March 31, 2015

Not The Same As Last Year

I realize there's been a disgraceful lack of blogging from me recently regarding the Wizards' on court play and for that I apologize. Instead, I've focused my attention in the last month or so on exhaustively documenting how awesome my All-Star Weekend experience was this year. There are two reasons for this: (1) All-Star Weekend WAS awesome and (2) the Wizards' on court play has been quite frankly as disgraceful over the past month or so as my lack of blogging about their on court play. A 10-18 run over the past two months with two at least five game losing streaks while I've been asked to pony up $800 more per person for my seats next year doesn't exactly fill me with enthusiasm about my team. Having said that, I remain as committed as ever.

As a side note, the Wizards likely should have had a third five plus game losing streak in the last two months. We needed a clutch end of regulation shot by John Wall and double overtime against Charlotte last Friday night to manage to salvage a 1-5 record between March 20 and 29. I've left a number of games early in my 15 years as a Wizards season ticket holder. Last Friday's game was the only one I've had to return to my seat after watching the end of regulation on one of the tiny TVs on the 100 level concourse. Call me cynical, damaged or whatever you want.

But the Wizards did get some good news last night: with the Boston Celtics' victory over the Charlotte Hornets last night, the team managed to make the playoffs for the second straight year. Now I realize when you win more than two thirds of your games through the first half of the season, you should have some sort of expectation that the postseason is securely in sight but we are talking about the Wizards here after all. Things are never that easy.

Although there are still eight games to go, it looks like the Wizards are going to slide into the five slot in the Eastern Conference and end up as a road opponent taking on the Toronto Raptors, a team that has slid down the ladder almost as much as the Wizards have since January 27. The Raptors have managed a record of 14-15 since the Wizards beat the Lakers in Los Angeles. Sure, there's a possibility we could outplay the Raps by two games the rest of the way, but honestly we are probably not cleaning up with our remaining schedule, not with five of the last six on the road. A couple of weeks ago coming off a five game winning streak it looked like we might be able to get the third seed, now not so much.

Last year the Wizards were playing well down the stretch, although they only managed to get to 44 wins, which admittedly is tied for second most by the franchise in 35 years. But the team last year was facing no expectations and making the playoffs alone was a meaningful goal. This year the team has obviously faltered, and what looked like a 50 win season is more likely to end up as another 44 win season. Maybe we'll get lucky and win a couple of more games. That would get the team their highest win total since 1979.

But in order for real success to be declared this season, the team has to realistically get back to the second round of the playoffs. The measuring stick this year is not the same as it was last year. The Wizards might just make it. For one they have a weaker opponent facing them than they might have had, although I remember all too well that Toronto has posted a 3-0 record against Washington this year. And as suspect as I think our roster is sometimes, when the team is playing well, they look like they can beat just about anyone. Well, a four seed in the Eastern Conference anyway.

This is not the same as last year. There are expectations based on last year's performance. Just being there is not enough. We'll see in a couple of weeks if our team is worthy.

Championship this year? Maybe not. Not counting the Wizards out. Just being realistic.

March 30, 2015

The Arenas Effect

DISCLAIMER: I had this post mostly ready to go in mid-January of this year but got distracted with other things. I figured I could hold it a bit. After all, who's going to write something about the number zero in the NBA during the 2014-2015 season? Well, about six weeks ago, Tom Ziller, whom I follow on Twitter and read regularly, beat me to the punch. Go figure. Before you read my post, go read Tom's post. He said it first after all. Plus he has a really cool graph.

I was sitting with my girlfriend a couple of months ago watching some Wizards game on TV (I believe it was the January 14 game at Chicago) when she asked me "What's with all these guys wearing zero?" My immediate response was "It's because of Gilbert Arenas." This was not the first time she had asked me this question. That night it was because Aaron Brooks was playing in the game for Chicago but before that I'm sure I'd been asked the question about Russell Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Avery Bradley and probably a handful of other players. Each time I was asked the same question in the past, I gave the same response. So in between work, an All-Star Weekend in New York and some discouraging play from my favorite basketball squad, I thought I'd better find out if I was right.

My uneducated and unresearched  impression about zero jerseys was that the number of players wearing that jersey had been on the rise recently. Like really noticeably. Turns out that hunch is correct. According to, there have been 62 players who have worn the number zero since the 1946-1947 season, which the NBA now considers its first season. Of those 62 players, only 11 wore the number before the 2001-2002 season, which was Gilbert Arenas' rookie season. In case you are counting seasons, that's 11 players in the first 55 years of the league's existence and 51 in the last 14 years.

