December 29, 2015

What's With The Juniors?

Five and a half years ago, the Washington Wizards drafted Johnathan Hildred Wall with the number one overall selection in the 2010 NBA Draft. John is named after his dad, Johnathan Carroll Wall which, according to Wikipedia, makes John a junior, although we wouldn't necessarily know it unless we looked it up. John doesn't advertise being his dad's namesake, preferring to keep his relationship with his deceased father private, and that's OK with me. That's also the way things used to work with people's names in professional sports until very very recently.

About six months ago, the Wizards drafted Kelly Oubre, Jr. with the Atlanta Hawks' 15th overall pick (which they acquired via trade) in the 2015 NBA Draft. Based on reading the previous sentence, Kelly's dad is quite obviously also named Kelly Oubre. But you don't have to read this blog post or look anything up; it's obvious looking at Kelly's uniform when he's on the court because it reads not just "Oubre" but "Oubre Jr." This seems to be all the rage in professional team sports lately and I guess it's fine to be proud of your lineage and advertise just exactly where you sit in your family tree of exact same or close-enough-for-Wikipedia names. But it's very non-traditional. 

Now before you start accusing me of being old and stuck in my ways, I'm fine with it; I really am. I just have a request, which I'll make in a paragraph or two. Here locally in the Washington, D.C. area, our most famous sports junior is likely Robert Griffin III, the former (and likely always former) Washington professional football team starting quarterback. In fact, RG3 may have been the player who really elevated this practice of identifying yourself as the son of someone bearing the same name to my attention. Good for him, I guess. He paved the way for the Wizards current crop of juniors.

Yep, you guessed it, John Wall and Kelly Oubre are not the only juniors on the current Wizards' roster. Otto Porter shares a name with his father, Otto Porter, Sr. And Drew Gooden not only is named after his father but also after his grandfather which makes him, just like RG3, a third, although calling Drew "DG3" has not caught on the way RG3 has swept the national capital area. Or at least I believe it has swept the D.C. area based on the number of license plates I see in town paying homage to a 25 year old professional athlete who by the team's choice has not played at all this season.

So here's my question or request or whatever you want to call it: why can't Verizon Center get it right? When Kelly Oubre steps on the wood for the Wizards, he's wearing an "Oubre Jr." jersey and that's what shows up on the scoreboard. However, Drew Gooden gets no such love for his "Gooden III" uni; he just gets "Gooden" on the display above center court. I guess I can understand this a little bit; I mean Drew did play his first season as a Wizard as just "Gooden", although admittedly that was two seasons ago but maybe VC is just slow to catch up.

But the thing that really confuses me is Otto's name on the scoreboard because despite never wearing a jersey with "Porter Jr." on it, Otto shows up just that way when he enters (or these days starts) a game. What gives? Can't we just match the names on the jerseys? That seems like the smartest thing to do. That's all I have to say on this subject. Get it right and keep it right.

As an aside, or postscript, I'm not sure I agree with Wikipedia on John Wall being a junior; I think the whole name has to be the same for one to truly be a junior but whatever.  I'm certainly no genealogy expert, if that's even the right word to use in this case. Eventually they may just agree with me and the link contained in this blog post may make no sense. That's fine with me.  Go Wizards! is my only response to that.

Matches the scoreboard but not the actual player jersey.

December 24, 2015

Merry Wizards-less Christmas!

When the NBA schedule was released this past August, it seemed like an affront to human decency that the Washington Wizards weren't granted a Christmas Day game. After all, the team got a spot on December 25 last year and is coming off two consecutive seasons in the second round of the NBA playoffs, one of only two such teams (along with the Los Angeles Clippers, of all teams) to make it past the first round each of the last two years. Surely this was a team on the rise and the NBA featuring the team on a national holiday would boost support among fans not already committed to the team (read: fair weather fans). Guess not!

To make matters worse for the Wizards faithful, three teams that didn't even make it to the postseason last year (the Miami Heat, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers) will appear on television tomorrow. What the heck is going on over at the NBA's front office up there in New York. Why the total disrespect for the Wizards? I get that the Thunder and Heat expect to return to postseason play this year with the return of injured players from last year (Chris Bosh for Miami and Kevin Durant for OKC), but the LAKERS?!?!?! This year's incarnation of the Lakers may actually end up doing worse than last year's historically bad Lakers team. The whole thing seemed like an outrage.

Well, as it turns out, two months into the regular season Wizards fans don't really have that much to be upset about. At least not in terms of not playing on Christmas, anyway. The league is not showing disrespect to the Wizards because I'm not sure they've shown they deserve any respect this year. Instead of the ascendancy of the Wiz to the top of the Southeast Division and one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference, pretty much the exact opposite has happened. The Wiz are mired in last place in the division (Miami, Atlanta, Charlotte and Orlando are battling it out for the top spot) and waaaaay down in the Conference behind a series of injuries, lackadaisical play and an abrupt backpedal on their commitment to defense. They aren't even in the playoff picture right now. It's a little bit of a disaster.

Now, lest you think I'm giving the league some credit for being right about the Wizards not being all that good through the season's first 30 games or so, think again. This is really all an accident. Sure the league put the Lakers on TV tomorrow because of Kobe Bryant and not how good they expected the team he's on to be, but I'm sure they expected the Houston Rockets to build on their Western Conference Finals appearance last season and tear up the league to start the 2015-2016 season. I'm also confident they wanted to feature a New Orleans Pelicans team on the rise fresh off their first postseason appearance as a re-named franchise behind future best player in the league Anthony Davis. Wrong on both counts. The Pels are the second worst team in the West (with a worse record even than the underperforming Wizards) and the Rockets launch this season didn't go as planned for the team or already departed head coach Kevin McHale. This stuff's all a crap shoot. 

