December 29, 2014

The Quest

Chicago, November 2010. Sunday morning at the Bean after a Wizards loss the night before.
About a couple of weeks ago, I was in south Florida to watch my beloved Washington Wizards take on a team I am equally but totally oppositely passionate about…the hated Miami Heat. The game was sloppy, but the Wizards prevailed ultimately because they are a better team than the Heat, not because they played better on that particular night. That still sounds weird after almost a decade and a half of disappointment watching the Wizards lose a lot.

My stop into AmericanAirlines Arena right on the water in downtown Miami earlier this month represented the tenth different NBA arena in which I have seen the Wizards play an NBA game. Overall, I have now seen an NBA regular season or playoff game played in fourteen different buildings over the last almost two decades. Since there are only 29 different arenas (the Clippers and Lakers play in the same building), I'm pretty much figuring I should see them all at this point, right? Right! I mean I'm about halfway done anyway.

So this is not exactly a new thing for me to try to achieve. I've been thinking about knocking off every arena in the Association for a good six or seven years now. This is just the first time I have put it all down in writing for the record. My ultimate goal here is to see the Wizards play in every current arena in the NBA against each home tenant. I figure once I get to that point, maintaining the complete collection will just mean traveling to any new arena the year it opens. The tough part will be getting there to begin with.

For now, I'm contenting myself with some interim goals, which allow me to declare more success than seeing the Wizards play in every opponent's arena. The first is to make it to an NBA event in each city, whether it be a regular season game, playoff game or All-Star event. This allows me to take credit for watching hoops in arenas before I was a Wizards fan and taking in random NBA games just because I happen to be in an NBA city on game day. The second is to see an NBA event in the current arena in each city. This group should be a subset of the first. Watching a Wizards road game will be a subset of both, unless I'm way off in my logic here.

So with all that said, here's my progress to date. I'm proud of what I've accomplished so far, but I realize as I wrote this post that I need to do a whole lot more traveling away from home. And fast!

Atlantic Division
I've lived in the northeast of the United States pretty much constantly since my family moved to this country in 1979, so it's no surprise to me that I've made out pretty well in this Division. I have just one arena to visit (in Brooklyn) and I'll take care of that when I take in the Rising Stars Challenge at Barclay's Center during All-Star Weekend this coming February. There's still some work to do Wizards-wise here but I'm feeling pretty good about the Atlantic.

The first game I ever saw in person was a New York Knicks / Toronto Raptors game at Madison Square Garden two days before Christmas in 1995. I was a Knicks fan at the time living in upstate New York and I surprised my dad (who was also following the Knicks in Connecticut) with a pair of tickets for an early Christmas present. The only memories I really have of that game are sitting in the upper deck end zone in MSG while my dad continually expressed amazement at Damon Stoudamire's last name. For some reason he just couldn't get the pronunciation right and Stoudamire's name was called a lot that night as he was pretty much all the talent the Raptors had that season.

My dad and I would end up at four more Knicks games over the next couple of years always in the upper deck and always in the end zone. To this day, I haven't seen a ball game at Madison Square Garden closer than those seats my dad and I had those three years. Each time I went to see the Knicks, New York seemed overwhelming to me despite the fact that I sort of knew New York pretty well at that point. We rarely seemed to know what we were doing and our time in New York seemed to last less than an hour longer than the game itself. It was in and out. I have tickets to the All-Star game there in a couple of months. I can't wait to go back as a more experienced hoops fan.

Our time at MSG was confined to the upper end zone because the Knicks in the late 1990s were good; the Boston Celtics, who were located about the same distance from our house in Connecticut, were not. In fact, they were pretty terrible. This was the Rick Pitino era when the Celtics seemed to have about 35 small forwards on their roster who Pitino would constantly be switching in and out of the game. So after the first couple of years of my dad and I seeing Knicks games in person, we decided to travel to Boston a couple of times to see some games in some better seats, which were plentiful in those days.

Ask my opinion of Boston teams and I'll tell you I pretty much hate them all. But I love the city of Boston and the neighborhood around the TD Garden (or the Fleet Center as it was known in the late '90s) is no exception. Heading to Boston was an opportunity to stop into an Irish pub for a pint or two and some shepherd's pie before heading over to the arena to watch the C's lose. I can't wait to get back there to watch the Wizards sometime in the next few years. 