So something's going on there, right? There's an average of one player every five years until the end of the 2000-2001 season and an average of 3.64 players per year after that. That's a 1821% increase in zero wearers between those two spans. The numbers are a bit skewed here. The first player to wear zero was Johnny Jorgensen who played just one game for the Chicago Stags during the 1948-1949 season. The next time someone donned a zero jersey was 1982, when Orlando Woolridge suited up for the Chicago Bulls (something about Chicago I guess), so there was a very large zero-less period in the league there.

Looking at the recent numbers in more detail provides additional clarity to the zero jersey's upswing. From the 2001-2002 season to the 2007-2008 season (or from Gilbert's rookie season until the last time he made the All-Star team), there were an average of 5.3 players in the league each year wearing zero. The following season (2008-2009), that number stays pretty much the same at 5. This five or so number is generally attributable to multiple players wearing the number zero consistently for several seasons in a row: Walter McCarty at the beginning of this period; Arenas throughout; Jeff McInnis in the middle; and Aaron Brooks and Russell Westbrook at the end.

Starting with the 2010-2011 season, though, the numbers explode. That year, nine players wore zero. The next year, 12. Ever since then, the number of players wearing zero has never dropped into single digits. The last two years have seen 15 players wearing zero and during the 2012-2013 season, the number peaked at 17. Something happened from 2001 to today that caused about half the teams in the NBA to sport a number zero on their roster consistently for five years after pretty much nothing (or zero if you prefer) in the league's first fifty plus years. I'm making the case it's all because of Gilbert.

Gilbert chose the number zero when he entered college at the University of Arizona. He chose that number because the number he wanted, 25, was retired at the University of Arizona (Steve Kerr) and, according to Gilbert, "Zero is the number of minutes people predicted I would play my freshman year at Arizona." It became the biggest chip on Gilbert's shoulder that he carried until the time he signed his six year, $111 million contract in the summer of 2008. So did other players copy Gil?

Some of the Gilbert Arenas influence among players in the NBA is pretty obvious. Larry Hughes, Nick Young and Andray Blatche all wore (or wear) zero playing for teams after they left the Wizards. All three of those guys were Gilbert's guys, either as a back court running mate (Hughes) or as a protégé of sorts (Young and Blatche). I didn't research interviews with these guys to get their first hand rationale for wearing zero. I figured I didn't have to. These guys are slam dunks.

It is perhaps more informative to seek out the logic for some other guys who wear zero, notably Jeff Teague, Aaron Brooks, Avery Bradley, Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard. Each of these guys has either made an All-Star appearance or has been in the league long enough to sign multiple significant deals. I struck out with Teague but found something on the other four.

Avery Bradley claims he wears number zero because when he got to the University of Texas he felt like he had to prove himself all over again. Gee, who does that sounds like? Russell Westbrook wanted the number 4 when he got to college but it was unavailable, so he decided to go with zero to represent a new beginning. Yep, it sounds like I've heard that before. Aaron Brooks had a similar experience when he found the number 30 available when he got to the University of Oregon. And Damian Lillard's story is that his zero is actually an O, symbolizing his journey from Oakland to Ogden (Utah) to Portland, Oregon.

Bradley, Westbrook and Brooks totally copied Gilbert. Their stories may be significantly different for them to believe they are not copying Gil, but they are. If Gilbert hadn't paved the way for zero symbolizing a new beginning or a need to prove oneself all over again, they never would have come up with it. And I'm totally not buying Lillard's story. Would he wear number 1 if he had been selected by the Indiana Pacers because I looks like 1? I don't think so. 

Why do I think I'm arrogant enough to question these guys' stories? Here's why.

My opinion is Gilbert started getting really popular league-wide when he won the NBA's Most Improved Player award after the 2002-2003 season and peaked with his three All-Star appearances in 2005 through his All-Star start in 2007 (the first player wearing zero to appear in the All-Star Game by the way). All-Star starters are of course determined through a popularity contest known as fan voting and in December 2006 and January 2007, Gilbert was arguably the hottest player in the game. Hotter even than Kobe.

So assuming kids in high school are watching the NBA and switching their numbers from whatever they had before to zero to match their newest hoop hero in Gilbert Arenas, we are looking at four (assuming a switch in sophomore year of high school and one year of college) to eight years (assuming a switch in freshman year of high school and four years of college) before those same kids are in the NBA. That would put the zero explosion based on Gilbert's influence between the 2009-2010 season and the 2013-2014 season, which is exactly what happened assuming kids adopted the number between 2003 and 2007. Brooks was a freshman at Oregon in 2003, Westbrook followed at UCLA two years later and Lillard started at Weber State in '08, a year before Bradley graduated high school.

This is a theory and the math sort of magically works out, but my opinion is that it is correct. Whatever you want to think, that's my story and I'm sticking to it. Today, you see kids in college wearing zero all the time and they are likely wearing the number because of Russell Westbrook or Damian Lillard or some other player. But for me (and likely for a lot of other folks), the number zero begins and ends with Gilbert Arenas. 'Nuff said!

