April 30, 2014

Sweet Home Chicago

If you told me two weeks ago the Wizards-Bulls first round playoff matchup was over after five games, with Nenê being disqualified from four games and one team not winning a single game at home I would not have felt good about the Wizards' chances. But lo and behold, last night it was the Wizards closing out the Bulls in Chicago to end a quick series that Washington completely dominated. For the first time since 2005 and the second time since 1982, Washington's basketball team is in round two of the NBA playoffs.

If there's one big picture theme I take away from the last week and a half, it's how well the Wizards can play when focused. The Wizards had a number of stretches this season where they won four out of five (heck, we even had a six game winning streak in late February / early March) but none were this impressive and we had some serious concentration lapses, especially at home. I know very often in playoff series a superior team can kill an inferior team when presented with a best of seven series. I never expected us to finish the Bulls off the way we did. Total domination. After five seasons missing the postseason, this series was really sweet.

So for the first time since we beat these same Bulls (OK, maybe not the SAME Bulls once you get beyond Kirk Hinrich) in 2005, the Wizards are in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. And we might have home court advantage if the Atlanta Hawks manage to close out the number one seed Indiana Pacers tomorrow night. Before I look forward to that series, here's this fan's six pack take on what was so memorable about this year's first round series.

Is that a basketball or a grapefruit? Tony Snell stood no chance here.
1. Nenê
Of the five games in the series, Nenê finished only one and didn't play at all in game four. Yet his presence was felt in significant ways in all five games. From his game one playoff career high 24 points on 11 of 17 shooting to his closing game five 10 of 17, 20 point performance, to the "Free Nenê" chants by the Verizon Center crowd at the end of game four. Nenê may not have been the best player on the court in all five games but in ways that continue to confound all non-Wizards fan, Nenê demonstrated over the past week and a half why he is the most important cog on the Wizards team until John Wall is ready to assume that mantle in full.

It is absolutely amazing that the Nuggets allowed us to have Nenê for the small price of JaVale McGee. The Nuggets got a knuckleheaded freaky athletic center with poor court awareness and a total misunderstanding of the concept of team play and we get back one of the most cerebral passing big men in the game who makes this team instantly better. The Nuggets gave up Nenê according to what I have read because they were convinced Kenneth Faried could take his place in the Nuggets starting five at a way lower price and they were concerned about a history of injuries. Kenneth Faried is a nice player but he's no Nenê and since the February 2012 trade, Nenê has played 125 regular season games to JaVales's 104. No second round playoff appearances for the Nuggets with JaVale; one for the Wizards with Nenê. Wonder who won that trade?

2. Game Two Overtime
I watch sports to see my team beat their opponents. I don't watch for the love of the game or the majesty of the competition or any sort of nonsense like that. I only want to see my team win. Having said that, on any given night I'm eager to get to the point when I can declare victory as soon as possible. I have no problem blowing away the competition, crushing their spirit and cruising to an easy W.

But I have to say close games are way more exciting, especially when whatever team I am rooting for pulls out a close hard fought game. The overtime period of game two in Chicago has to be one of the most intense Wizards games I've watched on TV in a while. It was a late start (9:30 p.m.) and the overtime period pushed the completion of the game to beyond 12:30 a.m. with work the next day. But pulling out that win was so satisfying that staying up late and not sitting down at all due to nervous energy until Kirk Hinrich missed his two free throws in the last minute of OT were worth it. I can't remember a Wizards road game that intense since Caron Butler hit the game winner at the buzzer in game 5 of the 2008 playoff first round series against Cleveland. I like playing Chicago way better than Cleveland in the playoffs.

The opening of game three, first home playoff game at VC in six years.
3. Playoffs Back at Verizon Center
Six years without a playoff game is a long time. What made the drought worse was the almost complete lack of playoff atmosphere games at Verizon Center during that span. Sure the Wizards have had great wins against good teams, most notably in the last couple of years against the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, but even those games had too many bandwagon non-Miami and Oklahoma natives making altogether too much noise for the visitors. The closest I think we came since 2008 to a playoff atmosphere in the phone booth was this year's March 15 game against the Brooklyn Nets. The place was rocking at the end of that comeback victory.

So it was truly special to get to game three. The lines outside Verizon Center were longer than I have ever seen, even inside the back side movie theater entrance, where the line of Wizards (not Bulls) fans stretched across the lobby and eventually wrapped into itself. I can't remember this much excitement over a Wizards game in a while. The scene inside was equally impressive, with red, white and blue t-shirts waiting on each seat and a packed house at tipoff. The scene captured above is what I want each Wizards game to be like, even if it's a Tuesday night game against Milwaukee. I can always dream, right? By game four, the city had reverted to a late arriving crowd again. Maybe we can do better in round two.

4. Depth
Two years ago during the lockout shortened 2011-2012 season, the Wizards roster on opening day featured seven players on their rookie contracts with top reserve Nick Young on a qualifying offer after just completing his fourth year. While there were a few veteran role players, the most important Wizards player not on his rookie deal was likely Andray Blatche. Third year man John Wall and rookie Chris Singleton were the only two players to appear in all 66 games that year.

