November 30, 2012

I Never Thought It Would Get This Bad

November 28, 2012: First win of the season! The season started October 30.
Before Wednesday night's Wizards home game vs. the Portland Trail Blazers, my friend Mike and I were sitting at the bar at a season ticket holder happy hour at the Verizon Center's Dewar's Club when we overheard a fellow fan say that the Wizards (the only winless team in a league where all other teams have at least three wins) probably had a good chance to win that night's game because Portland did not play well on the road. I responded to that comment by noting that we don't play well at home and Mike piled on noting we don't play well anywhere, which is absolutely true.

A couple of hours later, it seemed like the Wizards were well on their way to the first victory of the year with a 79-64 lead with 8:53 to play in the fourth quarter, having expanded the lead by six in the first 3:07 of the final period. Then the offensive struggles that have plagued our team all season emerged and Portland caught up and then took the lead 80-79 with 2:05 remaining. That's right, we managed to score zero points in a six minute, 48 second span of game time. Zero! It looked like another collapse was imminent, albeit a larger one than we had demonstrated the ability to pull off so far this season. But then Jordan Crawford hit an ill-advised three and that seemed to get us back on track and when Portland missed a shot in the last ten seconds and we secured the rebound and got fouled with a mere 0.5 seconds on the game clock, it seemed like we'd emerge with victory number one of the 2012-2013 season.

But then our inbound attempt failed and Portland caught the ball as time expired. At least it was a win, even if it didn't come very spectacularly! The referees didn't agree. They huddled and it appeared that they were either going to grant a time out or call a foul; from our seats at the other end of the court, we couldn't tell. The decision was made to put 0.2 seconds on the clock and award Portland the ball (but no foul, which would have been two free throws). For a moment, this played out eerily similar to a game we played against the Indiana Pacers on December 12, 2009, when time expired, but the referees huddled and put 0.5 seconds on the clock, only to have us foul on the inbound pass and have Mike Dunleavy hit two free throws and send us home with a 114-113 loss. But this time, Portland's inbound pass clanked off the rim and time expired with no foul, allowing the Wizards to become the first team in NBA history to win their first game in their 13th try and more importantly gain their first victory of the season. Now we are only at least two games behind everyone else. Wow we are bad.

Two years ago, our team's new owner, Ted Leonsis, offered season ticket holders a deal: renew your season tickets for 2011-2012 and prices would be frozen for three seasons. That promise, coupled with a slashing of lower level season prices which allowed us to buy a full season downstairs for the same price we had been paying for a 21 game package, seemed like a bargain and we gladly took it. We had just come off John Wall's rookie year and we were in a rebuild mode around him. The price freeze was clearly an indication that ownership intended for the team to perform poorly over the next three years but in my mind, we couldn't get much worse than we had been over the last 11 years, with two 19 win seasons and seven playoff-less seasons.

As it turned out, I was wrong (again) about our team's ability to perform. Last year, we set a franchise record for worst start by losing our first eight games. This year, we set another franchise record for worst start by losing our first 12 games. Through the first 13 games of the season, we are dead last in points per game and field goal percentage and 28th (out of 30) in 3 point percentage. Our point differential is worst in the league by almost a full two points, which is huge in the NBA. Pretty much anyway you look at it, we are last in the league and it's pretty obvious that our offense is the reason. I realize that we built this entire team around John Wall and that he's been out all year but surely we can't be this bad offensively without our third year point guard; Wall's just not good at this point in his career. The Timberwolves are still winning without Ricky Rubio. Why can't we win without Wall?

From the Wizards iPad app. Clearly this is part of the problem.
While losing is frustrating, I've had enough practice that I am sort of used to it by now but I was hoping for some sort of turn around this year. This year on the heels of the last few is wearing on me. I just honestly never thought it would get this bad. Two years ago, we finished with a better record than three teams: the Toronto Raptors, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Minnesota Timberwolves. This year, Minnesota almost has a .500 record with their two best players sidelined and made a push for the playoffs last year. Cleveland and Toronto have both won three games, which is not great but it's three times more than we have won. Last year, we finished ahead of only one team, the Charlotte Bobcats, who have already won the same number of games they won all last year in the first month, which is six more than we have won. It seems like lately, all we do is stay near the bottom while other teams leapfrog us. Our first draft pick last year, Jan Vesely has more fouls than points this year and played only 0.2 seconds in our victory over Portland. I've always been a big supporter of Ernie Grunfeld and I hope it's too early in the season for a full evaluation but after this 1-12 start, maybe it's time for new leadership soon. I guess I'm still hoping for a reversal of fortunes but the playoffs seem out of reach in the first month of play. Discouraging.

November 21, 2012

Mark Knopfler At Verizon Center

No pics allowed in Verizon Center for this show.
With the Wizards off to a worst-in-franchise-history 0-9 start and moving towards cementing irrelevancy for the 2012-2013 season in only the first month of action, there hasn't been a whole lot about the trip to Verizon Center to get excited about lately. But Tuesday night the building took up the hardwood and made way for a Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan show. For me, this was a can't miss show. Even though I regularly miss Bob Dylan shows in the area, I couldn't even consider passing this one up. I was jealous last year when they toured Europe together; now I don't have to be jealous any more.