March 20, 2015

Saturday Afternoon Fever

It's been almost two weeks since I posted my last blog entry, a doom and gloom affair about the Wizards' postseason chances. Since that post, the Wizards are 5-0 and things look a lot rosier. Hopefully this post won't screw up that mojo. Not superstitious. Just saying.

I've been traveling for the primary purpose of watching professional basketball games for a little over eight years now. The first trip I ever took was a planned day trip to Minneapolis to see the Wizards beat the Minnesota Timberwolves in January 2007. Unfortunately for me, the weather in D.C. made it an overnight trip and the Wizards made it a loss rather than a win. But if that unplanned day off that Monday taught me anything, it was that there was value in staying at least an extra day wherever I traveled to see something unique about the place I had visited rather than just watching hoops and drinking beer in a local bar after the game.

So given the lesson of Minnesota in '07, I couldn't visit New York or Brooklyn on NBA All-Star Weekend last month without doing something that I couldn't do anywhere else. I've been to New York City a bunch of times in the last decade or so but I haven't spent a whole lot of time across the East River in Brooklyn. My first thoughts here were to either walk across the Brooklyn Bridge or go to the Brooklyn Brewery. But I'd done both of those before and the temperatures in New York over the Valentine's Day weekend this year never cracked freezing, so the last thing I wanted to do was walk over a bridge. So instead I did something different and totally Brooklyn. I'm thinking late 1970s. I'm thinking disco.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Saturday Night Fever. The movie tells the story of Tony Manero (played by John Travolta), a kid living and working in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn. During the day, Tony works at a hardware store selling paint and whatever else his customers come in for. At night, though, Tony practices his dance moves at a local dance studio. Tony manages to get time at the studio for free because he sends women to the studio so they can work on their moves, but also so the owner of the studio can work on his moves, if you know what I mean.

The highlight of Tony's week comes every Friday and Saturday night when he and his friends head over to 2001 Oddyssey, a nightclub where Tony can do what he does best out on the dance floor. This all sounds so pedestrian and dated, right? What I love about the movie is that Tony is a guy who knows he wants to do something more with his life and can't seem to figure out how to get it done. He knows he loves dancing and is good at it but can't see a way to parlay that into a way to improve his life. So in the meantime, he works at a low paying job, does the same thing week after week and lives with his parents and the crushing weight of their disapproval over what he's doing with his life.

Enter Stephanie, Tony's unwitting way out. Stephanie's a fellow Brooklynite who has managed to escape Bay Ridge by working in a Manhattan office and shacking up with an older guy who works with her. While she comes off as confident and sophisticated (well, late 1970s sophisticated anyway), she has no more idea about where her life is headed than Tony. While she's made the first step, she's equally lost and confused as to what to do next. The movie is their story of making the next move in each of their lives. The film ends with no definitive conclusion to their life journey which I love. Life rarely has a neatly packaged happy ending.

Saturday Night Fever was filmed in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst and a lot of the sites used to shoot the film are still there today. So Saturday afternoon before All-Star Saturday Night at Barclays Center, I hopped on the R from midtown Manhattan and toured the remaining notable locations from the movie. The 2001 nightclub is unfortunately long gone, but there's some good stuff to see nonetheless. Here goes.

Saturday Night Fever...
Saturday afternoon fever.
Pearson Bay Ridge Home Center, 7305 5th Avenue
Yep, that's right, almost four decades on, the hardware store where Tony Manero earned his paycheck and where Mr. Fusco uttered those famous words "no, Tony, you can't fuck the future, the future fucks you!" is still a hardware store. I'm sure it's under different management than it was when the movie was filmed but I love that it's still selling paint and paint brushes, just like John Travolta's character all those years ago.

Walking through Bay Ridge today is like taking a trip back in time. The streetscape in the neighborhood seems to be decades removed from today. There are no big box stores or chain establishments. 80 percent of the businesses you pass walking from the Subway station to Pearson's today are locally owned and operated, just like they have been since they started selling anything in Brooklyn.

The store today looks a little different than it did when Mr. Fusco and Tony Manero closed up the store at 6 pm towards the beginning of the movie.  The main entrance is in the same general location within the storefront but there's a whole lot less glass and window space than there was in 1977, probably to decrease heat loss and increase security. It almost makes me miss the good old days when we could blissfully waste cheap fossil fuels. Not really but I did love the amount of window space in the original store.