One of the reasons the Wizards so thoroughly dominated the Bulls over the past ten days was the team's depth. Unlike the Bulls, who (admittedly without Derrick Rose) self limited their team to seven with an occasional cameo from Tony Snell, the Wizards posted a solid eight man rotation of legitimate NBA players with the ability to insert Drew Gooden, Al Harrington, Garrett Temple and Kevin Seraphin in a pinch, especially during game four when Nenê was serving a one game suspension for head butting the Bulls' Jimmy Butler the previous game.

I think the depth of the team points to two things. First, the willingness of guys like Harrington and Gooden to want to play with a budding superstar like John Wall. Hopefully, Harrington's desire to join a team starting to make some noise for the veteran minimum is a sign of future things to come. Second, Ernie Grunfeld, despite whiffing on six of the last nine drafts, pulled together a pretty balanced team featuring a number of guys who can run up and down the court to complement John Wall and Bradley Beal's games. This team looks a little dangerous now that everyone is healthy.

5. Coaching
Before the Wizards-Bulls series started, I read a number of series predictions which broke down the matchup between the two teams into compartmentalized pieces as a means of predicting which team would emerge and move on to round two. Everything I read before the series started gave the coaching nod to Tom Thibodeau of the Bulls over our own Randy Wittman. In the press and coaching circles, Thibs is generally viewed as a top flight coach and motivator and defensive genius. Randy Wittman seems to be seen as a guy who is in the wrong spot at the right time and that if the Wizards were led by another coach (say…George Karl) they would have been way more successful.

But now that the series is over, there are a lot of reports out there that Wittman actually outcoached Thibodeau. I agree, even though that opinion is pretty well self-serving considering my thoughts of earlier this monthI generally view a head coach's responsibilities simplified into three different areas: game preparation, motivation and in game adjustments. 

At the end of game one, which I watched on TNT, Marv Albert and Steve Kerr were gushing praise for the Wizards' defense. Defense and hard nosed prepared play has been one of Wittman's consistent messages since he took the Wizards' head coaching gig, yet no kudos were handed Randy's way during the broadcast. Team defense is not something that just happens. It takes work and practice and the Wizards have been a top ten team in defensive efficiency each of the last two years. Do we have defensive minded players? Sure. But the focus on defense that the head coach brings makes it all happen.

I believe Randy has our guys motivated. The players consistently backed Wittman throughout this season and last season as a guy who kept the end goals in focus, although that didn't always manifest itself on the court when I sat in the lower bowl of Verizon Center watching us lose to Philadelphia or Milwaukee. The Golden State Warriors' Mark Jackson gets a lot of props for being a master motivator and the resultant 51 win season in Oakland is credited in large measure to Jackson. Randy doesn't seem to get anything close to the same amount of credit. Maybe 44 wins in the East is obscuring what's really going on.

But the most humorous part of the coaching comparison in this series is the ability to adjust strategy and match ups in game, something that almost everyone was convinced Thibodeau would do to beat the Wizards. But Thibodeau refused to change up his approach in this series and it killed the Bulls. His insistence on playing his defense first team in the fourth quarter (damn the scoring!) didn't pan out and he didn't adjust. Randy made critical adjustments like switching Trevor Ariza onto D.J. Augustin in game two and coming up with a game plan to win a Nenê-less game four. I'm giving the coaching nod to Randy in this series.

6. Haters Where You Are?
The sixth of my six pack of my top memories of this series is the almost universal dismissal our team got in this round. ESPN's playoffs page for our series (above) showed 18 of 19 experts picking the Bulls to win the series in five, six or seven games. The Bulls avoiding the Brooklyn Nets was generally seen as a fortuitous situation for Chicago. Seems like everyone preferred the Bulls in this series except the Wizards themselves, who knew they could outrun and outscore the Bulls.

Nenê has famously talked about the Wizards' haters. Seeing his team beat the pulp out of the Bulls while those same people sat silent on the sidelines has to make him feel good.

Round one is over and I'm looking forward to the next round against the Hawks or the Pacers. Missing in this list but no less important is Andre Miller finally reaching the second round of the playoffs. Andre was the all time leader in games played without winning a playoff series. No more. A few days off and then back at it. Hoping game one is at home on Sunday.

April 20, 2014

The Hoop Hall

The Washington Wizards 2104 postseason starts today at 7 pm. So before my attention gets totally swayed in the direction of our first playoff run since 2008, I thought I should wrap up my thoughts on my recent trip to New England. I've talked about watching hoops in Springfield and finding what I hoped to find in the D-League in Maine in past posts. I've also covered an important side trip in Portland on my mini-brewery tour up there. But one of the most important reasons I visited New England this year was to make a pilgrimage to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame while I was in Springfield. After becoming a true certifiable hoops junkie, I figured it was time to go.

This was not my first trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame. I'd visited once before when my dad and I were both Knicks fans and my folks lived about 35 miles from the Hall in Connecticut. But it feels like a long basketball journey for me since that visit. I've now been a Wizards season ticket holder for 14 years and schedule my life around the NBA season, something I couldn't say the last time I was in Springfield, Massachusetts. I've become engrossed in the history of my own team and basketball in general with a focus on the pro game through reading books and watching movies in the last dozen plus years so I figured this time around I'd get a lot more out of a visit to the Hall.