I'm still annoyed about the Wizards not playing today, but I'm laughing at the league about the Rockets, Pelicans and of course the Lakers. I won't be glued to the screen tomorrow. I'll be able to help my mom make Christmas dinner and I won't be forced to look at those ugly ugly Christmas Day unis the league concocted this year. Although I'm still confused as to why there's a Wizards one (below) even though we aren't playing. This league will make anything as long as it stands a chance of selling and making a couple of bucks, I guess.

But I will be thankful that in an ironic twist, the league is giving LeBron James what he asked for two seasons ago: the Miami Heat playing at home on Christmas. Yep, a couple of years ago, LeBron complained about the Heat having to play on the road on December 25. It was LeBron's fourth (and as it turned out final) year in Miami and he'd played three of the four seasons there on the road on Christmas Day and he didn't feel that was right for a team that had made it to the NBA Finals the previous three years. 

So last year, the league made sure the Heat stayed home for the holidays. To make it even better, they were even so good as to make sure LeBron was in Miami when they sent his Cavaliers team down there that day. And in the continued spirit of giving, the NBA has let the Heat stay in south Florida this year for what has become an annual holiday game for that team. And LeBron, well he's on the road again. After all, who wants to be in Cleveland on Christmas. Be careful what you wish for. The Miami players are thanking you, I'm sure.

Merry Christmas, Wizards fans. The new year better bring better things for this team. Brooklyn up next on Boxing Day. Back home at VC for the Clips on Monday.

December 15, 2015

New Orleans Food

One of the things I love most about traveling to see the Wizards play road games is the opportunity to sample some local food. Some cities are admittedly better than others for this indulgence; I've had poutine in Toronto, Usinger sausages in Milwaukee and a cheesesteak in Philadelphia over the past few years whereas I came up a little bit emptier in Orlando and Indianapolis. Hey, I have to have a plan to eat myself happy again when the Wizards inevitably fail to win like they did this past Friday night in New Orleans. And the Big Easy is a great place for an appetite.

I think I could eat meals for about a week in New Orleans and get some different local flavor each time I sit somewhere to chow down. There are few places in the United States with this kind of culinary diversity with this many dishes endemic to the city or region. Where else you got? New York? Hawaii? Maybe Chicago? New Orleans to me means crawfish, po' boys, muffulettas, blackening spices, catfish, pralines, low country boil, oysters, beignets, gumbo, jambalaya, red beans and rice, alligator, etouffee, king cakes and maybe some other things here and there that I've left out in my hurry to write this paragraph. Are you kidding me? This city is a diner's paradise.

Knowing I only had about four meals in the city based on our schedule for the long weekend, I tried to pick carefully and not repeat. Always a risk, but I'm happy with what I ate this past weekend. Below is the blow by blow, complete with pictures of each dish. I'm skipping the alligator po' boy I ate at the game. I've already panned that one in my game blog post.

Napoleon House, 500 Chartres Street

The muffuletta sandwich, which consists of Italian cold cuts, provolone cheese and an olive salad (known similarly elsewhere in the country, particularly Chicago, as giardiniera) on a 10 inch round sesame seed loaf, was invented in New Orleans at the Central Grocery in 1906. According to legend or folklore or whatever you want to call it, Central Grocery owner Salvatore Lupo was inspired to invent the sandwich when he saw immigrant Sicilian workers balancing their meals consisting of all the muffuletta ingredients on their knees during lunchtime. He figured why not make a sandwich (which he named after the loaf of bread) out of it. Good idea! And by the way, you don't have to eat a whole 10 inch loaf; they come in halves or quarters.

The Central Grocery is still in business today and they still serve muffulettas, albeit I'm assuming NOT exclusively to Sicilians. The last time I was in New Orleans I opted to sample this sandwich at Serio's Deli, which I saw on the Food Network show Throwdown. I was disappointed: too much bread and not enough flavor. This time around, I opted for Napoleon House, located deep inside the French Quarter and one of the coolest restaurants I've ever been to. A muffuletta is traditionally served cold. Napoleon House serves theirs warm. I was hoping that would make the difference that I sought.

Napoleon House has been in business since 1914 and was named after a plan by original building owner Nicholas Girod to offer the place as a residence for exiled French emperor Napoleon after a planned rescue attempt that never got underway. Complicated, I know. Today, the bar and restaurant is a classic New Orleans establishment: old plastered walls, tiled floors, wooden bar and cafe tables, and tons of tons of pictures of Napoleon plus classical music. Always classical music. The atmosphere is fantastic.

I liked the muffuletta at Napoleon House and I'd get it again. For sure! If I were rich and moved to New Orleans, I'd hang out and drink at Napoleon House every day if I could and I'd definitely get the muffuletta like four days of the week. The loaf was not as thick as it was at Serio's and the toasting on the bread and the meats hanging out of the side of the sandwich gave it a much needed slight crunch. The overall effect is salty, but then what else do we expect out of an Italian cold cuts sandwich with olives? The bread balances the salt a little. I wiped the juices from the olive salad that had squirted out of the sandwich with my last bits of loaf.  Have it with a Dixie beer. :)

Cafe Du Monde, 800 Decatur Street

Think doughnut here because despite a little textural difference, beignets, brought to the new world by French colonists and adopted whole-heartedly by the city of New Orleans, are at their most basic level dough fried in oil. And then covered with a copious amount of powdered sugar, at least as demonstrated by the picture above

Beignets are available all over New Orleans today, or at least I think they are. But for me and almost every other tourist that makes it to the Crescent City, there's only one place to sit and gobble down some of these things and that's Cafe Du Monde. So of course, that's where I headed for the full tourist experience. 

Cafe Du Monde serves one dish: beignets. That's it. Nothing else. When you sit down at a table at the restaurant (cash only, by the way), you have two choices to make: (1) do you want beignets and (2) what sort of drink do you want? That's it. No other decisions to make. I opted for "yes" on the beignets and an iced coffee, which is a chicory coffee that I find extremely bitter and which requires for me a heavy pour from the sugar dispenser on the table.