In my pantheon of music gods, Mark Knopfler and Bob Dylan occupy special places. Dylan, without doubt, is absolutely the greatest ever. There has been so much good music produced by Bob over the last half century and his music satisfies on so many levels. Every year I sit down and make a list of the 50 albums I would keep if I could only have 50 albums for the rest of my life (thank God this doesn't actually happen) and I always have a difficult time deciding which Dylan albums to put on that list. Realistically, I couldn't bear to be without Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, Nashville Skyline (no, that's not a mistake), Blood On The Tracks (if only just for Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts), Desire, Time Out Of Mind and some of the Bootleg Series Albums (the live versions of the Desire songs on the Rolling Thunder Revue album blow away the studio versions). When Dylan hangs it up or dies, I'll mourn that loss, even as I am comforted by everything he has given us. All those albums don't make the list of 50, by the way. There's just too much good music to spend six or more spots on Dylan.

But despite my feelings about Dylan being the greatest ever, Mark Knopfler is my favorite. I'd have Dylan opening for Knopfler but I guess most people wouldn't see it that way and they probably wouldn't sell as many tickets. I first got into Mark Knopfler's music through Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms album when I was in high school and gradually accumulated all their music while I was in college. When Knopfler put the band on hold in the late '80s and started working on side projects, I bought those albums too. But the side stuff with the Notting Hillbillies and Chet Atkins and the movie soundtracks were just not as good as Dire Straits so I was glad to see him re-form the band for 1991's On Every Street album and I finally got to see them in concert at the Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse.

But after that On Every Street album, Knopfler called it quits for the band and when he released his first solo album in 1996, I didn't even give it a chance, thinking it would be about the same as his side projects between Dire Straits albums. He continued to release solo albums and I continued to ignore them until June of 2006 when he played Constitution Hall in Washington with Emmylou Harris in support of their album All The Roadrunning. My friend Rachel had an extra ticket because her brother decided not to go to the show so I filled in. It was awesome. Mark Knopfler was every bit as good as he was with Dire Straits.

I always thought Knopfler was a great guitar player and an incredible songwriter, but there's a depth in his solo stuff that I don't get out of his Dire Straits songs. He writes songs about subjects that other people I listen to just don't write about whether it be the migration of working class jobs in England to Germany in the early 1980s or Charles Mason and Jeramiah Dixon laying out the northern boundary of Maryland or the decommissioning of a tanker ship built in Newcastle and torn apart in a country far away. There are a lot of English subjects, especially focused on the north part of the country, which I guess I understand from my family's history. My great grandfather worked in the coal mines for 50 years so Mark's song 5:15 a.m., which is about the effect video gambling machines are having on the population in former north England coal mining towns, resonates on a special level for me. It makes me want to reconnect with my family's history.

I have now bought every one of Mark's solo albums and I've seen every show he's played in the Washington DC area since that 2006 show with Emmylou Harris. Tuesday's Knopfler show was just as good as the rest, even though watching a show from floor seats at Verizon Center pretty much sucks. I managed to get an aisle seat with pretty much a clear view of the stage and I was close enough to see his guitar playing. The show was definitely too short. I would have taken another hour or so of Knopfler songs over Bob Dylan bludgeoning the melody out of some classic songs with his current voice; Ballad Of A Thin Man was the only Dylan song that I thought worked.

Mark opened with What It Is, which is actually my favorite song of his, before hitting four songs from his new double album Privateering. One of my favorite things about live music is hearing songs I love in a new light. His live version of Kingdom Of Gold included a guitar solo at the end which improved the song immeasurably and while Corned Beef City sounded substantially similar to the album version, the three guitars playing at once was amazing to hear live.

The middle portion of the show featured a three piece combo version of Song For Sonny Liston which was pretty powerful and Hill Farmer's Blues which is always more sinister and aggressive live than on the album version. The narrator sounds way more desperate in the live version of that songs and Knopfler's guitar playing is angrier. I love the five song extra CD included with the Privateering deluxe edition because it includes a version of this song much closer to the live version than the rendition on The Ragpicker's Dream album.

He closed with a marathon version of Marbletown, which I just wish he'd stop playing live, and Dire Straits' So Far Away which I love live because the delivery of the chorus is so much different. He also managed to slip in a great version of Done With Bonaparte which included about every instrument his diverse band could play, including accordian ("That's my fault. I love 'em" according to Mark) and uilleann pipes.

The full set list was: What It Is; Corned Beef City; Privateering; Kingdom Of Gold; I Used To Could; Song For Sonny Liston; Done With Bonaparte; Hill Farmer's Blues; Haul Away; Marbletown; So Far Away.