After flying to Boston Friday morning, driving straight down to Springfield and making a cautionary, but as it turned out unnecessary, couple of hours long stop in the Mercy Hospital emergency room, I arrived at the museum that celebrates the birth and history of the greatest game ever invented. To be clear, the museum is not the NBA Hall of Fame (there's no such thing…yet) but instead covers basketball in all its incarnations both foreign and domestic and focuses as much on the amateur and collegiate game (yes, I'm deliberately separating those two) as it does on pro ball.

My first impression of the place was that I didn't remember the Hall of Fame this way from my previous visit. The museum is buried in a strip mall with a Subway, Cold Stone Creamery, a couple of bars and some retail stores I'd never heard of. I totally didn't recall all this. And for good reason based on some Googling when I got home. As it turns out, this is the third iteration of the Hoop Hall which opened in 2002 and in fact, I had never been here before. The Hall of Fame I visited with my dad is about a football field's length north of the current location, now converted into an L.A. Fitness gym. I was shocked to learn that the current facility was designed by respected architects Gwathmey Siegel. To me, it looked like a commodity strip mall and until I actually got all the way into the museum, I remained unimpressed.

After entering the museum property, we grabbed some tickets and then looked for the entrance to the Hall, something that required the assistance of a guide after asking for directions; the sequence of arrival is that confusing. Our visit started with an elevator ride, which is never a good way to start the journey through a building to me. It works in the Guggenheim Museum in New York; this is not the Guggenheim. The elevator let us out in the Honors Ring, which occupies the giant silver ball component of the building in the photograph above.

The Honors Ring contains photographs and career details of all the Hall's inductees and while to me this should be at the end of the museum sequence, it at least provides an instant immersion into the history of the game. Eventually, most visitors are going to recognize someone in this room unless they just started watching basketball in the last few years and have managed to remain blissfully ignorant of any and all of the game's pioneers.

For me, the Honors Ring meant seeking out Bullets and Wizards legends from the past. There are a total of 11 former Bullets and Wizards players currently inducted into the Hall of Fame, with a 12th (Mitch Richmond) on the way this fall. Only one of those 11 (Michael Jordan) played for the Wizards and most of the soon to be 12 played their best ball somewhere else. In the interest of time, I concentrated on finding the four who have had their number retired by the franchise, meaning Gus Johnson (class of 2010), Earl Monroe (class of 1990), Elvin Hayes (also class of 1990) and Wes Unseld (class of 1988).

Gus Johnson was selected by the Chicago Zephyrs (soon to be the Baltimore Bullets) in the 1963 draft and played nine years with the Zephyrs and Bullets before being traded to the Phoenix Suns in 1972. Johnson was released by the Suns but went on to win an ABA championship with the Indiana Pacers in 1973. Earl Monroe was drafted by the Bullets in 1967 and spent four years with the team before being traded to the New York Knicks in 1971 and helping the Knicks to their 1973 NBA Championship. Monroe, to me, is more a Knick than a Bullet, although he arguably had a greater impact on the game in Baltimore.

Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld both played on the Washington Bullets' 1978 championship team. Hayes spent the first four years of his career with the San Diego and Houston Rockets before being traded to the Bullets and helping the team to its three NBA Championship appearances in the 1970s. In 1981, he was traded back to the Rockets where he ended his career. Unseld is undoubtedly the franchise's greatest player, spending his entire career with the team from the time he was drafted in 1968 until his retirement in 1981. He won both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors following the 1967-1968 season and presided over the franchise's most successful run ever in the 14 seasons he suited up for Baltimore and Washington. The franchise hasn't been the same since.

After the Honors Ring, we were directed into the History of the Game Gallery, a room whose entrance is presided over by a bronze statue of Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. Among major American team sports, basketball is unique in that its origin can be traced back to a single inventor on a specific date and time before which the game absolutely, unquestionably didn't exist.

The game was invented by Dr. Naismith in December 1891 while he was a physical education instructor at the International YMCA Training School (now Springfield College) in Springfield as a way to keep his students occupied during the New England winters when they were frustrated about having to exercise indoors. Naismith wrote the original 13 rules of the game down and pinned them to the gymnasium's wall before the first game was ever played. He originally requested two boxes for goals from the YMCA's staff but finding no boxes, elected to use peach baskets instead. I'm glad in a way. Although I never would have known it, I think I would have had a harder time being a boxball fan.

The original game was way different from the way it is played today. The first game was played with a soccer ball and dribbling was not permitted. The game also featured two teams of nine, because there happened to be 18 student's in Naismith's physical education class. I imagine the original game would be barely recognizable to fans of the current NBA game. The invention of the game is described in a video behind the bronze statue of Naismith in front of the History of the Game Gallery.

The History of the Game Gallery itself traces the game's spread and development from its beginnings in the YMCA system and then through the American Athletic Union (AAU) when the game outgrew the ability of the YMCA to manage the game's growth. It deals with the early professional leagues and the transfer of the game to the college level and its rise internationally. It also traces the development of the game's equipment, from the balls used to the design and manufacture of uniforms. The early woolen uniforms and smoking jacket like warmups (complete with pockets) on display in the center of the room are crazy. I can't imagine today's players competing or warming up in these things. 