Saturday Night Fever...
Saturday afternoon fever.
"The Manero House," 221 79th Street
The house where Tony lived with his parents, sister and grandmother in Saturday Night Fever is located a few blocks from the Pearson Bay Ridge Home Center, and it's also still standing. The first time he enters the house in the movie, Tony finds himself on the wrong end of a tongue lashing from his mother and out of work father about being late for a dinner which isn't ready anyway. The ensuing dinner conversation makes it plainly obvious to the audience that Tony is falling far short of his brother, Frank, Jr., who has entered the clergy.

If you didn't look closely, you might miss the house. It looks nothing like the house in the movie. The fake stone siding is gone and the whole house has been remade as some sort of English Tudor fantasy. The fenestration on the front of the house has been re-worked and the entrance now features a mini-dormer on a pair of added columns to divert the rain that I'm sure the current residents appreciate in a heavy storm. But the steps up to the front door are instantly recognizable and the bay window on the right side of the house is intact, complete with the exact same leaded or faux-leaded glass.

I imagine the interior layout is pretty much the same, with the stair on the right side of the house and the living room and dining room on the left with the kitchen in back of the dining room. Once you get upstairs, I bet the bedrooms are still in the same spot, but I'm doubting the Farrah Fawcett poster is still on the room that was Tony's in the movie.

Saturday Night Fever...
Saturday afternoon fever.
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
The Verrazano-Narrows Bridge connects Brooklyn to Staten Island and at the time of its construction in 1964 was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Today, it ranks 11th but still first in the United States. On the Brooklyn side of the water, the bridge terminates right in Bay Ridge about a couple of miles from where the Maneros lived. As far as suspension bridges in New York go, it's definitely a distant third to the Brooklyn Bridge and George Washington Bridge but it's longer than those two so there you have it.

The scene in the movie where Tony and Stephanie sit on a bench at the foot of the bridge  is pictured above. Tony tells her all about what the bridge means to him and that dialog shows the audience that Tony is connected to his neighborhood and knows something more than working at a hardware store and dancing. Later on in the film the bridge plays a more ominous role when Tony's friend Bobby C takes an unintended dive into the East River, too distraught about how the Catholic church might view him getting his girlfriend, Pauline, pregnant to understand how to go on.

The bridge today look exactly the same as it did when the movie was filmed, although I'm sure if I got close enough, I would see a whole lot more rust on the steel than it had when it was built. My intent in walking down 4th Avenue was to get to the same bench that Stephanie and Tony sat on during their talk in the movie. But honestly, after about a mile of walking, the significantly below freezing temperatures got to me and I had to settle for taking a picture through the leafless trees from much further away. What can I say, I'm getting soft in my old age.

Saturday Night Fever...
Saturday afternoon fever.
Lenny's Pizza, 1969 86th Street
The last stop on my afternoon tour was a late lunch at Lenny's Pizza, the same exact pizza store that Tony Manero grabbed a couple of slices and strolled down 86th Street eating them sandwich style at the beginning of the movie. If there was a place that I was looking forward to more than anywhere else on this tour, it was Lenny's. Not just because Travolta's character ate at the same place under the same ownership, but any place that's been in business serving pizza in a pizza famous place like Brooklyn has to be good, right?

Lenny's is located right next to the 20th Avenue stop on the D line, which runs on an elevated track right down the center of 86th Street. When you walk in to the restaurant, there's a counter on the left displaying some amazing looking pizzas, strombolis and garlic knots that all New York pizzerias seem to offer. The margherita pizza looked amazing with gorgeous red sauce and a thin coating of what looked like delicious mozzarella cheese. I ordered two slices just like Tony Manero and sat down and waited for a couple of pieces of pizza heaven to come out of the oven, piping hot and delicious.

If I've ever been more disappointed in a pizza lunch, I can't remember the time. The sauce at Lenny's had some awesome flavor but that was pretty much all I could taste. The cheese added nothing and the crust had the consistency of stiff cardboard. It was honestly a little uncomfortable to eat. Maybe it was the time of day or the fact that it was so cold outside, but based on my visit, I can't believe this place has been in business so long. I should have taken two to go for the ultimate SNF experience, although I'm sure it wouldn't have improved the taste. Maybe I need to come back in the summer or something.

Lenny's was my last authentic Saturday Night Fever stop but there was one more thing I had to do before splitting New York and heading for home. I've eaten my fair share of fast food in my day and I'm still a total sucker for Taco Bell but I'd never ever stopped by a White Castle. In the movie, Tony and his friends Double J, Bobby C and Joey take Stephanie out to White Castle in Brooklyn. That store is long gone but there are still White Castles in New York, including one between our hotel and Madison Square Garden. How could I resist this opportunity to complete my Saturday Night Fever experience! Far out!

March 9, 2015

Could The Wizards Miss The Playoffs?