November 6, 2012

Celtics Fans...Or Fans I Love To Hate, Part 1

The Washington Wizards opened their 2012-2013 home season this past Saturday against the Boston Celtics. Not surprisingly, the Wizards lost to the heavily favored Celtics, a team which is supposed to contend for the NBA Championship. Considering our team failed to put the ball in the hoop for the first seven minutes of the game (our two points in that span were the result of a goaltending violation by the Celtics) but also led in the fourth quarter and ended up losing by only three points, the result is both encouraging and discouraging. We need John Wall and Nenê back in our lineup; it's just too difficult for a team like ours to win missing our two best players.

There's a lot to love about Wizards-Celtics games the past few years: the big game atmosphere, the sold out arena and the often-enough wins which feel great on the journey home and for the next few days after just like last year's wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers did. After big wins against good teams, it doesn't much matter what else happens the rest of the week with the Wizards; the feeling of those victories lasts a while, probably because there's been so little big picture-wise to cheer about lately.

But while there's a lot to love about recent Wizards-Celtics contests, there's also one major thing to hate: the number of Celtics fans at the games. Who lets all these people in the building? Saturday's close fourth quarter featured clearly audible "Let's go Celtics!" chants despite the C's fans being in the clear minority. I guess it's not really that fair to blame the opposing fans for being more passionate than the downtrodden home contingent but I hate it just the same. And yes, I realize the number one reason I hate Celtics fans in our building is because the Celtics are just plain better than the Wizards and have been for years and I resent a large group of people with a common purpose pointing that out to me. If there were a ton of Charlotte Bobcats fans in the building, I really wouldn't care because the Wizards most years have managed to beat the Bobcats way more than they have beaten us.

Above and beyond the sheer numbers, Celtics fans seem to have mastered the art of being more obnoxious than any other team's fans. Boston sports teams have been incredibly successful over the past 10 years which seems to have created a culture of entitlement among that city's fans. A Boston team has won a title in every one of the four major sports in the last decade and as a result, most Boston fans seem to think the sports world revolves around their city. To make matters worse for me, most fans seem to actually have ties to Boston or Massachusetts or New England (unlike some other teams' fans who shall for the moment remain nameless) so it's difficult to accuse them of jumping on the bandwagon or being fair weather fans.

But let's face it, the vast majority of them ARE fair weather fans and here I'm especially addressing the woman sitting behind us a couple of years ago who couldn't recognize the names Kevin McHale or Robert Parrish and the fans who show up in Tom Brady jerseys. Shell out a few bucks for a green t-shirt at least, would you??? I don't recall seeing or hearing too many of you during the 2005-2006 season when the Celtics failed to qualify for the playoffs or the following season when they finished dead last in the Eastern Conference. In fact, it's only really been since the 2007-2008 season, when the C's won it all, that Verizon Center has been frequented by Boston fans. Funny how that works, right?

Not so much green, right? But the "Let's Go Celtics!" chants were heard loud and clear.
Despite my ranting so far about the number of enemy fans in the building, I actually enjoy Celtics games, especially when we win games that we shouldn't. We have two pairs of Wizards season tickets this year: one in the lower level five rows behind the hockey (or this year so far, non-hockey) boards and one in the upper deck in Section 402. When the Celtics and other popular (note: good does not always equal popular and vice-versa) teams play the Wizards, we typically sell our lower level seats and sit upstairs because we can usually recoup our ticket price in full and maybe come away with a buck or two extra to use to subsidize the $8 Verizon Center beers. Of course, the upper deck is where most of the Celtics fans are, which makes it that much more fun when we win. There's nothing like seeing dejected Celtics fans stream past us either just before or just after the game ends. During the 2007-2008 season, with the Celtics sitting in first place in complete rebirth mode with the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, it was oh so sweet to see the Wizards send the Celtics back to Boston with a loss and then go up to Massachusetts the very next night and beat them again.

But the sweetest victory over Boston at Verizon Center came two years ago in January, with the Wizards in the midst of a 23-59 season and the Celtics sitting comfortably in first place. The game started miserably: the Wizards trailed by 15 after one and by 10 at the half and everyone in green around us was celebrating with each made basket. It looked like it was another walkoff victory. But in the second half, the folks around us got really quiet as the Wizards cut the lead to two in the third quarter and took the game away in the fourth, ultimately winning by two. After waving goodbye to all the Celtics fans inside the arena, I actually heard someone say outside that at least the Celtics were still better than the Wizards. But that's not why you went, right? That person came to see her team beat my team, thinking it was a sure thing and it didn't happen. I loved gloating that day. That still doesn't make me hate Celtics fans any less, though.

Saturday's game was the only home game this year against the Celtics and for once, there were not a lot of opposition fans sitting around us so there was nobody to taunt or be taunted by. The loss Saturday night drops the Wizards to 0-2 on the season, good for last place in the Southeast Division. Not a good start to the season. At least Verizon Center didn't play Aerosmith and Boston music like they did in one of the games last season.