Early gear in the History of the Game Gallery. Love the wool Celtics jersey.
The next room in the museum to the right of the History of the Game Gallery for me did a great job of crystallizing the start of the current NBA. Early on in basketball's development as a professional spectator sport, there were a number of regional leagues formed, mostly in the northeast and midwest, between the two world wars. At this time, before the development of jet travel, it was difficult to get anywhere outside of your immediate geography so most teams were clustered within few states. It's odd to think of Oshkosh and Sheboygan, Wisconsin being able to support teams but that's just where some of the early teams were located.

Eventually, two leagues, the National Basketball League (NBL) in the northeast and the Basketball Association of America (BAA) in the midwest became the dominant professional leagues. The NBL was important in standardizing the rules of professional basketball which had been in almost constant evolution since the game's invention. In 1948, the two leagues merged, creating a league which would eventually be renamed the National Basketball Association in 1949 and would continue under that name to the present day.

The same room that chronicles the development of professional ball also describes the NBA game's early days and the introduction of the most important development in the game's history: the introduction of the shot clock. The proverbial straw that broke the camel's back to need to speed up the game and stimulate more scoring came in 1950, when the Fort Wayne Pistons and the Minneapolis Lakers played to a final score of 19-18. I know a lot of people who criticize today's NBA game for too much scoring, claiming all you need to do is watch the last five minutes of the game to understand what happened. I can't imagine watching a game in which both teams scored fewer than 20 points. It would be worse than watching playoff hockey!

From this point, the Hall got a lot less interesting for me. We spent some time looking through the Players Gallery, Media Gallery and Coaches and Teams Gallery but the substance contained in the History of the Game Gallery were just not there. There are only so many uniforms and autographed balls and shoes I can look at in one day. The Media Gallery admittedly suffered from some of the interactive displays being inoperable, but ultimately I was there to learn about the history of the pro game and not the guys who covered it.

The last stop on my Hoop Hall tour was the Center Court on the ground level of the museum, a full size basketball court with a museum display on one side chronicling the development and history of the hoop itself, starting with Dr. Naismith's peach baskets and ending with today's NBA hoop and backboard. Since the place was relatively quiet the Friday I was there, I thought this would be a great opportunity to show off my shot on everything from the original peach basket to dropping in some Js from three point land on the main court.

When I lived in upstate New York, my primary source of exercise came from playing basketball down at the Cooperstown Elementary School (next to the addition I designed) and up at the Richfield Springs Central School near where I worked. While there were obvious deficiencies in my game (like my utter lack of ability to play defense), I always had a pretty good shot if I got going on any given day. It's been a few years since I've been on a court but I figured I could get right back into the groove like riding a bike or something. 

Not so much. The years away have not been kind to my game. My performance was quite honestly embarrassing. It took about four or five progressively closer shots for me to drop one in the peach basket and I never hit a shot from beyond the arc. I left humbled and felt the whole exercise in futility the next couple of days in my shoulder. I'm not as young as I once was clearly. At least I could still dribble properly. All in all a pretty humorous end to my trip. We moved on from here to a local bar, far more up my alley at this point in my life.

I know I'll come back here one day. I've promised myself I'll come take in Hall of Fame Enshrinement Weekend one day but I'm sort of waiting for a Wizards-related induction. Mitch Richmond this year doesn't count, despite him being in a Wizards uniform for a few seasons. Given the Wizards' fortunes of late, know I'll likely have to wait a while, unless somehow Antawn Jamison revives his career and squeaks by in a down year, so I may have to revise my philosophy. I'm not sure I can wait 20 years, assuming there's even someone who would qualify on our current roster. Until that time, I know I got something out of this year's visit and I'm glad I went. And I'll keep learning. I still have five or ten books on my shelves about basketball history I still haven't read.

Strip mall: Not the look I want for the Basketball Hall of Fame.

April 13, 2014

Randy Wittman

It seems that there aren't that many people out there who think Randy Wittman is a good coach. I don't know anybody personally who regularly attends Wizards games who thinks he's a good coach. I very often hear folks sitting around me at Verizon Center make comments like "Randy has to go" or "Wittman's the reason this team isn't better." There are an assortment of Tweets seemingly daily on Twitter complaining about Randy's ability to coach. Vegas oddsmakers had Randy as the odds on favorite at 2-1 in the beginning of the year to be the first NBA head coach fired (they were wrong). And ESPN recently ranked Randy the 24th (out of 30) best head coach in the NBA. Or the seventh worst, if you prefer to look at it that way. Five of the coaches ranked ahead of Randy are first year head coaches whose teams have worse records than the Wizards. Go figure.

The 2013-2014 NBA season is Randy's eighth partial or full season as an NBA head coach. He was the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers for two full seasons starting in 1999. His next head man opportunity came in Minnesota in 2006 where he spent one full season and two partial seasons at the helm of that franchise (he relieved a fired Dwayne Casey and then was fired and relieved by Kevin McHale sandwiched around a full season). His time as the Wizards' head coach has featured two full seasons (this year and last year) and a partial season when former head coach Flip Saunders was dismissed. His record in the seven years before this one as a head coach: 147 wins and 291 losses for a .336 combined winning percentage with zero winning seasons and no playoff appearances. OK, so that's not that impressive, but it's not like he was getting hired by the best teams in the NBA.