So how were they? Well how bad can fried dough covered in powdered sugar be? They were pretty good, worth the what in seemed like an extremely long line only to be really about 15 minutes. I've been to Cafe Du Monde before this trip and I'll come back if I'm ever back in the bayou. If it seems sketchy that a place that only serves one food dish could stay in business today, consider this: we took a cab back from Frenchman Street just before 11:30 p.m. on Saturday night and there was still a small line. This place practically mints money. The coffee does need a ton of sugar though. Wired on caffeine and sugar after this meal.

Southern Candymakers, 334 Decatur Street

After a meal of sugared beignets and heavy-on-the-sugar chicory iced coffee, surely I wouldn't need anything sweet for a while, right? Well, NEED is not the issue here. So after my breakfast at Café Du Monde, I headed down Decatur Street for some more sugar, this time in praline form. And for me based on sampling as many different pralines (pronounced prah-leans) as I could when I visited in 2012, there was only one place to go: Southern Candymakers.

So what's a praline? Well, it's basically sugar, cream (or something similar like evaporated milk) cooked and poured over pecans and cooled until the mixture barely hardens. The result is a fudge like melt in your mouth caramel tasting sugar bomb that is about the most delicious sweet thing you have ever eaten. Or so I think.

Southern Candymakers produces a veritable smorgasbord of praline flavors, including rum, chocolate, sweet potato, peanut butter, coconut and original creamy. I opted for one chocolate and one original creamy on this trip. I guess you could say I was going light based on the fact that I'd just consumed about a half a pound of sugar at Cafe Du Monde about 15 minutes earlier. I ate the original creamy first and saved the chocolate for last. Mistake! There's nothing like the original pralines. I should have just gotten two of those and had done with it. The chocolate just doesn't compare.

There's no place like Southern Candymakers. The sign outside their shop which simply states "Best Pralines" is totally correct. I had one last praline at the airport on my way out of town (Nanny's, if you must know) and it was nowhere near as good as Southern's. I'm going to have to start mail ordering these things soon. 

Red Beans and Rice
Original Pierre Maspero's, 440 Chartres Street
Red beans and rice is a traditional Monday dish in New Orleans, a day when the washing was done and the meal consisted of a slow simmered for hours pot of red beans flavored with the bones or leftover pig from the family meal the previous Sunday. I got mine this year on a Saturday, since we can get pretty much anything we want at any time these days.
I love properly cooked beans. I could eat these things every day and the ones at Pierre Maspero's on the corner of Chartres and St. Louis in the French Quarter hit the spot for a quick lunch this past weekend. If I were in New Orleans again any time soon, I'd probably go somewhere else though. Some of the rice was a little al dente (not a good thing for rice to be) and the alligator and andoullie sausage pretty much just added extra protein without a whole lot of flavor. But the beans were perfect and the spice level was just right.

Oyster Po' Boy
Acme Oyster House, 724 Iberville Street

Stroll down Iberville Street at any time between about 11 a.m. and 10 p.m. and you are likely to walk past a line on the 700 block starting at a neon sign and extending northwest up the sidewalk. The neon sign hangs right above the front door of the Acme Oyster House, in business in New Orleans since 1910. Yes, it's touristy and everyone has to stand in line to say they've eaten there but the food is good. And the line's really not going to take that long unless you have a big party.

I hate raw oysters so it might seem odd that I stood in line for an oyster joint. They are just a slimy mess of goo that you load up with sauce and choke down. I can't even chew them. I've swallowed whole the one or two I've consumed in my life like some nasty sort of medicine. But coat them in flour or breading and fry them? Well, now you are talking. Instead of slimy and nasty, you get juicy and flavorful. Throw them on a sandwich with some lettuce, pickles and tomato with a smear of mayonnaise and a healthy dose of Tabasco? Now you've got a great meal, which in New Orleans is called a po' boy.

Now in case the name po' boy doesn't mean anything to you (even after the description above), it's nothing more than a New Orleans term for a submarine sandwich (substitute hoagie, grinder, hero or whatever else you call a long sandwich filled with meat in your corner of the world). According to legend, the sandwich got its name in the crescent city during the streetcar conductor strike of 1929. Benny and Clovis Martin, store owners in the city, decided they would provide sandwiches free of charge to all striking workers in a show of solidarity with the men. The jobless men became known as poor boys which the Martins adopted as the name of the sandwich, subsequently shortened to po' boy. The strikers lost their battle, but the Martins invented a famous sandwich out of the deal.

The oyster po' boy I got at Acme last weekend was the exact same thing I got on my first visit to this place. Why mess with success. Juicy and crispy oysters, quality bread with some acid from the pickles, lemon and a heavy hand with the hot sauce makes for some delicious eating. If I could get these locally around D.C., I might have a real issue with overeating. Like more than I do already.

One long weekend, one basketball game and great food at every turn sounds good to me. I made my choices in New Orleans based on what I like best but I could have eaten way differently and still been completely local in everything I gobbled down. There's lots on the menu for future trips. If you are looking at a Wizards road trip, I'd highly recommend New Orleans as a destination. Heck, I'd recommend it even if you make the trip without hoops. Feel free to eat like I ate. Or not. I don't think you can go wrong with food here.

December 13, 2015

May The Force Be With You

I don't get this Washington Wizards team. I realize this kind of up and down, good one night and bad the next sort of stuff is par for the course for the Wizards, but this year was supposed to be different, wasn't it? We've finally had the breakthrough we were looking for and made it to the second round of the playoffs the last two years, now it's time to take it to the next level, maybe a Southeast Division title or maybe a Conference Finals appearance? Heck, maybe even a 47 win season like every other team (other than the expansion Bobcats turned Hornets) has had since I've been a season ticket holder the last 16 years.

Instead what we've got is a 10-12 team that can beat the Cavaliers in Cleveland and then turn around the very next night and lose to a horrendous Los Angeles Lakers team that has no business even being competitive at Verizon Center. Yes, Kobe Bryant had a vintage type performance with 31 points, but John Wall poured in 34 that night. Are you telling me the rest of our lineup can't offset the spare parts the Lakers have on their roster? Yes, I get that there have been a significant number of injuries; we have been missing up to 1/3 of our available roster on any given night and have had to release one player (Martell Webster) because he's just likely to not play ball ever again. But this season's downs have been particularly difficult.

