March 25, 2013

The Rooster

My friend Mike and I have been going to Washington Wizards games together since the spring of 2003 when I talked him into going to the then-MCI Center in the last month or so of the Michael Jordan era. I believe that was Mike's first basketball game and that and the next few contests ended up being an instructional session on the basic rules of the game. And I really mean the basic rules of the game. I'm talking traveling, fouling, 24 second shot clock, essentially anything that was different between roundball and hockey, which was the sport Mike had grown up with. 

Despite that rocky beginning, Mike bought into my season ticket package the very next year and in the ten plus seasons since, I've seen more basketball games with him than anyone else and there's nobody I'd rather watch hoops with. For five of those years, from September 2005 to September 2010, we both worked in D.C.'s West End, either at the same firm or different firms. But unlike now that we both work in Arlington, when we can actually go home from work and change or eat before games, during those years there was always some time to kill and/or a quest for food between quitting time (anywhere from 4:30 p.m. on) and game time (almost always 7 p.m.).

We tried a lot of places to call home for the dead time between work and tip off but the one place we eventually settled on as our regular watering and dining hole was The Black Rooster over on L Street NW between 19th and 20th Streets. The bar and wait staff (Helen, Chris and Sarah most especially) at the Rooster always made us feel at home and over those five years we logged a lot of time there, whether it was before games, for work happy hours or even to hide and confide in my best friend when it felt like my whole life was falling apart. That last one's overly sappy I know, but it's true. And my life went on and got way better, by the way.

We don't hang out at the Rooster much any more but we try to get over there once or twice or even three times a year. This past Monday, before the Wizards' undermanned victory over the Memphis Grizzlies behind John Wall's career high 47, we made some time to grab a beer or three and a sandwich. Every time I go back, I wish we still worked over at Lafayette Center so we could go more regularly. They always have some great beers on tap for me (and Bud Light for Mike) and the grilled cheese sandwiches on Texas toast (with bacon and tomato for me; plain for Mike) are still the grilled cheeses we love the best. We don't even look at the menu any more.

The Rooster almost closed once (in fact, I think they did actually close their doors due to a rent dispute with their landlord) but I'm glad they are still open even if we don't spend as much time there as I'd like any more. In this world of impermanence, it's comforting to know there are places like this out there. As long as I'm a Wizards season ticket holder, I'll always make time to go back a couple of times a year until I can convince my company to move downtown again. Long live the Rooster!

D.C.'s best grilled cheese? Maybe.

March 5, 2013

Silent Auctions And My Favorite Wizards Coach

Every few Wizards games, the charity foundation for Monumental Sports and Entertainment (the group that owns the Wizards) holds silent auctions during home games at a table set up on the lower level concourse to raise money. Usually the items being auctioned are framed signed photographs or jerseys or some signed shoes or something like that. As a collector of useless Wizards junk, I've always wanted to buy something at one of these auctions but never have. I was probably most tempted once to bid on a pair of Jordan Crawford shoes that JC would bring to you after the game and sign for you but in the end my heart just wasn't in it.

But all that changed last Friday, during the New York Knicks' latest visit to Verizon Center, a game that the Wizards dropped just barely without Nenê and A.J. Price available. This team's good now, despite the 18-39 record we held after losing to the Knicks.

My friend Mike and I were sitting in our backup seats in Section 402 talking before the game when a live announcement for the silent auction that night appeared on the scoreboard screen. The woman behind the auction table ran through some of the highlights for that night which included a jersey signed by the entire team and a Wizards basketball signed by head coach Randy Wittman. Hold it! What was that last one? A Wizards basketball signed by Coach Witt?!?!? The conversation between Mike and I the next thirty seconds went something like this:
Me: Now THAT I would be interested in bidding on. I'm going down at halftime to check it out......Eh, screw it, I'm going right now.
Within 15 minutes, I had run downstairs (escalator would have been too slow), checked out the situation, added my name and phone number in the $100 minimum bid box and managed to return to my seat ready for tip-off. All I had to do then was sit back and wait for the end of the auction at the beginning of the third quarter. No way was anyone bumping that bid up the minimum $25 bid raise increment. I felt pretty comfortable that by the end of the game I'd have a new piece of exclusive and rare Wizards memorabilia to sit on my shelf at home. The price may have been steep even for me but hey, it's for charity, right?