On January 27, the Washington Wizards sat firmly in the top four of the Eastern Conference with a 31-15 record, their best start by far in 35 seasons. They appeared to be headed for a 50 win season without a shadow of doubt. 

If you had told me at the beginning of the season that we would have won 31 of our first 46 games, I would have not only been ecstatic but I would also be expecting the team to win its first division title since 1979. But even back then in January, it was pretty apparent that the Southeast Division was likely lost, with the Atlanta Hawks having won 16 in a row (later 19 in a row) to post a 37-8 mark through their first 45 games. 

Despite the hot start through the end of January, there were some troubling signs. This is a team that had Eastern Conference Finals, if not NBA Finals, aspirations but in four meetings to that point with the Atlanta Hawks and the Toronto Raptors, the Wizards had produced zero wins. Still, there was a long way to go and to that point the team had taken two of three from the Chicago Bulls and split their two games with the Cleveland Cavaliers, with each team winning at home, so that seemed promising. 

There were other less significant issues with the team's performance through the end of the third full month of the NBA season. Despite losing no more than three consecutive games, and having only done that once, the team demonstrated an alarming lack of focus in some games, almost seeming over confident or disinterested, most notably in a road loss up in Toronto that was effectively over in about the first five minutes and in a home loss to Phoenix just before Christmas in which the Suns just manhandled the frontcourt of the Wizards and our guys seemed to put up little fight. 

There were also the excessive number of mid-range jumpers that the team was living off seemingly defying the old live by the jump shot, die by the jump shot adage. And it was still painfully obvious sometimes that when the starters sat, there was nobody who could unquestionably crack a starting rotation for the poorest team in the league coming in to replace any one of them. Despite the fact that the bench had undergone a significant upgrade in the offseason, there were still some nights with a discouraging lack of production. Still, the team sat in a great spot to open a first round playoff series at Verizon Center. 

Now it's about six weeks later, and there are about five weeks until the end of the regular season, and the Wizards are in trouble. They have lost 13 of their last 17 games, including a pair to the lowly Minnesota Timberwolves and Philadelphia 76ers, and have slipped perilously close to sixth place. Before tonight's game, the Wizards sit one game ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks in the loss column, although they do have the season series win to break a tie if they end up with the same record as the Bucks at the end of 82 games. 

In the last month and a half, the team has endured a five game losing streak and a six game losing streak. They have seen minor injuries to some key players in the rotation and they have seen their scoring decrease notably as their jumpers have not fallen and they have struggled to adjust. They have traded Andre Miller away to the Sacramento Kings in exchange for Ramon Sessions, who is now our backup point guard and doesn't appear up to the task in any way. It may have helped us on the defensive end but certainly not when we are trying to score the basketball. 

The offense got so bad recently that the team almost blew a 35 point lead at home to the visiting Miami Heat with a team on the floor consisting primarily of Shabazz Napier (rookie), Michael Beasley (10 day contract), Tyler Johnson (10 day contract), Henry Walker (played six games this year before Friday night's game) and James Ennis (rookie). The Wizards' fourth quarter offense from my seat in Section 109 of Verizon Center appeared to consist of John Wall dribbling to kill time, crossing over his opponent and then re-crossing over his opponent (so the defender was right back in front of John) and missing a contested fall away 20 footer with five seconds to go on the shot clock. That may be unfair; emotions may have been getting in my way there. 

So the question is, could the Wizards actually miss the playoffs? Right now the only team with a winning record in the East behind the Wizards are the Milwaukee Bucks. Behind them, there are a whole host of teams struggling to get into the seven and eight spots, including the Charlotte Hornets, Indiana Pacers, Miami Heat, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics. Six weeks ago those team were clearly going to finish behind the Wizards. Now, the only thing the Wizards have clinched is 13th place. 

The answer to the question in the previous paragraph is YES! Including tonight's game in Charlotte, the Wizards have 10 road games and nine home games remaining. Six of those 19 games are against Western Conference playoff teams. Of the other 13, four are against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks and the surging Charlotte Hornets. Combine all that with the fact the Wizards haven't won a road game since January and the team better start playing as if they are in the group of teams behind the Milwaukee Bucks. 

Finally, consider this. If you project each Eastern Conference team's regular season record by taking their current win total and multiplying their remaining games by their won-loss percentage over their last ten games, the Wizards finish ninth, with a 39 game win total and that's rounding up (see above). The Wizards would finish a game behind eighth place Miami and two games behind sixth place Milwaukee and seventh place Charlotte. The Indiana Pacers under this scenario would actually finish fourth. 

