February 27, 2014

On The Road Again

I love traveling. I also love watching professional basketball. Therefore it should be no surprise that I love traveling to watch professional basketball. And honestly, it's just been too long since that happened. It's the end of February already and I haven't taken in a single game outside of Verizon Center this season. That will all change in a big way in March.

Last season I took a couple of basketball vacations: a six night trek through Texas in mid-February to watch a Dallas Mavericks game and three D-League games and then a long weekend in March down to Orlando to watch the Wizards take on the Magic. This year I'm taking three trips, a total of seven nights in four different cities to watch the Wizards play twice and then exploring more of the NBDL when the Wizards are on their March west coast swing.

It all starts tomorrow when I get on a train and head north a couple of hours to Philadelphia for a Saturday night game against the 76ers, a team that after last Thursday's trade deadline is in full tank mode, chasing as many NBA lottery combinations as they can with a depleted roster. The following weekend, I'm hopping on an AirTran flight Friday afternoon bound for Milwaukee for another Saturday Wizards game, this time against the home Bucks, who currently hold the worst record in the NBA.

These trips will be the sixth and seventh time I have seen the Wizards on the road as I continue my quest to see my team play in every NBA team's arena. My criteria for these trips in the past have been simple: try to find a weekend game against a team that is down on its luck a little bit (meaning good tickets on the secondary market will be available on the cheap and we might win) in a city which is accessible via non-stop transportation. I'm using the same kind of judgment in making travel plans this coming month.

This year from the other teams' performance standpoint, I couldn't have picked any better opponents: the Sixers and the Bucks currently hold the NBA's two worst records and have won fewer home games than any other teams. Seems like a couple of easy victories to me, although in my previous five Wizards road games using a similar game selection strategy, my team has come away with a single victory. Such is life as a Wizards fan. Even when the deck is stacked significantly in your favor, you sometimes lose horribly anyway.

Twelve days after I return from Milwaukee, I'm off to New England to see a couple of more games in the NBA's Development League. This is the second year in a row I'll be exploring the D-League scene. This year's trip will take me into an area of the country where I grew up in rather than in central and southern Texas like last year's trip. The D-League is a complete world apart from the NBA. Guys playing in this league are just scrapping to survive and keep their dreams of making it to the big leagues alive. I'll be seeing that action first in Springfield, Massachusetts where the game of basketball was invented and then heading north to Portland, Maine for a couple of nights.

Along the way to discovering basketball in each of these cities, I'll be trying to find the history and soul of each place I visit and I'll of course write it all down here so when I am old and my memory is failing, I can try to remember what it was like and what I did the weekend the Wizards beat the Sixers or Bucks or before or after I took in another D-League game. I am not visiting any of these places for the first time, although I've admittedly never spent a night in Springfield or Portland but I'll try very hard to uncover something new about each place. It all starts tomorrow in Philly. Go Wizards!

February 20, 2014

NBA Trade Deadline 2014

At 3 p.m. today, the annual NBA trade deadline came and went. Of course, instead of being hard at work making some bucks for my employer, I was sitting home watching Twitter for trade news. Yes you read that right, watching Twitter. I stayed at home today because I've learned from past experience that as this day gets closer to 3 p.m., I concentrate in my office less and less on work and more and more on internet trade rumors and gossip. So for the third year in a row, I elected to stay home and log eight hours of Paid Time Off rather than fight the battle to get some work done.

After last year's super slow trade deadline where the biggest deal was J.J. Redick to Milwaukee and the only Wizards action was sending Jordan Crawford to Boston for Jason Collins and Leandro Barbosa who was already done for the year with an injury, I was hoping for something more exciting this year. I mean how could it get any duller? I was not disappointed. There were a lot of Wizards and former Wizards on the move this year.

It all started last night when the Golden State Warriors, who earlier this season traded for former Wizards Jordan Crawford from the Boston Celtics, picked up former Wizard Steve Blake from the Lakers for essentially flotsam. Apparently Golden State is intent on picking up a collection of our former guards and it's working. Although I'm not sure it's helped their franchise yet.

It then continued this morning when the Miami Heat traded former Wizard Roger Mason, Jr. to the Sacramento Kings along with a bag of cash for a highly protected second round draft pick (or essentially absolutely nothing). Poor Roger. If there was one reason to be OK at all with Miami winning another NBA title this year, it was them having Roger Mason on their team. Now, I won't see any silver lining to a third Heat title. Let's go Pacers!!!