In his 2011 autobiography, Joe Tait, the former Cleveland Cavaliers broadcaster, has nothing but uncomplimentary things to say about Randy's days as a rookie head coach in Cleveland. Perhaps the worst story he related was this one:
Randy Wittman was a rookie head coach when he replaced (Mike) Fratello. (Shawn) Kemp had no respect for him. Kemp was constantly late for airplanes. I'm not talking about 10 minutes, but 45 minutes or an hour.We'd sit there in the private plane waiting. I sat up by the coaches. Trainer Gary Briggs would tell them that we needed to go, but Wittman let Kemp run the show. During one of the waiting-for-Kemp flights, Briggs was saying that if the Cavs didn't leave soon they'd miss their "window" to fly into Newark…and that would cause problems with the control tower. But Randy didn't want to leave Kemp. Finally Briggs was so frustrated about the indecision he told the coach, 'If you don't have any balls, you can borrow mine.' Wittman just sat there stone-faced.
I'm not picking on Randy here, although I'm probably adding the story above a little gratuitously just to get a cheap laugh. I've been in a position of personnel and project management for about 15 years or so in my profession and there's no doubt in my mind that I was terrible at it the first time I did it. There's also no question in my mind I'm way better at it now just like Randy is. But other than from his own players, there doesn't seem to be a groundswell of support for the job Randy has done in his two plus years as the Wizards head coach.

Lest we forget what the Wizards situation was when Randy took this job, let me remind you quickly. The Wizards starting lineup on opening night of that season (Flip Saunders was coach on opening night) was John Wall, Jordan Crawford, Rashard Lewis, Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. John Wall started all 66 games in that lockout shortened season; Chris Singleton, who can't crack the rotation at all these days, was second in starts with 51. Blatche, McGee and Nick Young were the pride of the Wizards draft nights the over a four year span and came to define a locker room where apathy, non-competitiveness and lack of team basketball ruled. By the end of that year, all three were gone. McGee and Young were traded at the trade deadline that year and Blatche was sent home towards the end of the season for being out of shape and then released via the amnesty clause in the offseason. None of this would be in a coach's dream team scenario.

Last night the Wizards won their 42nd game of the 2013-2014 season, meaning for the first time since 2007-2008, and only the fourth time since I purchased season tickets in the fall of 2000, the team will have a winning record at the end of the season. This year is Randy's first winning season and the first time he's going to be a head coach for the NBA playoffs. Throughout this season and the past one and a half seasons, Randy has been nothing but straight with his players and the media and totally consistent in his message: play defense and play team ball; this team just isn't good enough to win regularly any other way. I appreciate people who are honest and tell it like it is. Randy is not surprisingly my favorite Wizards head coach since I bought season tickets 14 years ago.

Unlike a lot of people out there, I think Randy deserves a lot of credit for the team's turnaround. According to rumors, Randy only took the interim head coach positions after Flip Saunders under the condition that he wouldn't have to cater to bad behavior from players, something totally understandable based on good management principles and based on the story I re-told from Joe Tait's book above. From my point of view, I can see Randy being a proponent of trading McGee and Young, although ultimately Ernie Grunfeld pulled the trigger on those deals. I believe Randy's role in expelling Andray Blatche from the team was far more active; in fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that was mostly Randy. Those moves, in addition to Randy getting buy in from his veteran players, played a critical role in changing the culture of the organization. Changing culture is not always easy; it takes toughness and perseverance.

One group that has not offered much, if any at all, criticism of Randy's running the team has been the players. In fact, Wittman's players have offered up nothing but praise for the job Randy's done. Martell Webster, Nene and Kevin Seraphin have been especially vocal about the kind of leadership and discipline Randy has brought to the team.

The question now is whether the team is going to get better under Randy's leadership going forward. His contract is up at the end of the season and I've read more than one article on the internet about the Wizards needing to make a move to avoid the kinds of lapses the team has displayed recently that has cost us wins or at least a shot at a win against Charlotte and Chicago. The irony is that the one group of people (the players) who have had nothing but praise for Randy may end up costing him his job. Randy's delivering a consistent message to the team but selfish play, lapses in concentration and sloppy defense may indicate that sometimes that message isn't getting through. And ultimately, that's the head coach's responsibility isn't it?

I believe Randy deserves some congratulations for getting this team a winning record and to the playoffs. I also believe the players can have a significant influence on whether Randy gets a job offer from this team in the offseason. Not through their words, but through their play. A playoff run that shows no lapses in executing the message Randy delivers may be enough to do that. Heck, there are still two games left in the regular season so they could start there by clinching the sixth spot by winning these last two going away. For now, though, I just want to say I think our head coach has done a good job this year, better than most people think. We'll see what happens in the playoffs and beyond.

April 7, 2014

From Allagash To Shipyard

A little more than two weeks ago, while the Washington Wizards were off on the west coast losing three of four critical games on their last significant road trip of the year, I spent a couple of days in Portland, Maine watching some NBDL basketball. This was the second year in a row I've taken a trip to watch D-League ball and as it turned out, Portland may have been the perfect place for me to do so. It gave me the small time atmosphere I was looking for in my five trips down to the sub-NBA level since February 2013. 