Before you automatically dismiss this as an unlikely scenario, try to identify the four games the Wizards might win between now and game 82. Right now the four easiest games on paper are home vs. the New York Knicks, home and road games vs. the Philadelphia 76ers and Saturday's home date with the Sacramento Kings. After that, I have to count on the Wizards beating the Kings, the Utah Jazz or Brooklyn Nets on the road. Remember the Wizards haven't won a road game since they were 31-15 all the way at the beginning of this post.

Get it together, Wizards, or you might find yourselves cleaning out your lockers on April 15th instead of preparing for a first round opponent. It's probably time to start thinking about panicking.

March 4, 2015

Dinner At Jean-Georges

All-Star Weekend in New York a couple of weekends ago was totally decadent. I got VIP treatment, was handed tickets to All-Star Saturday Night and the All-Star Game with $500 and $750 face values and got to meet and talk with NBA legends one on one. It was truly a self indulgent weekend for a true NBA obsessed fan. Summer League is never going to be the same again.

While I was in New York, I planned a couple of special meals in restaurants owned by superstar chefs. After all, I'm not just star struck by NBA players and I love to eat. Thursday night we headed over to David Burke's fabrick on West 38th Street and followed that up with a trip to Chris Santos' Stanton Social for brunch Sunday morning on the lower east side of Manhattan. I'd give fabrick another shot but I'd definitely go back to Stanton Social. Get the gyros and the Oreo cookie pancakes.

But if you had told me before the weekend was up I would be eating at a Jean-George Vongerichten restaurant, I would have told you that you were crazy or something really out of control was going on. Rest assured, that's just what happened and I'm as astonished now as I was when I ate my first Jean-Georges food in the middle of last month.

So what, you say? Who the hell is Jean-Georges Vongerichten? Well, he's only one of the most accomplished and well regarded chefs in the world today. The last couple of years when I have made plans for Summer League in Las Vegas I've thought about heading to his restaurant, Jean-Georges Steakhouse, at the Aria hotel but despite the allure and the fantastic reviews, the $125 prix fixe price tag always turns me off (no tip, tax or alcohol included in that price and yes, it's per person). His restaurant at 1 Central Park West in New York is similarly pricey, adding another $3 to the cost of a three dish menu.

But sure enough, Sunday night before the All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, I had my first Jean-Georges food and it cost me about $20. And that's with tip, tax and alcohol included. How, you ask? I mean honestly if you have to ask you probably are not looking at the pictures on this post, which I am sure is the first thing most people do. As it turns out there are two Jean-Georges restaurants (food stands, if you prefer) in the Garden in the form of Jean-Georges Simply Tacos and Jean-Georges Simply Chicken. I had to partake.

Being a Latin food lover, I opted for the beef short rib tacos from the Simply Tacos stand and washed the whole thing down with an overpriced (hey, it's New York) Budweiser, which last time I checked is still the king of beers for those of you doubting Bud's ability to stimulate your taste buds, no pun intended. I loved the crispy onions, the sauce on the tacos and the lime wedge that came with the dish but the short ribs…well, maybe a little more love would have been appreciated.

The fact that my tacos were not the best I'd ever had is not really the point, nor is the celebrity chef worshipping part of me that has checked off one more dude's restaurants on my ever expanding list of must tries. The point here is that Madison Square Garden has engaged this level of chef to create food stands in their building and I love that. Maybe I ordered the wrong tacos. Maybe I should have headed to Simply Chicken or one of the other thoughtful food stands that the Garden has put in place. I don't know and it really doesn't matter.

Over the last 15 years, I've often entered Verizon Center for a Wizards game hungry and have found little to really satisfy me. I acknowledge some of the recent additions to the food choices over at 601 F Street but honestly, I'm looking for alternatives outside the arena. The Hard Times food is OK inside the arena, the Greene Turtle booth is a must miss and as much as I want to love the bratwurst over on the east end of the lower concourse, the cheese sauce you get is totally tasteless. I'd love to see my home team's arena do what the Garden did. Take it under advisement Verizon Center, please. Maybe they should call Jean-Georges or maybe someone local like Jose Andres. I'd buy some stuff if they did.

March 3, 2015

I Love The Basketball Hall Of Fame

Me and Hall of Famer Earl Monroe. Earl looks way more dapper than I ever will. The great Knicks captain, Willis Reed, is behind me.
February 2015 was not a kind month to my Washington Wizards. The team has collapsed over the last month plus, sliding from second place in the Eastern Conference to the brink of sixth place. In the 12 games played in the shortest month of the year, the Wizards managed only three victories, all over teams which are currently well out of the playoff hunt. In games against teams with worse records than us, my team could only manage three wins in eight attempts. In six road games in the month, the Wizards won zero. Hopefully last month's woes are behind us with Saturday's home win over the Detroit Pistons.