Take this past weekend: in what figured to be an especially grueling week long four game road trip, the bright spot appeared to be Friday night's game in New Orleans against a 5-16 Pelicans team. After road wins the past two weeks in Cleveland and Miami, it seemed like that one was a gimme before certain losses to Dallas, Memphis and San Antonio. Instead, the Wizard laid another egg, allowing the Pels to drop in a franchise record 16 three pointers en route to a two point win. And then turned around the very next night and beat Dallas. Frustrating.

I was not home for the Dallas game so I missed the win. I followed the score and the almost completely blown lead via smartphone and texts from a club on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. Of course the fact that I was in New Orleans meant I not only saw the Pelicans' win Friday, but I was there for it, as part of my annual commitment to try to eventually see the Wizards in every arena in the NBA. It was Star Wars Night, too. That may have been the best part.

So first things first: the game. Drew Gooden was out. So was Nenê  So was Alan Anderson (hasn't played yet for the Wizards). So was Kris Humphries. And so was Bradley Beal. So fine, we are down to ten men. The team on the other end of the floor had just five wins!! Beal by the way has now missed five of the Wizards 22 games (including Friday and Saturday). Yesterday the team declared him out for at least two weeks. That would have him missing five additional games assuming a return on Boxing Day in Brooklyn. That's 72 games max this year if two weeks holds and he plays every game the rest of the way. And he's hoping for a max deal? Please, don't, Wizards.

Some troubling season long trends continued in a game that quarter by quarter was remarkably close. No team outscored the other by more than two in any one quarter. It's not like the game was a blowout by any stretch of the imagination. Defending the three point shot continues to be an opportunity for improvement and Friday night was not the first time this year the Wizards have been torched from beyond the arc. There have been multiple games with double digit three pointers made from the opposition, including against Oklahoma City (15!), Boston (12 twice!) and Indiana (19!!!). Heck Wes Matthews scored ten by himself when the Mavericks visited Verizon Center a couple of weeks ago. There has to be an adjustment here and fast.

The second trend that has me mighty worried is the Wizards ability to put opponents away. After a sluggish start against the Lakers, the Wiz caught up and pulled ahead momentarily. They should have just put the hammer down and buried the Lakers. Instead, they relaxed on their way to another loss. The same could be said of Friday's game. The Wizards led by seven in the fourth quarter behind an unconscionably good 56.8 percent shooting and couldn't put the Pelicans away. The killer instinct seems to be missing.  If it was ever there.

The concourse of the Smoothie King Center.
I hate losing on the road; walking out of an opponent's building wearing Wizards apparel is humiliating. But I love visiting other NBA arenas. It gets me out of the city and gives me an excuse to see other parts of the country (not like I need one really). It also lets me see how things are like for NBA fans in other teams' houses. Sometimes I'm jealous; other times I'm thankful for what I have at Verizon Center.

The number of times I've felt grateful for Verizon Center is pretty small. Most of this is nothing bad about VC but more a victim of its siting. The lot for our building is inflexibly small. The folks building the arena on F Street downtown did what they could and the place is finished pretty decently, I think. But there's relatively little else in the building because there's just no space on the block where the building is constructed.

In contract to Verizon Center, New Orleans' Smoothie King Center (take your pick between the Pels' building and the Suns' Talking Stick Resort Center as worst name in the NBA) is under no such urban constraints. It's located right next to the famous Superdome just about three quarters of a mile walk from the closest edge of the French Quarter. I love being able to walk or take public transportation to a game; sports absolutely belong in the city's downtown.

But despite being absolutely free to go wild with the building's envelope to incorporate sophisticated special features about the history of basketball in New Orleans or something like that, the Smoothie King Center (hereafter SKC) misses the mark, and I suspect it's all money related. Walking around the concourse of the SKC is like walking around a building not quite moved into. The slabs of the building were clearly cast in place out of concrete and the exposed beams, which do not succeed as an architectural feature here, make the place look unfinished. Combine that with the relatively inexpensive floor and wall materials, and Verizon Center looks like a palace.

The one place that money was spent was on the arena's primary scoreboard. This thing is huge, especially on the long sides, and accommodates all the stats that I crave at Wizards home games in one convenient spot, rather than having to search for them in the corners of the arenas (and sometimes having to wait for the other team's stats to disappear). Definitely an upgrade over Verizon Center's main scoreboard, which at the time it was installed was (I believe) the only high definition scoreboard in the league.

The scoreboard is featured prominently during shoot around and player introductions. This is not much of a surprise. Verizon Center's main display shows images of our players shooting before the game and overlays stats on top of the highlighted player; our player introduction video always plays on the scoreboard too. But I was shocked to see the Wizards prominently featured on the SKC scoreboard during pregame activities and the images of our players on the center display during player intros were about as big as they could get. When he bought the team, Ted Leonsis established (and is maintaining) a zero tolerance policy against highlighting the other team's players in any way. I love Ted's approach. I'm not sure I can remember another arena doing what the Pelicans do. As a Pels fan, I'd hate it. As a Wiz fan, I loved it. Now if we could have just won the damn game...

Metal detectors in the street between the Superdome and Smoothie King Center.
Two final thoughts on the arena experience in New Orleans. First, I loved the entry sequence, primarily or only because the metal detectors are installed in the street, rather than inside the doors of the building as they are at Verizon Center. I suppose the Pelicans have this luxury because it's mostly always warm in southern Louisiana and because there's enough space outside the building to put metal detectors. I'd never seen this done before and I loved it. One of my pet peeves about Verizon Center has been the backed up line out the door during busy games. Great idea!

