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!

November 6, 2014

Playoffs Redux

During the 2012-2013 NBA season, I started exploring the hobby of collecting basketball cards. I used this blog as both an excuse and a justification to shell out some dough for a few rectangles of cardboard which I thought would occupy my attention for a few minutes.  I didn't think this was anything new for me. When I was a kid in England, I used to collect football (soccer, that is) cards and then when I moved to this country in the late '70s I got hooked on football (NFL, that is), baseball and hockey cards and kept that going in part as late as sophomore year of college. Since the mid 1980s though, the landscape of sports card collecting has changed drastically and I learned that pretty quickly. This hobby is now big business. During the 2012-2013 season, Panini America, who owns the NBA trading card rights, produced 26 different lines of basketball cards including some series that retailed for over $1,000 for a pack of 10. Insane, right?

I declined to pick up the box of 10 cards for over $1,000 ($1,250 to be precise) that year but ended up spending a significant amount of money anyway and accumulating a pretty good collection of Wizards cards. Some of these things are absolutely gorgeous and perfect for collecting signatures but I knew I couldn't continue at the pace I went at in my first year; it was just too much. So last year I cut back a lot and spent less than half of what I spent the first season, choosing to concentrate on specific series of cards. This year, I vowed to cut back even more. My intent was to ignore the first few issues of cards entirely and just make sure I collected what I really thought was worth collecting.

Unfortunately, Panini America made a series of insert cards in their Hoops cards that were just too good to resist; I fell for it and I'm glad I did. This year's Hoops collection includes a "Road to the Finals" set of cards which features a card for each playoff game in the 2014 NBA playoffs. The front of the card features the star of the winning team for each particular game; the back of the card shows the final score and a quick narrative about the game. As a point of clarification, most sets of sports cards these days feature a base set of cards which is pretty easy to collect and then a series of insert cards that are aligned against a number of themes which are rarer and take a little more hunting to gather a full set.

Last year's Wizards team made the franchise's deepest playoff run in 35 years, moving out of the first round of the playoffs for the third time since 1979 and then securing two wins in the second round before ultimately collapsing in the second half of game four against the Indiana Pacers and succumbing for good two games later. These cards are the perfect way to remember each game in that couple of weeks' period so I decided to get a hold of the cards for all eleven playoff games to add to my collection. I know these will stir memories every time I pull them out and look at them.

Our first round playoff series last year was against the Chicago Bulls. It lasted just five games with the good guys winning four games to one so Panini's set features four Wizards cards and one Bulls card, each one numbered to an edition of 2014. The notable thing about this five card set for me is that the Wizards cards feature four different players in Nenê, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza and John Wall. That series was truly a team effort with no one player from our side dominating for more than a game. That balanced attack allowed us to completely overwhelm the Bulls and make them look like an offensively challenged, overworked-in-the-regular-season squad, starting with the 2-0 lead we took in Chicago.

Coming home for one game at least wasn't so sweet; we lost game three behind 35 points from Mike Dunleavy, who is featured on the one Bulls card in this series. That was the same game that Nenê was ejected (and subsequently suspended) for holding his head against Jimmy Butler's (there's really no other way to put what he did) for a few seconds. Game four featured a 17-2 game opening run, a dominant performance from Trevor Ariza and some late game "Free Nenê!" chants from the sellout crowd at Verizon Center. We never saw the Bulls that year again in Washington, finishing them off in game five in the windy city. John Wall was the star that night.

Unfortunately, game four in the first round was the only win the Washington home crowd would see in those playoffs. The second round against the Pacers was a six game affair with each team winning more than losing on each others' floor but the Pacers managed a win at home in game two (when Roy Hibbert who had been invisible for the entire playoffs decided to acknowledge he actually knew how to play basketball) for the edge in the series. Because the Pacers won, the second round series of cards feature four Pacers cards and just two Wizards cards, this time numbers to an edition of 999.

This series is not so much fun to remember. Trevor Ariza was perfect from three point range in game one and the win in Indiana that night seemed like it foreshadowed a repeat of the Chicago series. Some folks around Washington even started punching the Wizards' tickets for the Eastern Conference Finals. Not so fast. There was a reason the Pacers were the best team in the east in the regular season and Roy Hibbert, David West and Paul George proved it in the next three games. George killed us in game four when it looked like we were on our way to an easy victory, up 17 with less than nine minutes to go in the third quarter.

Marcin Gortat stemmed the tide a bit in game five with a career game (and thus he's on the game five card) in Indiana, scoring 31 and grabbing 16 boards before David West and the rest of the Pacers put us away for good in the next game. That series featured only two games where the winning team scored over 100 points and it was the two games the Wizards won. But ultimately, it seemed that our team wasn't ready for that sort of stage quite yet. Hopefully it's something we can build on this year. We started to exorcise some of those demons last night when we defeated the Pacers in an ugly all too close overtime affair at Verizon Center.

If I had my druthers, I'd love for Panini to produce a set like this every year. I think it's a great way to celebrate teams' playoff runs. I know these things will serve as a memory jogger every time I want to take a trip to past Wizards success. Thanks, Panini. I've got a ways to go to get through the rest of your card issues this year. Looking forward to each one.