Fortunately, reminiscing about this year's All-Star weekend has mercifully kept my blogging attention off the Wizards and I still have a few more to go. Maybe by the time I am done with all this short-term nostalgia the team will have righted itself to some degree. Looking back, the All-Star Game, All-Star Saturday Night and even the Rising Stars Challenge in New York were all fantastic experiences. But those events alone do not tell the story of my one and maybe only All-Star experience. The reason Valentine's Day weekend 2015 was a transcendent basketball experience rather than just really really special was the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Now if you are one of the half-dozen or so people who regularly reads this blog, you'll recall that I won an auction on ebay sponsored by the Basketball Hall of Fame which allowed me to get to All-Star weekend this year. That auction win got me lower level tickets to the All-Star Game, All-Star Saturday Night and Rising Stars Challenge. It also got me four nights at the Grand Hyatt above Grand Central Station and entry into the 2015 Hall of Fame Finalists press conference, which I figured would be sort of a throwaway event, although VIP access to that event was advertised, whatever that meant.

The lobby of the Sheraton New York Times Square. Keep an eye out.
So it's about November of last year and I thought I'd check up on how this weekend was supposed to work. I swapped emails with my contact at the hoop hall after I first bought this package but really had no contact with him since April-ish. Now that the 2014-2015 NBA season was in full swing, I thought I'd check in. There was a part of me that was nervous about this all being a hoax. I mean it was really too good to be true, right? As of November there was no update. They didn't know where the seats were in the arena (that was what I really wanted to know); sit tight and wait. This went on until about the beginning of January 2015.

Then finally some different news. The hotel might change. The Grand Hyatt was all well and good but they were trying to get us into one of the players' hotels. Cool. I could go with that. And eventually that happened. So instead of staying at the Grand Hyatt, we ended up at the Sheraton New York Times Square on Seventh Avenue between 52nd and 53rd Streets. Seemed like a downgrade from the Grand Hyatt to a Sheraton but the price point was about the same so whatever. 

How wrong was my initial reaction? It was so NOT a downgrade. We figured out over the weekend that the NBA All-Star weekend is essentially like a business convention. Everyone in the industry is there. It's like Summer League on steroids. There are official hotels, guards at the doors of said hotels, free shuttle buses to events, free Subway cards to get you where you needed to go when you were not taking the shuttle buses and signings by current and future players literally all over town. And one of the players' hotels, like the Sheraton we stayed in, is absolutely the place to be.

Our train got in to Penn Station about 3:30 pm on Thursday, February 12 and we hopped in a cab to get the hotel, rolled in the door, past security ("yes, we are checking in") and to the front desk. First opportunity really to get a look around. Who do we see standing around the lobby but Marco Belinelli, last year's Three Point Contest winner and defending his title this year. Over the rest of the weekend, we saw Aaron Gordon, Etan Thomas (former Wizard!), Dikembe Motumbo, Horace Grant, Nerlens Noel, Rony Turiaf (also former Wizard!), Dahntay Jones, well…you get the point by now, right? Awesome substitution by the Hall of Fame. The first of many very positive surprises during the weekend.

The Hall of Fame Finalists press conference.
So it's Friday, February 13 and we are now firmly checked into our hotel, which is paid for already (no longer a hoax) and we finally meet someone from the Hall of Fame and get our tickets. All-Star Game? Check. All-Star Saturday Night? Check. Rising Stars Challenge? Check. Instructions on how to get into the Hall of Fame Finalists press conference? Check. That's it, right? I mean that's all I bought. Nope. Wrong. Tickets to the Celebrity Game on Friday night? Can't go; already set up happy hour with friends and it sort of conflicts with the Rising Stars Challenge. Tickets to the National Basketball Retired Players Association Brunch on Sunday? Wow, didn't know I was getting that. OK, sure. Sounds like fun. So now this is getting really good.

Friday night comes. We watch the Rising Stars Challenge in person and then take the bus back to the hotel. Now it's Saturday morning. Time for the Hall of Fame Finalists press conference, where we are supposedly VIPs, again whatever that means. We head over to Madison Square Garden and squash into one of the building lobbies on the south side of the arena and wait for our passes and permission to pass through security. It's a bit of a mess, through no fault of the Hall. Apparently they don't typically hold this event at the arena itself and there are clearly access issues.

I'm sure I'm not going to do a very good job of making a long story short here but this event was awesome. Yes, it was just a press conference but the star power that was there was just amazing. When I was stuck on the wrong side of security, I managed to meet former Knick and Bullet Bernard King and say hi over a handshake. Then we passed former San Antonio Spur George "the Iceman" Gervin on the way to the VIP lounge at the press conference. Gervin and King were joined by other hall of famers on the stage, including Willis Reed, Dominique Wilkins, Oscar Robertson, Rick Barry and more.