My final thought is about the food at SKC. New Orleans' food is a trip (and a blog post too apparently but more on that later this week) in itself and I was hoping desperately we'd see some local flavor at the arena. Sure enough, I was right. In addition to smoothies at the Smoothie King stand (of course...) the arena food choices included some southern barbeque of various varieties, a praline stand and a couple of Zatarain's booths serving jambalaya and alligator sausage po' boys. Sounds pretty good, right?

It did to me, too. And being a sucker for exotic meats and having never ever seen alligator on a stadium menu before, I opted for the alligator sausage po' boy, which I imagined would come as a deliciously messy sandwich complete with dressing of some sort and maybe some pickles, lettuce and tomatoes, just like I expect a po' boy to be. And at $10, it seemed like a bargain.

Having no previous standard for alligator sausage at a stadium, I have to say that this was the best one of these I've ever had at a game. But a po' boy it was not. Bun. Sausage. That's it. It was basically an alligator hot dog, which I dressed with mustard, since I always have mustard on hot dogs, and some Tabasco, which I always use on po' boys. Disappointing for sure, but then again it's stadium food, right? I'll take the brats at VC any day even though those lack seasoning.

This game went down to the wire. Gary Neal missed a two point shot at the buzzer which could have tied it, although from our angle at the top of the lower bowl, we didn't understand why John Wall didn't take it all the way to the cup. I guess that's better than a blowout. But there's always a hollow feeling in a road loss (like, I came all this way for THAT???). I have to say the Pelicans fans were gracious and nobody said anything to us unlike some other places (Indiana comes to mind here). I was also surprised by the number of Wizards fans there who appeared to be genuine Wizards fans, not just John Wall fans. I even got a consolation fist bump from a Washington fan on Bourbon Street on my way back from some jazz after the game. 

Oh...and Star Wars night. Didn't get much out of it except a Stormtrooper mug on the way in, which we traded to a dude working at the Bourbon Cowboy for a knitted Budweiser koozie. It's way cooler than it sounds. Next roadie: L.A. in April. Lots of work to do before then.

Alligator sausage po' boy, folks. You are underwhelmed, I know.

December 5, 2015

My Ultimate Non-Wizards Team

It seems like most folks these days who head to a professional basketball game go to watch the players. And by that, I mean a specific player or maybe two. It's a star driven league. I get that. But I've never been that way. I don't go basketball games or watch on TV to see players. Nor do I do it for the love of the game or to see a classic matchup or a back and forth competition. I watch basketball for one reason: to see my team, the Washington Wizards, win. That's it. Nothing more. Go ahead and scoff and tell me that I picked the wrong team if that's my goal or whatever else you want to say. I am fully aware. The Wizards are my team and that's it.

Given that attitude, I generally dislike any player that plays for an opposing team and I have no interest in seeing them succeed here or anywhere else for that matter. Watching LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant or whomever else in Verizon Center is not for me an opportunity to be amazed and marvel at one of the greatest athletes on the planet. I'm booing those guys and everyone else that plays for every other team in the NBA. In the case of LeBron, I'm booing him every time he touches the ball no matter where I'm sitting in the building. That's just the way I roll.

Having said all that, there are a handful of guys around the league who don't play for the Wizards who I actually look forward to seeing in person. Last night the Phoenix Suns made their annual visit to Washington. On their roster this year is Brandon Knight, whom they acquired in a trade deadline deal from Milwaukee last season. As odd as it may sound, Brandon Knight is hands down without a doubt my favorite non-Wizards player in the league. Not KD. Not Kobe. Not Blake Griffin. Certainly not LeBron. Brandon Knight. I'll explain why soon.

I thought it might be worth a blog post to highlight those players that grab my attention outside of the guys work over at 601 F Street. I'll admit, there aren't many of these guys around the league. In fact, I could only come up with five. Here's who makes my ultimate non-Wizards team. When these guys are in town, I'm paying special attention to their game. I'm listing them in the order they are going to hit town this season.

Brandon Knight, Phoenix Suns (last night)

I've seen Brandon Knight play for the Detroit Pistons (the team who drafted him eighth overall in 2011), the Milwaukee Bucks (the team that traded for him) and the Phoenix Suns (who took him off the hands of the Bucks and then handed him a contract extension starting at $13.5 million this season). Either the Suns see something the Pistons and Bucks didn't see or those two teams made bad decisions in trading Knight. I'm going with the latter.

Brandon Knight has never made an All-Star team and it's possible he never will; the point guard position is stacked across the league right now and the Suns are going to have to have a ton of success for him to play in the mid-season exhibition game. But Knight always seems to kill the Wizards somehow and it may be partially John Wall's doing. Knight came out of Kentucky a year after John did after his freshman year just like John did. And it seems to me with these Kentucky guys that John feels he has something to prove because he goes at them hard. And it rarely works in my opinion. And it really hasn't worked with Knight.

During his second year, Knight lit the Wizards up for 32 at Verizon Center, outscoring Wall by a significant 26 points. When I took a road trip to Milwaukee the next season to see the Wizards take on the Bucks, he did it again, going for a team high 25 and making a game out of something that was a 22 point laugher at halftime. It seemed like last night's Phoenix game was going to be a repeat performance: Knight had 14 at the half but the Wizards managed to cool him off after that.

I love Knight's game because it's not flashy and he's not cocky about it but this guy can ball. He's a really really good scoring point guard who handles himself with just a blue collar go out and earn it mentality. And I love that about him. It's not like the Suns don't know this. They handed him a contract which will pay him $70 million over the next five years. But the casual fan likely doesn't know how good he can be. Based on watching him with his first three teams, I do. I'd take Brandon Knight on my team any day.

Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers (January 6 and February 28)

I hate that I put someone who plays for the Cavaliers on this list but I couldn't have a complete list on this topic without adding him. Quite simply, I am astonished the way Thompson manufactures possession after possession for his team by going and getting the ball on the offense end of the court. Some of the sequences I watched during the Cavaliers playoff run last year were incomprehensible to me as to how the other team didn't put enough of a body on Thompson to keep him off the glass.