I've pointed out in this blog last week that my decision to visit Maine (and Springfield, Massachusetts before that), was a cause of some internal strife for me due to my aversion to most things New England. Lobsters, quaintness, the New England Patriots, Boston accents...just not on board with any of that. However, there was a significant ulterior motive to me stopping specifically in Portland: BEER!

Now, if there's a Portland most people associate with craft brewing, it's probably Portland, Oregon. Indeed, most beer enthusiasts consider the west coast Portland to be the cradle of the modern craft brewing industry in the United States. The rise of small brewers started there in the mid-1980s after the state of Oregon passed legislation in 1985 permitting the manufacture and sale of alcohol on the same premises. This was a very important step forward for brewpubs, who were equipped to brew and sell, but not bottle and distribute.

But Portland, Maine, wasn't far behind their left coast namesake in the last couple of decades of the twentieth century. And today the Portland I stopped in at two weeks ago has the highest number of breweries per capita in the United States. A part of this distinction is undoubtedly due to the city's small size. But an internet search for "breweries in Portland Maine" turns up a pretty good sized list. So...basketball and beer? How could I refuse to take advantage of this situation and take a little side quest to explore one of my major passions in life. 

So because it's me taking this trip, there's a lot of planning involved. I didn't want to leave my beer adventure to any sort of chance, so I took some time to map out a route that would cover the whole spectrum of the almost 30 year old beer renaissance in the Portland area. Realizing I had only about half a Saturday and most of the day Sunday to sample all I could, I tried to strike a balance between big and small, well known and unknown, and old and new. Like most things in life, my plan yielded some good things, some bad things, some disappointments and some pleasant surprises. 

For the record, I picked the largest in town (Shipyard), a pioneer (Gritty McDuff's), some place I'd never heard of (Rising Tide) and a brewery I respected but didn't think I knew enough about (Allagash). Here's what I found, in the order I found it.

Allagash Brewing Company
Generally speaking, there are three beer brewing traditions in the world: Belgian, English and German. Most brewers in the United States brew in either the English (ales fermented and conditioned in warmer temperatures using top fermenting yeast) or German (lagers fermented and conditioned in cooler conditions using bottom fermenting yeast) styles. Most craft breweries brew in the English style; mass market brewers like Miller, Coors (yes, I know those two are one company now) or Anheuser-Busch brew in the German style.

Less popular in this country is the Belgian brewing tradition, which is generally ale-based but produces a sweeter, stronger, often way more complex but less hoppy product than those in the English style. That statement is a too simplified version of the Belgian brewing style but for the purposes of this blog post, I'm declaring it good enough. I know, there are beer geeks among the dozen or so people who read my blog gnashing their teeth over the dumbed down, lambic and other unique Belgian beer styles omitting, description of a great art.

Allagash Brewing Company was founded in 1995 around the Belgian brewing tradition but today they are allowing subtle influences from other traditions or just downright experimenting with American improvements on European brewing flavors in addition to sticking true to its roots. I'd had Allagash beer before I arrived in Portland. Their flagship beer, Allagash White, a witbier or white beer, can be found around D.C. in good beer bars and I'd had a glass of Allagash Black once last fall. But I knew I hadn't explored the breadth and depth of beer they had to offer so I was eager to take a tour (the only tour I took) of their brewery and taste some more of their beer.

I've been on a lot of brewery tours in my time, more than I can count on my fingers and toes, from the very small Cooperstown Brewing Company in upstate New York to the largest single site brewery in the world in Golden, Colorado, so touring a brewery was no new thing for me. But what came across in Allagash's tour was the way they built the business and cared deeply about everything they did throughout the process. I was intrigued by the fact they introduce sugar into the beers at both the brewing and bottling stages and impressed by some of the fermentation times (six days for Allagash White but nine months (!) for their Interlude beer).

Allagash White, Saison, Curieux and Odyssey.
Following the tour we were treated to samples of White, Saison (a good, but not the best, American saison I've tasted), Curieux and Odyssey (a dark wheat aged in oak barrels) beers. All were good but the gem here for me was Curieux, a tripel ale (meaning it is fermented three times) aged in Jim Beam bourbon barrels. I've had beer aged in bourbon barrels before but I've never had one like this. Despite its strength (11% ABV), the beer doesn't taste of alcohol or even that strong. The beer is not that sweet but the notes of wood and all the good things about bourbon come through loud and clear without the alcohol aftertaste that such beers sometimes leave on the palate. It's honestly one of the best beers I've tried for the first time in a while. I now have a bottle ($17.99!) sitting in my fridge waiting for me to open it. 

The experience at Allagash was awesome. These guys really care about what they are doing and it shows. The place was packed when we visited and deservedly so. I'd hang out here once in a while myself if I could, although next time I'd make sure someone else drove so I could finish my samples. I gave the remainders of mine to my friend Mike, although rest assured he didn't get any Curieux from me. Two enthusiastic thumbs way up!

Rising Tide Brewing Company
The second stop on my mini brewing tour of Portland was Rising Tide, a place I'd never heard of before but picked out off the internet based on their webpage and what sounded like some good beers. Always dangerous, I know. I made sure we parked our car and checked into our hotel before walking the just less than a mile to Rising Tide's place so I could really sample everything I wanted here.