Then just before the 3 p.m. trade deadline (and it is possible for trades to be announced after the deadline), news came that the Los Angeles Clippers traded Antawn Jamison to the Atlanta Hawks for I'm still not sure what at the time of this writing. Just like with the Heat (although with less vitriol), there is now no reason for me to root for the Clippers to win it all this year.

But the biggest news Wizards-wise hit between noon and 1 p.m. this afternoon. I'd been reading rumors for a few weeks about the Wizards being interested in exiled Denver Nuggets' point guard Andre Miller but it didn't seem possible that we could grab Miller since he has a non-guaranteed contract next year and presumably the Wizards would want to send colossal disappointment off season signee Eric Maynor back in return. And honestly who the hell wants Maynor after his production this year?

But apparently lightning CAN strike twice. Two years ago, the Wizards sent away JaVale McGee to Denver in a trade deadline day deal for Nenê, a move that was decried as a huge mistake on Washington's part by a lot of people who watch the NBA but which anyone around the D.C. franchise saw as a first step in dramatically changing the culture here. This year, we did it again by taking Miller off the Nuggets' hands. Not only do we get a dependable backup point guard, but we traded him for two guys who rarely play (Maynor and Jan Vesely) while reducing our payroll this year, opening a roster spot and decreasing our guaranteed salary commitment next season (assuming Maynor would have picked up his option next year). How on Earth did we fleece the Nuggets twice in three years?

OK, so we gave up a New Orleans Pelicans' second round draft pick as part of the swap to the Philadelphia 76ers but who cares? Can anyone name a Wizards second round draft pick in the last 12 years that has had a positive impact on our franchise or the NBA in general? I realize that statement may be an indictment of our ability to draft and also may be a little unfair to Steve Blake who has had an astonishingly long career. And don't start with me on Andray Blatche. 

I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Jan Vesely. I so badly wanted him to prove that Blake Griffin was in fact the American Jan Vesely. I'll be sorry to see him go, although I won't miss cringing any time he touches the ball on the offensive end or steps to the free throw line. I won't miss Maynor. I can't remember being more disappointed in an off season free agent signing. This trade should make the Wizards better this year without sacrificing any future flexibility whatsoever. I see it as completely positive. We'll see if Andre Miller can make any sort of difference.