For a whole season, Thompson has never averaged more than 10 rebounds per game but last year's postseason, where he managed to grab an average of 10.8 boards per contest, got some attention, not only from me but also it seems from the Cavs who handed him a rich contract this year for $80 million plus over the next five years. To come OFF THE BENCH!!! Right now at least. He's making almost as much as John Wall as a sixth man. I obviously think this contract is too rich even though I do love his game. This season, he's averaging a career high 10.3 rebounds per game. I guess he's starting to earn his money.

Besides his rebounding, I love that Thompson plays every day. He has not missed a single game over the three seasons prior to this one. There's a lot to be said for durability. Some people have it and others just don't. I don't like his free throw shooting, however. Thompson's a career 62.8 percent shooter from the charity stripe. This year he's dipped down to a paltry 53.2 percent. Ouch!

Thompson's a guy I'd love to see on the Wizards. If the Cavs were ever looking to acquire Bradley Beal, I'd consider swapping him straight up for Thompson. After Brad signs his extension this coming offseason of course.

Shaun Livingston, Golden State Warriors (February 3)

So this one's a bit of a cheat because Livingston is a former Wizard and I generally have a soft spot for guys who did good things in their time in D.C. like Shaun did. But since he never spent an entire season suited up for the Wiz, I'm allowing him to be on this list. Plus it's my list and I can really do whatever I want. Shaun's on this list because he came back and made a solid career out of playing basketball when he had no business ever doing it.

Livingston was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers as the fourth overall pick in the 2004 NBA Draft. This was before the Clippers were today's Clippers. This was when the Clips routinely drafted high in the selection meeting and wasted pick after pick to do silly things like save money long term. They were a franchise that bungled pretty much everything, sort of like the New York Knicks over the last decade or so and what the Philadelphia 76ers are becoming today. More on that soon.

Livingston came to the NBA straight out of high school and in his first couple of seasons as a point guard in L.A. put up the kinds of numbers you would expect a kid coming into a man's league: less than 10 points per game and about 5 assists per contest in a bit less than 30 minutes a night. In his third season, Livingston suffered one of the more horrific knee injuries an NBA player has ever endured (watch it here, if you dare, and don't say I didn't warn you). His career was over for sure. There is no way most people would even consider playing the game of basketball again after the kind of complete knee destructions Livingston went through. Let alone, be good enough to play in the NBA ever again.

Livingston was drafted by the Clippers as a player who most teams saw had an incredible ability to distribute the rock from the point guard position while also being tall (6'-7") for the one guard. So Shaun tried and tried to get back into the league, signing with the Miami Heat on a promise of potential alone before being traded to the Memphis Grizzlies and being bounced out of the league. That didn't stop him. He moved to the D-League in the winter of 2009 and was picked up by the Oklahoma City Thunder based on a strong showing with the nearby Tulsa 66ers. But he wouldn't survive the calendar year with the Thunder, bouncing back to the NBDL.

That's when the Wizards, who at that time were trying out guys from the D-League on sort of a revolving door basis, took a chance on Shaun and brought him up to the NBA on a 10 day contract. And all of a sudden he fit. He showed the kind of court vision and skills that made him the number four overall pick. He'd spend the rest of the season in Washington before signing a multi year deal with the Charlotte Bobcats.

It was amazing seeing his comeback unfold in Washington. Although it was only a couple of months, it was a complete redemption story and it was on display every night at Verizon Center. I remember the first time Livingston dunked for the Wizards. It was a baseline move and it looked a little awkward but when he landed and his knee was OK, it was wonderful to see. Shaun returned to the Wizards a couple of years later and things didn't work out like they did in 2009. That was probably good for him because he now has a championship ring and hasn't lost a game in 20 tries this year. Shaun Livingston is always going to be one of my favorites.

Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers (February 5 and February 29)

Jahlil Okafor is not on this list because he's a player I've admired over years and years of watching him play. He's on this list because of the situation he's in with the Philadelphia 76ers. Over the past few years, Sixers General Manager Sam Hinkie has been engaged in a sort of science experiment with NBA rosters he is calling a "process" that I guess one day will result in a sort of magical convergence of everything and Philly will all of a sudden find themselves with an NBA Championship.

Theoretically It started two years ago when he drafted point guard Michael Carter-Williams and (injured) center Nerlens Noel in the 2013 NBA Draft. Carter-Williams won Rookie of the Year (looking good) and Noel didn't play at all his first year (not looking so good but he could be the steal of the draft). He followed that first year up by drafting Joel Embiid (also injured; also a center) last year. Embiid didn't play his rookie year either. In the meantime, Noel made a strong statement in his first year of actual play and Hinkie decided success was too much for him with Carter-Williams whom he traded away for a first round pick. Go figure.

To date Hinkie's idea has produced zero results. It is a textbook example of "don't confuse activity with achievement." Philly's win total two years ago: 19. Last year: 18. This year: 1 (of 20). They actually appear to be getting worse.

Enter Jahlil Okafor. For the third year in a row, Hinkie decided to draft a center with a first round pick. Noel, Embiid (still no action here, remember) and Okafor. Okafor, unlike his two predecessors played opening night of his rookie year and by some accounts he might be ready to play the center position in the NBA now. He spent a year at Duke under legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski; won a title at Duke; was a first team All-America selection; has offensive skills; and seems to have a body that might be ready to withstand the pounding he might take at the center position from some of the centers in this league.

The problem? Hinkie's system ain't working. He's 19 years old on a team with no veterans (nobody on the Sixers' roster is older than 25) and it seems like half the guys on the team have no business being on an NBA roster, let alone playing or starting. The only reason some of these guys are in the NBA is because Hinkie offered them a job. I can only imagine the conversation between Okafor and Hinkie before his introductory press conference.
Hinkie: Welcome to Philadelphia, Jahlil. We're proud and excited to have you as a member of our franchise. Here are your teammates. Trust the process!
Okafor: You have to be effing kidding me, right?
Of course, his press conference went about that way. Okafor looked as about as miserable as he could and actually dropped his jersey on the table at the end of the thing (see above photo). He then (along with his new teammates) proceeded to lose his first 18 games in a row as a Sixer. In the meantime, he's been pulled over for speeding (like 63 miles over the speed limit) and was involved in two early morning fights with hecklers after a recent loss in Boston.