Unlike Allagash, which is located in a custom built brewery on the edge of Portland, Rising Tide is located in an industrial park made into a sort of strip mall for its thirsty customers. Rather than Allagash's six or so employees, Rising Tide featured only two, dutifully pouring beer for us and the rest of the customers in the place on a mid-Saturday afternoon. 

Rising Tide is an English style brewery, so traditional ales were expected and found here but they managed to go off the path a little like Allagash to create some unique brews. The sampling flight at Rising Tide features small tasters of their tap beers. I found the Ishmael copper ale to be solid but unremarkable, not something I would seek out in Portland or elsewhere. I felt the same way about the Daymark American pale ale (despite the interesting addition of local rye) and the Ursa Minor weizen stout, which when I first heard the description of a stout made from wheat really piqued my interest since that sort of inventiveness is really right up my alley.

But Rising Tide really came through for me with the last two beers I tried here. Their Atlantis beer, a black ale, was especially tasty. I generally disapprove of black ales because I think there is a disconnect between what looks like a really flavorful beer and the inevitable letdown I feel from their relative lack of complexity when drinking them. But Rising Tide's base of cherry wood smoked malt in this beer adds a ton of flavor. I'd say it's one of the best, if not the best, black ale I've had. I felt similarly, although nowhere near as strongly, about the Andromeda, a hoppy sweet beer that I found interesting.

I liked my visit to Rising Tide. I think these guys have something going here and I'd without question get some more Atlantis given the opportunity. It helped finding a New York Jets fan behind the bar, especially since I'd worn my Jets shirt deliberately to thumb my nose at the local Patriots fans. It was good to find a sympathetic soul behind the bar while drinking some good beer. Two enthusiastic thumbs up here, too.

Shipyard Brewing Company
After an hour or so at Rising Tide, it was on to brewery number three, Shipyard Brewing Company, the largest brewery in Portland. I used to love to drink Shipyard beer when I lived in Cooperstown, NY. It was one of the first domestic craft brews I remember being able to get in upstate New York. I especially loved their Old Thumper IPA beer, created from a recipe from the Ringwood Brewery in England, the same area of England that supplied the yeast for my beloved Cooperstown Brewing Company. So I arrived in Portland with a very positive impression of Shipyard and their beer. That changed quickly.

Since their founding in 1994, just one year before Allagash was born, Shipyard has grown. A lot. They have expanded their four of five signature brews into multiple variants and offshoots. They have also acquired other breweries like Sea Dog Brewing Company and have contract brewed for a number of local and regional breweries. We managed to make it into the Shipyard Brewery Store just before 5 p.m. on Saturday and sneaked on to their final tour of the day, a 15 minute or so video followed by a tasting of (seemingly) as much beer as you could drink or stomach, depending on how you view Shipyard's beer.

I've never been much impressed with breweries that use recorded videos to inform you about their beer. I think some of that works if there is someone there in person to reinforce the beer experience in a positive way. I didn't get that at Shipyard. Our "tour guide" who talked us through the beer tasting was less than reassuring. She was extremely enthusiastic, but described their beer using non-beer terminology and didn't display the kind of deep diligent knowledge that I got from Allagash and to a lesser extent, Rising Tide.

The beers we sampled at Shipyard were disappointing. We started with the Shipyard Export, which was described as a Canadian style IPA and which tasted like a sort of junior version of a good IPA; not horrible which in the early 1990s in upstate New York I probably welcomed alongside Old Thumper. But we are not in the early 1990s any more and beer brewing has evolved in this country and standards are higher. We followed the Export two beers later with their Brewer's Brown Ale, a slightly hoppier and really pretty good traditional brown ale. I usually do not care for brown ales primarily due to what I find is a watery finish. This one, if I were ever inclined to drink brown ale regularly, would be towards the top of my list.

But the rest of the beer experience at Shipyard was a bust. We sampled a Sea Dog Sunfish, a grapefruit peach wheat beer that was pretty grapefruit-y, very peachy and about as unappetizing a beer as I have ever had (keep in mind I don't like peaches before you blindly follow me on this). After the first three beers, we were permitted to try as many of the other nine taps as we wanted and I foolishly opted for the Pugsley's Signature Series Smashed Blueberry stout. I don't know who Pugsley was but this beer tasted like it was a dry stout with some IHOP blueberry syrup mixed into it. Not appealing at all. And while I acknowledged earlier I don't like peaches, I love blueberries and stout (hell, I love IHOP blueberry syrup) but I would not drink this beer again.

But the real measure of Shipyard's worth for me came in their Double ESB, a double hopped Old Thumper beer aged in bourbon barrels, much like Allagash's Curieux beer that I found so excellent just hours before. Unlike the Curieux, though, Shipyard's similar beer was excessively sweet, overly bourbon-y and it stank of and burned like alcohol. The difference between the two similar beers was astounding. It didn't help Shipyard's case that they talked this beer up to us. I think my trip to Shipyard was quite unfortunate; I left with a negative opinion of this brewery, a complete 180 from when I walked in. Two thumbs down here, I'm afraid.