February 18, 2014

A Sweet Deal

With the Wizards sitting in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and seemingly bound for the playoffs for the first time since 2008, and fresh off an All-Star weekend that saw John Wall become the first Wizard since that same year to play in the All-Star game and the first Wizard EVER to win the dunk contest, the team decided to choose this week to send out season ticket renewal information. Sell high, right? Isn't that what they always say? And despite their record sitting two games below .500, the Wizards' stock hasn't been this high since the team took game 5 in Cleveland during the first round of the 2008 playoffs. After five miserable years, it appears the Wizards are back to approaching respectability. In the Eastern Conference anyway.
Three years ago, in the midst of the 2010-2011 season, new owner Ted Leonsis told Wizards fans in no uncertain terms that the team was going to be pretty close to terrible for the next few years while management purged the horrible roster at the time and rebuilt the fortunes of the franchise. In exchange for what was about to happen, the Wizards offered season ticket holders a deal of sorts: buy tickets for the 2011-2012 season when the team had no realistic hope of competing and the team would slash ticket prices in most parts of Verizon Center and keep them low for the next three seasons by which time the players on the court representing Washington D. C. would provide a more palatable product.
The 2010-2011 season was my 11th as a Washington Wizards season ticket holder. By that time, I was fully committed to spend a long time suffering as a Wizards fan and would have renewed my full season in the 400 level and my 21 game plan in the 100 level of Verizon Center without much of a thought. But the team's commitment to be bad and keep costs low cut the price of my 100 level seats almost in half, from what I remember as $98 per game down to the low low price of just $50 per game. What that meant to me was that I could now purchase a full season upstairs and downstairs for less than what I paid for 63 games the year before (the team did not drop the $16 per game price for upper level tickets). Sold! The 2011-2012 season became the first year I had four full season tickets. I'll explain why I didn't ditch the uppers a little later.
The promise of a bad team made by management in the late winter of 2011 came true. The team's record the first two years of the rebuild was a less than mediocre 49-99 and the team didn't really come close to the playoffs in either year. But in the meantime, the bargain offered up by the franchise in exchange for being bad has proved to be one worth paying for considering this year the team has been firmly in playoff contention and I'm still only paying $50 per game to sit five rows behind the hockey boards on the side of the arena. I feel that this price is a great deal and I offer no counterargument to those out there that would say paying $50 per game to watch a team win less than a third of their games over two seasons is no sort of good deal at all. You are probably right.
Nonetheless, I feel season ticket prices have been insanely low the last three years. Among all the franchises that advertise the price of their season tickets to the general public (and there are some that do not) I found only the Charlotte Bobcats who could offer me seats for anything approaching the same price I paid for my lower level seats the past three years. And the Bobcats tickets cost more than mine did. I think the last three years have been an absolute bargain.
The current 2013-2014 season that is fast approaching its conclusion is the last of the three promised price frozen years and so I expected an increase in ticket prices for the next season, especially considering the playoff expectations this team holds. My biggest fear as a season ticket holder is that I will be priced out of the seats I have sat in for years, that essentially I will be offered the option to purchase my seats at a price I am not willing to pay. And when that happens I expect that some new "fan" who has not suffered through the lean years will pay top dollar to sit in my old seats and claim that he or she was always a die hard Wizards fan despite their years away from Verizon Center.
I think my fear is very well justified. I've seen it happen with other NBA franchises (Orlando priced tickets for what I consider my seats in their arena at an insane $175 per game last year) and I get that it's the market setting the price according to supply and demand. I've also seen it happen with the Washington Capitals in Verizon Center, which is owned by the same group, Monumental Sports & Entertainment, that now owns the Wizards. There are 32 different pricing groups for Capitals games and upper level sections are divided vertically into three separate pricing tiers. It's sort of nuts for a team that still hasn't made it past the second round of the playoffs.
The fear of being priced out of my seats is the reason I have kept my upper level tickets. I figure when (not if) I finally get presented with an invoice for my 100 level Wizards season tickets that makes my heart stop, I can retreat back to a full season upstairs in what I consider to be pretty good seats in the third row on the side. If I gave those up and tried to get them back later, I'm sure I'd be way further back and really unhappy with my decision. As it stands, I'm essentially paying $16 per game as an insurance policy against prices skyrocketing. 
If you had asked me my opinion about how the increase in pricing for next season, I would have said the lower level seats I have in Section 109 would go up from $50 a game to $75 a game and the upper level seats which cost me just $16 per contest this year would stay the same. Boy was I wrong! Our lower level seats went up a mere $5 per game although our upper level seats went up by 25% (albeit a mere $4 per ticket). That's an overall increase of $9 per game vs. the $25 price hike I was expecting. This pricing continues to make me happy as a season ticket holder and ensures I'll have my butt in my seats next year every game. It's still a bargain to be a Wizards fan (if you ignore the lack of recent success).

Thank you to the Wizards for making this reasonable. Don't worry. I'm braced for further increases. Go Wizards! Raptors up tonight!

February 12, 2014

Royce White

A year ago today, I watched a basketball game between the NBA D-League's Rio Grande Valley Vipers and Maine Red Claws in the tiny town of Hidalgo, Texas right on the Mexican border. That game was part of a four game in five nights NBA and NBDL vacation which proved to be one of the more enjoyable trips I have taken in the last few years. Of all the basketball I watched that week, I was most excited about the game in Hidalgo for a number of reasons. One of the more intriguing was that I would get to see Royce White play his first professional game in person. As it turned out I also got to chat with him for a few minutes while he tied his shoes.

Royce White was 16th overall pick of the Houston Rockets in the 2012 NBA Draft, a 6'-8" 260 pound forward who led his college team, the Iowa State Cyclones, in points, assists, rebounds, steals and blocks per game in his one year there after transferring from the University of Minnesota. Royce also has general anxiety disorder, a condition which requires him to live his life in a very controlled, predictable fashion to avoid situations of high stress which typically cause him to shut down. A fear of flying, which many people have latched onto as Royce's only issue, is one of the high stress situations that Royce needs to carefully control. Flying is definitely something that is part of the job description as a member of an NBA team with a frequent and national travel schedule.