Okafor's in a situation which without doubt sucks. He's a kid playing in a man's league with a bunch of guys who shouldn't be on any roster and they are going to lose. A lot. In the meantime, he has nobody to guide him through the mysterious "process". I think it's going to be interesting to see how and if he survives. This guy from what I can see at summer league and watching him in the preseason has a ton of talent now plus a ton of upside. I hope someone can save him from Philly. In the meantime, please don't respond to hecklers outside clubs at 2 a.m.

Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls (March 16)

Before there was Brandon Knight, there was Joakim Noah. If I were a Bulls fan, I'd have a Noah jersey and I'd wear it to every single game. Heck, I might even continue to wear it after he retired or is traded. I love his game that much.

I know a lot of people who don't like Noah. He's an irritant. He talks on the court. He runs his mouth in press conferences, including insulting cities like Cleveland. His shot looks awkward, either from the field or the free throw line. He doesn't look like he's got any talent whatsoever, relying instead on scrapping and making hustle plays that guys without much ability can survive on in the NBA.

But here's the thing: despite all that noise that I hear from other people, Joakim Noah is really good. Yes, he fights and does the little things that make a difference but he could be in the league without doing all that stuff. He defends. He rebounds. He gets on the floor for loose balls. He passes. Better than most point guards in the league. I love Joakim Noah's game. All of it.

Plus he called LeBron James a bitch once when James was dancing on the sideline during a Cavaliers blowout of the Bulls. Anyone who can do that and not back down when James fakes going after him is a winner in this league in my book.

So that's my list. This group probably strikes most people as a strange list. And you know what? I just don't care. I despise most players who oppose the Wizards. Hating the opposition is part of what it means to me to be a fan. Don't like it? Too bad. And don't sit next to me and root for the other team. It will not go well for you. Well, unless your team wins. I'd love for the guys on this list succeed personally as I exhort the Wizards to crush their team. Dallas up tomorrow. Let's go Wizards! Looking forward to January 6 already.

November 30, 2015

Happier Times

My beloved Washington Wizards are on a disastrous four game losing streak in one single week, three by blowout and one by heartbreak to the Toronto Raptors on a last second game winning shot this past Saturday. I said it two days ago and I'm saying it again: it wasn't supposed to be like this. Now Marcin Gortat is complaining about locker room negativity and pining for Nenê to spend more time on the court with him. I like Marcin a lot but if there's one thing I don't agree with about him, it's how he airs the team's dirty laundry to the press. I get that he's in some respects Randy Wittman's new whipping boy (with Seraphin leaving) and who wouldn't want to play more with Nenê (I mean he only makes everyone better…) but some stuff needs to stay behind closed doors.

It's times like these that I need some perspective and some reminders of better times. The Wizards started the season two years ago 14-14 before turning things on and making the playoffs, including a second round appearance. And just last year the Wiz were trounced by the Raptors in the regular season only to sweep them 4-0 in the first round of the playoffs at the end of the season. And here's where my self-indulgent basketball card collecting hobby helps me out this year.

Last year, Panini America, the official basketball card partner of the NBA, produced an insert set with their Hoops line of cards tracing the playoff journey of each team all the way to the NBA Finals. I loved it! Issuing an individual card for each game of the playoffs seemed like an awesome idea to me. It created a point in time souvenir for the memories of the last postseason which I could pull out and remember any time I wanted. And after Saturday's loss to the Raptors, I really needed to review these cards.

The 4-0 sweep of Toronto features two John Wall cards, a Paul Pierce card and a Marcin Gortat card, highlighting the contributions those three players made to put a quick four nails in the Raptors' coffin. Just like last year, the first round playoff card set is numbered to the year so each card is sequenced 1 through 2015. These cards take me back to everything from the game one upset, where I sat in the back of a church during a wedding getting text updates on the score from my friend Mike, to the closing 31 point blowout at Verizon Center. I love the back of the fourth card: Wizards win series 4-0!!!!! The exclamation points are mine.

Unfortunately, the Wizards did not win the NBA title last year. Spoiler alert, I know. So just like I own four cards to celebrate the first round series victory by the Wizards, I also own six cards (just like last year numbered to 999) documenting the six game second round loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the second year in a row the Wiz lost to the one seed in the Eastern Conference.

Win. Loss. Win. Looking good!
This set of cards is especially painful. There's a lot of ups and downs in here worth remembering and never forgetting: the joyous game one upset behind Bradley Beal; John Wall breaking his wrist in game two; the Wizards winning without him in game three behind Paul Pierce's game three "I called game!" shot at  the buzzer; game five's winning shot by Al Horford, whom the Wizards failed to account for (and after Paul Pierce erroneously called "series" to the Hawks' bench); and the heartbreak in game six when Pierce's game  tying three point shot was ruled too late, ending our season. That last game was a killer; I actually went to the bathroom as that shot fell so I'd be ready for overtime only to find out when I got back that the season was over.

Despite the bad stuff in there, I hope Panini America continues to issue these kinds of cards each year. I can think of no better way to remember the postseason each year. For your viewing pleasure, I'm including the fronts of all ten postseason Wizards related cards. I hope there will be some cards for the Wiz next year. Cleveland tomorrow. It doesn't get any better, folks.

Loss. Loss. Loss. Season over!

November 28, 2015

Monumental Disappointment

The title of this blog post does not refer to the Wizards up and down 6-7 start, although honestly it could. I can't remember a season where this early in the slate I've left two home games really early (vs. Oklahoma City and Indiana - 24 and 17 point losses respectively) and turned the TV off once before the game was anywhere close to over on the game clock (vs. Boston last night - a 33!!! point loss). There's something seriously wrong with the team over at 601 F Street and for this long time season ticket holder, this hurts badly. It wasn't supposed to be this way.