Gritty McDuff's
In the late 1980s, right after I turned 21, my dad gave me a pocket guide to beer as a way to introduce me to what was becoming a burgeoning craft brewing movement in the United States that started to bring this country up to an equal footing with the rest of the world. That little book was my guide to buying beers foreign and domestic in the beer shops around my apartment in Ann Arbor and I read the pages over and over (keep in mind this was before the internet). I remember the Maine section of that book contained two breweries that served as leaders in the young American brewing movement. One of these was Geary's, a brewery founded in 1986 and still brewing today. The other was the brewpub Gritty McDuff's, founded in 1988. I knew I couldn't leave without stopping in for a couple of pints at the original Gritty's in downtown Portland.

Let me say this about Gritty McDuff's before I describe the beer I had there: I have imagined going to this place for 25 years and over that time the place has acquired a sort of mythology surrounding it in my head. I imagined a dark, dank (in a good way and yes, there is a good sort of dank), historic establishment with a proud brewing tradition and excellent beers that would make you want to stay there all night, a welcoming place to stay on a cold winter's night in Portland. I am sure this romantic vision of Gritty's affected what I am about to write about its beer.

We stopped in at Gritty's for two pints on Saturday night and another couple with brunch on Sunday morning. The beer to me was reminiscent of Shipyard, although that's probably a little bit of a disservice here: good beer for the late 1980s or early 1990s in the United States but less than good by today's standards. I imagine I would have very much enjoyed this beer 25 years ago; today it is competent but that's about it. The place also didn't live up to my imaginings. The bar didn't look old, the decorations in the place looked like St. Patrick's Day had recently come and gone and we sat on the corner of the disproportionately high bar closest to the door to the street on about a 25 degree or maybe colder night. Not warm, not historic, not welcoming. So my experience at Gritty McDuff's didn't match what I wanted and some of that is probably my fault.

I sampled the Original Pub Style, Best Bitter and Black Fly Stout and none were beers I would crave, although I thought the Black Fly was a serviceable dry stout which I would order again if I ever find myself at Gritty's. I also drank their Red Claws Ale at the Maine Red Claws game, which I thought was the best of the four beers from here that I drank. Unfortunately, the Red Claws Ale is not available at the pub. Overall, I think I was set up for failure by my own expectations. One thumbs down and one thumbs sideways here I think.

So that's it. That's the story of my beer trip to Maine. Last year I took in barbeque on my D-League trip. This year it was beer. Both trips produced some culinary losers and some unforgettable experiences. If you are ever in Portland, I suggest you stop by Allagash and Rising Tide. You won't regret it.

April 2, 2014


Tonight the Washington Wizards beat the Boston Celtics at home by 26. With that victory the 2013-2014 Wizards clinched a playoff spot, the franchise's first postseason appearance since 2008. The New York Knicks, the last team that was standing in our way to the postseason, can still catch the Wizards for total victories this season if they win all six of their remaining games and the Wizards lose all seven of their remaining games. But the Wizards hold the season series 2-0 with only one game remaining so the Wizards are in.

It's been a long time coming. When I first bought Wizards season tickets before the 2000-2001 season, I knew I'd have to wait a bit before we made the playoffs. I mean at that time we were searching desperately for an identity, built around three aging-or-past-their-peak-too-young-almost or former stars in Rod Strickland, Mitch Richmond and Juwan Howard. We went through the Michael Jordan put-the-franchise-development-on-hold two years before finally bringing in General Manager Ernie Grunfeld and star in the making Gilbert Arenas and ushering playoff ball back to the District in 2005 behind the team's best record since 1979.

Four seasons holding season tickets without the playoffs before finally making it. Not too bad. I thought I'd been patient and that I probably wouldn't have to wait that long between playoff seasons in the foreseeable future. But I don't have the best luck with my professional sports teams and so in typical fashion (for me), Gilbert Arenas turned out to be a train wreck after a disastrous knee injury and Ernie Grunfeld managed to have one of the worst runs in recent drafting history, selecting Andray Blatche, Oleksiy Pecherov, Nick Young and JaVale McGee with the team's top selections in four consecutive drafts.

And so it's been five full seasons without a playoff appearance for the Wizards and the drought is finally over. It took a complete overhaul of the roster, starting with John Wall and building through the draft and selective trades to get to this point. I've been counting this moment down in my head and on Twitter for the past couple of weeks, tracking the elimination of the Bucks, 76ers, Magic, Celtics, Pistons, Cavaliers and finally the Knicks. Seven teams who can't catch us, meaning we are in.

Now the question, over the last seven games, is "where do we end up?" We can't finish first or second and we likely can't catch Toronto or Chicago for home court advantage, although Chicago is not totally out of reach because we have one more game at home against them on April 5 and would both gain a game and sweep the season series (the first tie-breaker) if we win next Saturday. I also think there's almost no chance of finishing eighth, being 6-1/2 games ahead of New York and Atlanta and having already won the season series against both.

So I guess it's fourth through seventh. How bad do we want it? We'll find out starting Friday against the Knicks on the road. I'll be tuned in for the whole thing. Congratulations, Wizards! Let's finish strong.

My 2005 playoffs shirt. Nine years ago. Time to establish another playoff tradition.