Royce's general anxiety disorder and the accommodations he sought to deal with that condition had caused contract negotiations with the Houston Rockets to be long and complicated. Central to satisfactory resolution of a contract with the Rockets was Royce having a qualified medical professional who would be able to evaluate his suitability to play on any day based on his mental condition that day. This type of contract condition is not something NBA teams historically have had to include in rookie deals and I thought (as did Royce, I believe) that his negotiation would serve as a watershed moment that might change how mental illness in professional sports is approached. After all, Royce can't be the only athlete dealing with mental health issues, right?

By the time I got to Hidalgo, Royce's story had been publicized well enough to land him in stories on ESPN's Outside The Lines and HBO's Real Sports. Unfortunately, his battle with the Rockets had also caused him to miss most of training camp while playing exactly zero regular season minutes for the Rockets. Along the way after contract negotiations were completed, there had been a refused assignment to the Vipers, a subsequent suspension and finally a reconciliation which caused him to be on the court for the first time last February 12. Not exactly the way to start your NBA career but likely worth it if it all worked out in the end, especially if it raised awareness of mental health issues in professional team sports and led to meaningful change. In my pre-game chat with Royce, I offered my support and told him not to give up.

The game Royce played for Rio Grande last February 12 was the first of 12 he would play before leaving the team on what he said was the advice of the Rockets' team physician. The Rockets, however, didn't agree with Royce and asked him to report back to the Vipers for an additional four games before he ended his season shy of the playoffs and eventual Vipers' championship. In July of last year, Royce was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers for essentially nothing. The Rockets actually sent cash to the Sixers to pay Royce's salary. After spending training camp and part of the preseason with Philadelphia, the team ultimately decided to part ways with Royce. He's currently not employed by an NBA team, although he's still taking home his slightly more than $1.7 million guaranteed with his rookie deal.

I can't imagine how difficult it is to live with any sort of anxiety disorder and I certainly can't begin to put myself in Royce White's situation. In addition to living with a condition that might shut his body down in the wrong environment, Royce is subjected daily to all sorts of disgraceful and hateful tweets from total strangers that appear to be making no effort to understand what it is he is dealing with. I know this because Royce replies to many of these on Twitter. Some of these messages like the one above which is pretty tame shake my faith in human nature.

But if Royce wanted to advance a cause to make the future better for guys with mental illnesses that come after him in the NBA, his lack of a job in that league is surely damaging his visibility enormously and I can't help thinking that Royce is in this situation partially of his own doing. His departure from the Vipers last year was clearly alarming to the Rockets and I have read reports that they found out about him leaving Hidalgo from Royce's Twitter account, a forum he has used relentlessly to embarrass and criticize the Rockets. He always had them on the defensive and for their part they refused to engage in a war of Tweets. It's easy for me to see that this type of behavior would be off putting to a potential employer.

When I first started following Royce White, I saw his message and his cause as important and I thought he did too. I don't believe he's done fighting but I believe he is done with professional basketball, which makes him eminently less important to the media and admittedly to NBA fans like me. He doesn't appear to be making efforts to re-enter the D-League and he recently gave what he called his last sports interview. My opinion is if he were willing to compromise a little more, he'd still be in the NBA fighting his fight in the spotlight of networks like ESPN and HBO; they are not so likely to give him any attention any more.

The Houston Rockets' General Manager, Daryl Morey, recently called Royce White the worst NBA first round pick ever. That seems a little harsh to me. Morey had to know selecting Royce carried great upside as well as great risk and I honestly don't believe he would have done that had he not had three first round picks in that draft. Having said that, I believe Royce is currently the only first round NBA pick who has signed a contract and not played a single minute in the regular season other than Nerlens Noel, who has been deliberately kept out of game action by the Philadelphia 76ers after last year's draft. I just think when I look back at what has happened between June of 2012 and now, Royce White seems to me to have missed an opportunity.

My Twitter account is dedicated to my love of the NBA and I'm unfortunately no longer following Royce White. No relevance to the NBA equals no following. I wish him all the luck in the world and I hope that one day he proves me as a doubter and comes back and plays in the NBA and makes a difference beyond that sport for future athletes.