But I'm not writing about that stuff today. Today, I'm talking about something else. And I'll warn you right off the bat here, there's likely some whining in here. Not my usual form and I feel bad doing it but there's likely some nonetheless.

Two seasons ago, the Washington Wizards parent organization, Monumental Sports and Entertainment, introduced a season ticket holder rewards program called Monumental Rewards. The program, which spanned across Wizards, Capitals and Mystics season ticket holders, instantly became one of the best benefits of being a Wizards subscriber. The site seemed stocked full of great fan experiences and hidden goodies. Yes, there were admittedly some cleaning out the closet type stuff, extra stock of old in-game giveaways, laying around but by and large, it gave the committed (double entendre intended) fan an added perk and some access to some exclusive stuff: autographed memorabilia, pre-game captains' meetings and even an all expenses paid road trip to Philly to see the team play the Sixers.

But by far the best reward on the site for me was the opportunity to have access to the Dewar's Coaches Club and Courtside Club, two floor accessible exclusive access clubs with complimentary food and drink typically only accessible to those fans who have invested an insane amount of money per year in the VIP seating area within the hockey boards. It was the only thing I've ever spent my points on and it really made me feel valuable as a Wizards season ticket holder. Even when the opportunity to enjoy this benefit was cut back to once per month last season, I loved every minute of it. Just walking along the court was enough of a thrill for me, although I've never turned down some free grub.

This year the two clubs were overhauled and renamed the Etihad Airways Lounge. The Monumental Rewards website was also overhauled, oddly enough to a slower version of its former self, and along with the overhaul many of the great rewards have disappeared or are now just plain off limits to the common fan. Of course, the best benefit, access to the VIP experience, is gone entirely. There are still plenty of leftover in-game giveaways on the menu (although it looks like they finally ran out of Bradley Beal bobbleheads from three years ago - I already have two) which I guess if you haven't been a season ticket holder that long you might want but there are definitely slim pickings on there.

The Wizards are still offering some exclusive experiences and autographed items on the site but it appears there are so many people with an unconscionable amount of points out there (likely from VIP ticket purchases - points are awarded largely on dollars spent on tickets) that these are almost totally off limits to the common fan. I think I spend a lot of money on Wizards tickets and I've managed to engage enough with social media (one way to earn some supplemental points) to scrounge together about 108,000 points. That's nowhere near the current high bid of 307,500 points required to grab a pair of John Wall autographed shoes.

On the subject of access to the new Etihad Airways Lounge, I got this statement through a friend out of the Wizards ticket office.
"Due to the VIP season tickets being sold out, unfortunately, we will not be offering VIP bracelets on the rewards program, however, they will have several pairs of Suite Tickets in a catered suite instead."
At least part of the statement above is true. Heck, it might all be true. VIP seating may be sold out and for sure, there have been some suite tickets available on a ONCE PER SEASON basis. Based on my visiting the Monumental Rewards website multiple times per week, these suite tickets seem way more rare than the VIP wristbands the team offered last year. But I'm not sure that availability is the issue. It appears there are no opportunities to visit the Lounge for Capitals games like there were last year (and no way are Caps tickets more sold out than last year) plus there was an auction for some Caps tickets on the site earlier this season that included the seats but no club access. Why on Earth not?

I'm in no way a conspiracy theorist or natural skeptic but there's only one explanation that makes sense to me: now that the building has a brand new VIP area, either the team or the people who have bought their way in no longer want freeloaders like me in there via the Monumental Rewards program. This is total speculation on my part (although I think my logic is sound); I know nothing more than what I've been able to deduce from the website. And it's disappointing. A program that made me feel super valuable has now just had the only benefit (for me) taken away.

Now I get that the Wizards (and Capitals, I guess) have every right to do this. After all, I'm paying just for game tickets; all the other stuff is extra. I also get that folks who spend a lot of money on season tickets wouldn't want someone like me in their area even once a year. They've spent the cash, they should get their benefit. 

But there are for sure some folks who sit around me outside the hockey boards with special access passes who are getting into the VIP area because I see them going in there. If it was just sold out, surely they wouldn't fit in there either. There are also some nights when the VIP seating isn't close to full, so during those games (Tuesday game vs. Milwaukee, anyone?) it would seem to me that there wouldn't be any harm in letting a few loyal season ticket holders into the Lounge. And in case you are wondering, it's fans like me who suffer year after year and pay a little bit each season no matter what the odds or outcome who are the lifeblood of the fan support, not the bandwagonners who buy when the odds of success are high.

But the biggest objection to the change in policy is that the Monumental Rewards program is an advertised benefit of being a season ticket holder. Yes, I know I wrote all my cash gets me is the tickets but that's really not true. If the benefit sucks or isn't available, it's not really a benefit, right? And yes, you could counter that a benefit that sucks is still there and available and I'd concede. It's certainly not like the Summerfest benefit which is still on the Wizards website which happened once in 2013 and never again (to date).

I know that money talks and I know that the between $8,000 and $9,000 I spend annually on my seats is not much compared to someone paying twice or way more than that once a decade for seats with free food and booze. But every year I get a survey from the NBA or the Wizards or both asking me to rate how valued I feel as a season ticket holder so they must care a little about folks like me. Removing this benefit for sure makes me feel less valuable. I sat through two 19-63 seasons as a season ticket holder. That sort of loyalty is worth rewarding and for sure the VIP access did that.

I told you there would be some whining. Maybe I can get some suite tickets at some point this year to make me feel better. Or maybe I'll just keep amassing points until the team sucks again and all the fair-weather fans flee. Toronto up next. Need a better showing than the last three nights. Go Wizards!!!

Halftime of the Pacers game: folks flooding to the Etihad Lounge. Not me though; not this year, it seems.