But the signature moment of this experience was meeting former New York Knick and Baltimore Bullet Earl "The Pearl" Monroe after the press conference. I was at the ceremony when the Wizards retired Earl's number a few years ago and I happened to be reading his autobiography on the way to New York so meeting the Pearl was a real treat. Earl Monroe is one of the true legends of the game who brought street ball to the NBA game. He was wearing a ring on his hand which I asked if was his 1973 NBA Champions ring he won with the Knicks. It wasn't. It was his NBA 50 Greatest Players ring. He claimed he didn't know where the '73 championship ring was. Awesome one of a kind conversation. In case you are keeping track, that's three things the Hall of Fame delivered that we didn't expect. We turned down one, but we didn't have to.

Wall 1, Curry 0. At least someone on the Wizards won something on All-Star Weekend.
I'd never been behind the scenes at the Garden in my five prior trips there so I thought getting out of there after the press conference might be interesting, although I was pretty confident that I could get thrown out if I just went the wrong way. But since that's not really my style, I thought I would ask for directions. I got them and following the directions happened to take me right onto the upper level concourse right of the main arena right before the All-Star Practice was about to begin. Well, since we are here and in the building (even though we technically needed a ticket) we may as well stick around for a bit, right? This makes me a bad person, I know. But I was right there!

Over the last 15 years as a Wizards season ticket holder, I've been to a number of practices. Some are boring; some are really interesting. The best one I ever attended was narrated by Ed Tapscott, who has held a number of jobs in the NBA throughout his career and is currently the Wizards' Director of Player Development. He explained how all basketball teams essentially run the same plays and that the game all comes down to execution. I went to the same sort of All-Star Practice in 2001 when the event was held at the Verizon Center in D.C. right at the beginning of my season ticket holder tenure and I'm sure at that time I thought watching the practice was awesome.

On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd pretty much put this year's All-Star Practice at between a 1 and a 2. We only watched the West practice which consisted of Steve Kerr telling the crowd several times that they were (a) not going to really run any plays and (b) were going to play Tim Duncan a lot so he'd be tired when the regular season resumed. After that, I just couldn't stick around for the East practice. But we did get to see the John Wall-Stephen Curry H.O.R.S.E competition which happened about an hour into the event.

The Wall-Curry H.O.R.S.E. competition was a manufactured grudge match staged by Gillette. Yes, the makers of the particular brand of antiperspirant that Steph Curry advertises. The competition, which was really nothing of the sort, was a best of three shots event with a fourth shot if a tiebreaker was required, which it was since both Wall and Curry missed all three of their shots in the actual competition. Wall ended up winning in "overtime" with a three point shot defended by actor and director Michael Rappaport (Curry missed his three). It's always good to see a Wizard win something, so I'll take it.

The National Basketball Retired Players Association Brunch.
The All-Star Practice became item number four that the Hall of Fame got me that I didn't expect, even though I sort of got that on my own. The final item was tickets to the National Basketball Retired Players Association Brunch on Sunday morning. This event was held at the Jacob Javits Convention Center and I honestly imagined a room a little bigger than the makeshift green room that adjoined the Hall of Fame Finalist press conference with about the same 1:3 or 4 former player to not-ever-a-player ratio that event enjoyed.

To say I underestimated the size of the event would be a great understatement. The room was huge and featured way more not-ever-a-player people than it did retired players. Don't get me wrong, there were former players there, including Hakeem Olajuwon, Moses Malone, Bernard King (he was everywhere that weekend) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, complete with official and unofficial entourages mostly made up of kids with basketballs and Sharpies. The brunch looked awesome and our nibbling at some of the dishes proved my eyes correct (we already had brunch plans so unfortunately couldn't load up).

For me this was a short event, but we did end up sitting with Andy Walker and his wife and talking hoops for a bit over some eggs. Andy played  for the New Orleans Jazz during the 1976-1977 NBA season after being selected in the seventh (!!!) round of the 1976 NBA Draft by the Jazz. As a player, Andy's career in pro basketball was extremely short but it was obvious how deeply basketball has touched his life and the lives of all his family members, including his children and grandchildren. Having Moses Malone walk by and say hi to him got my attention if nothing else.

So that's the backstory of the unexpected part of my All-Star 2015 Weekend. I couldn't have imagined all that when I placed my bid on ebay and headed for whatever Wizards game I had to go watch on bid day. I owe a huge thank you for everyone at the Hall of Fame for hosting us for parts of the entire weekend and all the generosity and hospitality they extended to us. It was definitely the best way I could have seen an All-Star Weekend. One day I need to make it to Enshrinement Weekend up in Springfield. I promised them I would if they ever found it in their hearts to put Vlade Divac or Antawn Jamison in there. Not holding my breath on Jamison; I see Vlade as a real possibility.