelope of the building is not confined to the original structure; it ends up way west of the original building and pokes up above to accommodate the main space within. The design of this part of the building is deliberately deferential to the historic fabric of the preserved city fabric and ends up having little character at all in my opinion. The issue with this is that the west side of the building, which is most visible from within the city, ends up just being blah. It could be a commercial building of some sort it's that nondescript.

While I'm in general not a fan of the building, I will say that the north side of it is mostly a success. That side of the building is a combination of new and old fabric but it is all completely enclosed and connected to Union Station to the north, creating a grand promenade and main entrance. It's really a pretty cool interior space once you find it. The issue is finding it because it's not easy to do. I suppose an interior gathering space outside an arena this far north on the globe is something we don't have to deal with in Washington. It's a good solution. I just don't like it considering the way the rest of the building is designed.

The other thing I'll say about the building (and this is really not about the building at all) is that it's loud! The game I attended last Friday was the Raptors' sixth overall and third home game of the year and it sounded like a playoff game in D.C. I know the game was a rout, but the crowd was into the game in a serious way from the opening tip and loud chants of "DE-FENSE" (or "DE-FENCE" I guess) were heard just five minutes into the game when the rout was already on. This atmosphere is both a credit to the Toronto fans and an indictment of the crowd at Verizon Center. Here I was in a city which is supposed to be about hockey watching a team with five winning seasons in its first 19 and I was impressed by the noise in the first week and a half of the season. And this was actual crowd noise, not some stupid piped in sound like they have in Miami or Boston. I'm going to make a personal commitment to make more noise at Verizon Center from now on.

Fourth quarter: me, TV and a tall glass of Molson Canadian.
While Friday night in Toronto was a total loss in every sense of the word (I ended up watching the fourth quarter in the bar below the arena while nursing a glass of Molson Canadian), my experience in Toronto had its bright spots. I managed to find some great food at the Queen and Beaver Public House and Bier Markt (try the poutine, I mean why would you not?) which came with some great Canadian beer. I also managed to walk on the Glass Floor at the CN Tower, which is literally a transparent floor 1,122 feet above the plaza around the Tower below. Its pretty freaky looking down at your feet and seeing the ground more than a thousand feet beyond the surface you are standing on but ultimately the Wizards' performance the night before was a whole lot more scary. Plus, I "held on" to the walls of the building, like that's going to do me any good if the glass, which was vibrating I swear, actually collapsed.

So the first weekend without a home game in Washington was a disaster. There's one more before 2015 in mid-December. That weekend we play a Friday night game in Miami. I'll be there for that one too. Hopefully it goes a little better than this past weekend.

On the CN Tower's Glass Floor. The glow behind me is the light from below. iPod camera is only so good.
My feet on the Glass Floor. Freaky stuff!