The Wizards have had six permanent or interim head coaches (Leonard Hamilton, Doug Collins, Eddie Jordan, Ed Tapscott, Flip Saunders and Wittman) in the twelve plus years I have been a season ticket holder and of that group, Randy is by far my favorite. I love Randy's no nonsense approach to dealing with the game and players. He emphasizes team play over individual play; assigns playing time based on performance, not reputation; and is straight with media, fans and his players. It's pretty much the exact opposite from his predecessor and friend, Flip Saunders, who was pretty much completely non-confrontational. Randy coaches players at every opportunity he gets during the games and is not hesitant to correct in-game performance quickly. And when the game is over, he praises his players or apologizes for his own leadership in the game while simultaneously holding his players accountable and protecting them. His emphasis is always the same: team, team, team.

And his quotes kill me sometimes. Below are some of my favorites from the very brief Wittman era.
"This isn't fun. You don't sleep any good...don't eat any good. A bowl of pasta doesn't taste worth a crap right now." After the Wizards 0-9 start this season. 
"I thought I was getting my teeth pulled at the dentist without any Novocaine." After the Wizards' win in New Orleans this season when the team managed just 11 points in the first quarter. 
"I wake up every morning and make sure the sky is still there. And it's not falling down on me. Trust me." After the Wizards' overtime loss to the Atlanta Hawks, dropping the team's record to 2-14.
"I apologize to ownership, our fans back home that watched it. I'd a turned it off after the first five minutes." After a 100-68 ass kicking by the Pistons at Detroit on December 21. 
"As I told them, that was a beautiful thing tonight." After the Wizards' win over the Oklahoma City Thunder at Verizon Center on January 7.
"Human nature's a bitch." When asked why the Wizards' often revert to one on one basketball during games.
"I don't respond to knucklehead comments from people like that." When asked his opinion of agent David Falk's statement indicating John Wall would never be a star.
The Wizards gig is not Randy's first job as head coach in the NBA. His first head coaching stint was in Cleveland for the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 seasons. His record in Cleveland was not a good one (62-102). Joe Tait (former Cavs announcer) has some very unflattering stories about Randy's tenure with the Cavs in his autobiography which I won't repeat here but the book's a good read despite that. Randy's next chance came in Minnesota after the Timberwolves fired Dwane Casey but he lasted less than two full years there, compiling a 38-105 record (also not a good one) before being fired 19 games into the 2008-2009 season in favor of Kevin McHale.

For a guy with a career 100-207 record, it didn't seem like Randy would be in any position to negotiate when the opportunity came up in Washington last season. But that's exactly what he did. According to reports, the one condition Randy placed on accepting the interim coach tag last season was that he, not management, would have the final word on who played and who didn't. Soon after he accepted that position, he sat JaVale McGee and Nick Young for a half in Milwaukee after a dismal first half effort from those two and he sent Andray Blatche home for good later that year after management had managed to ship JaVale and Nick out. Randy's rewards last year were a six game season-ending winning streak and a new two year deal as head coach.

This year has to be considered Randy's finest work despite the less than pleasing record. He was handed a team at the beginning of the year with two new presumed starters, a very thin backcourt and the team's two best players on ice. Perhaps predictably, the team struggled to an 0-12 start. Under these circumstances, it would be understandable for a coach to lose the attention of his team or change his message. But Randy did neither, delivering a consistent team first message while being publicly backed by his veteran players. And while it took a while and a fully healthy lineup, the results lately have been there. The Wizards posted a 7-5 record in February and, before Friday's loss to the Knicks, a six game winning streak over teams with winning records, something this franchise hadn't accomplished since the mid-1970s. He's changed the culture enough to turn the Wizards into one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, something this franchise has not been since I became a season ticket holder. It's not absurd to me to think of Randy as a coach of the year candidate.

Just after halftime Friday, I received a text message from the Wizards informing me that my bid of $100 was the winning one. Whoever walked by that table and didn't bid blew it but I was glad they didn't. I'm pulling my Gilbert Arenas basketball off the shelf and replacing it with my new prize. Sorry GA.

Not only a basketball, but a signed photo too!!