November 1, 2014

Daikaya Izakaya

It's November 1, the first day of the Wizards home slate for the 2014-2015 season. Thank God! I've been struggling the last three months with hoops withdrawal. There's only so much that the schedule release, making travel plans for road games and training camp can hold me over. The three preseason games offered a brief respite but now the season's here for real I'm going to think that all is right with the world again. And now that the season's starting (and the Wizards have actually won a game already), I can start thinking about food again. That's right, food.

One of the best parts of going to games (especially given the Wizards' win-loss history) is sampling cuisine at the innumerable restaurants around Verizon Center. Last fall, I wrote a blog post about my three favorite Penn Quarter food spots. Since I wrote that post, I've been to two of those places (Graffiato and Luke's Lobster) a combined one time. I know, I'm not really living up to what I'm writing. Some of that was the Wizards' fault; they allowed savvy fans like me to cash in Monumental Rewards points at an insanely low price for access to free food and drinks via VIP tickets which resulted in me eating at VC a lot during the season. The main reason that I shied away from those two places, though, was simpler. I found somewhere better: Daikaya Izakaya.

Daikaya Izakaya is located on the east side of Verizon Center, which for those of us who are Orange-liners is the far side. My natural tendency for years was not to explore restaurants on that side of the arena because (a) I'm sort of lazy and just naturally wouldn't go over there and (b) there was pretty much nothing except Burger King over there. Now I love Burger King, but it's not worth walking around the building most days. But lately the re-development around Verizon Center has stretched east towards Judiciary Square and there's some good stuff on the other side including what has become hands down my favorite restaurant in that part of town.

Daikaya Izakaya is, as one might think from the name, a Japanese place. The name of the restaurant is actually Daikaya. Izakaya refers to the format of the experience and traditionally meant a drinking establishment (specifically sake) which also offered customers the ability to stay and drink and eat. Today, the word izakaya most often refers  in the United States to a restaurant that serves small plates which are ordered throughout the meal; brought to the table when ready; and then shared. Think tapas, but Japanese style.

Daikaya is located at 705 6th Street NW. The restaurant has two parts: a ramen place downstairs and the izakaya place on the second floor. I've never been to the ramen part of the restaurant. The upstairs suits me so well that I'm not sure I'm ever going to visit. Entering the izakaya restaurant involves ascending a steep set of stairs to a room that is really not particularly large. There is a small bar to the immediate right with seemingly mismatched bar stools (there are actually just three different types I believe) which dominates the place despite its relatively modest size. The tables in the restaurant fill out the space on either side of the bar toward and away from the street.

If I were to create my ideal restaurant, it would have a bar as the front and center element of the design, serve really good food and beer and be dark-ish without being dank. Daikaya checks all these boxes off perfectly. The place has some light from the street windows on 6th Street and a little more from a skylight over the bar but the supplemental lighting that might really make the place bright is just not there. Instead, they have preferred to use sparse wall sconces and a series of hanging low-light-emitting Japanese paper lantern type fixtures that border on the kitschy. There's plenty of wood in the bar which helps absorb the light and makes you feel like the place has been just that way for ages.

Daikaya of course serves a variety of sake. But I like to drink beer when I'm sitting in a dark bar and they offer a well put together variety, stocking some of the standard Japanese beers  (Sapporo is $3 during happy hour!) but mixing in some lesser known local brews, including some Three Stars beer, a keg-only microbrew in D.C. that offers some interesting flavor combinations (go over there one weekend for an inspiring tour) and which is not that easy to find. Three Stars is now brewing a custom saison beer made with sansho peppers and yuzu peel specially for Daikaya which I think is just awesome. I checked the menu while writing this post and they are currently featuring two Maryland beers that I have never even heard of in addition to the Three Stars product. Any place serving local beers I've never heard of is alright with me.

But a restaurant isn't memorable without it's food and despite all the positive atmosphere and great beer, the place wouldn't be worth anything if its food wasn't memorable. And Daikaya's is. Usually when I like a restaurant, I find one dish that I really love and I keep ordering that again and again. Daikaya isn't like that. There are so many good things on their menu that it's actually difficult to order. Every time I look over the offerings, I want six or seven or eight dishes not including some of the specials, which are often the best part of the meal.

Enoki mushrooms in the foreground, chicken skin (left) and thigh (right) skewers towards the back.
Fortunately, the izakaya are bite sized and with small prices (unlike some other small plates places around VC - think Jaleo) so eating a great variety is possible on every trip. It's difficult for me to articulate what is best but the seared enoki mushroom, smashed pee wee potatoes and beef tenderloin skewers are must haves on every trip. I know the price of the enoki mushrooms seems high at $9 but it's totally worth it. Get it. Trust me. If you need to compensate by getting something cheaper as well, get some of the cheaper skewers like the chicken thighs ($3) or the really cheap chicken skin ($2) which was marinated in something incredibly delicious last time I was there.

I think if I were forced to eat at Daikaya before every Wizards game I'd be OK. I don't think I'd ever get bored. I've been there eight or ten times in the last year or so and I've only gone through about half the menu. I'm sure the novelty will wear off eventually but it's showing no signs of doing so. I'm heading there tonight of course and I'm hoping they have the dynamite wings on the specials menu because they are absolutely, well, dynamite. 5:45 tonight so I can be in seats for the home opener 75 minutes later. Can't wait. This is a good time of year.