While the Gardens in New York and Boston were my first two pro basketball experiences, Philadelphia and Toronto have been knocked off the list this year. I think the Atlantic is in good shape, although I need to make sure I go back to a few places when the Wizards are in town.

Central Division
My progress in the Atlantic Division is almost 100 percent complete in a couple of columns but remains incomplete from a Wizards perspective because of the sort of haphazard way I've engaged the NBA since I became a serious fan in 1994. My progress in the Central Division, which pretty much covers the Great Lakes states, is less comprehensive but more complete Wizards-wise. I love the midwest from my four years at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s so any opportunity to get back to this area of the country is a welcome one, especially if it's to watch some live hoops.

In each case where I have seen a Central Division team at home, it's been against the Wizards because I have taken trips to these cities specifically to get closer to the finish line of this quest. I hit Indianapolis in 2009, Chicago a year later and then Milwaukee this past winter. I managed to get about a minute of air time from Steve Buckhantz and Phil Chenier in Indy (where they mentioned this quest); argued with a cab driver in Chicago about the best dunk in the Bulls-Knicks rivalry of the 1990s (Starks over Jordan is still the best); and picked up a whole host of free Bucks swag courtesy of the Bucks PR department so I could fill up this blog. Good times in all three cities.

I am dying to go to a game in Cleveland, although I may postpone that trip until the post LeBron era and I'm thinking Detroit is one of the last places I'm hitting just because the Palace is so far in the middle of nowhere in Auburn Hills, Michigan (a full 33 miles outside of Detroit). I'm definitely partial to seeing basketball in the middle of a city where it belongs. Maybe if I wait long enough, I'll see hoops back downtown in the motor city.

Southeast Division
It should come as no surprise that of all the divisions in the NBA, I am most complete with the Southeast Division. I live close to most all these cities, I can get to each one with relatively inexpensive non-stop flights and some of these teams have been pretty terrible recently, meaning tickets have been pretty inexpensive. Plus I get a freebie with the Wizards in this group.

One trip to Charlotte could kill this group off pretty quickly, so I'll likely make a visit to the Queen City sometime in the next couple of years. After all, it's a pretty easy flight down to North Carolina on US Airways. I have seen an NBA game in Charlotte many years ago, when the Hornets were the original Hornets before they moved to New Orleans then Oklahoma City after hurricane Katrina then back to New Orleans before re-naming themselves the Pelicans allowing the Bobcats to take back the original Hornets name. The playoff game I saw down in the old cavernous Charlotte Coliseum outside of town was the first postseason NBA game I had ever seen and I'll never forget the defeated atmosphere that the crowd had down there, having lost all faith in the team's ownership and waiting for them to just split town one day. The fans got their way a couple of months later.

I'd love to finish this division off soon. When I'm taking on a job like this one, I love getting components of the task entirely completed and then I can move on to another part of the same job. Soon. I promise myself.

Southwest Division
While I am feeling pretty good about the Eastern Conference portion of my mission to see the Wizards take on all other 29 teams in their home arenas, I feel a lot less than confident about my progress in the Western Conference. There's a good reason for this: it is generally more complicated and expensive to visit cities further from where I live and some of these places are very far from where I will most likely ever live. When we are talking about cities outside of the Eastern time zone, flights are longer and most often not direct, which just sort of sucks.

My progress on the Southwest Division, therefore, really looks pretty pitiful. And this is the closest of all the Western Conference divisions. In early 2013, I took a basketball trip down to Texas for almost a full week, driving from Dallas through San Antonio all the way down to the Mexican border before heading back to Dallas through Austin. I saw four hoops games that week but the focus was the D-League, not the NBA. The only NBA game I saw on that trip was a Mavericks - Golden State Warriors game in Dallas. I stopped in at the Spurs' arena in San Antonio but it was to see the rodeo, not basketball.

There's for sure a lot of work to do here but Texas is relatively easy to get to from Washington and I'd love to go back and listen to some jazz and blues in New Orleans and Memphis. I'm missing a golden opportunity to see a Saturday game in Memphis on April 4 (opted to go to Italy instead; go figure) this season. I'm hoping the basketball gods will not punish this transgression and instead serve up a Saturday night game in either Memphis or the Crescent City next year.

Northwest Division
The first road trip I ever took to see the Wizards was to Minneapolis in 2007. It was the only road game that year that was not televised locally so in an act of self indulgence, I decided to fly into and out of Minnesota on the same day so I could see my Wizards knock off the Timberwolves. So many things went wrong here with travel. The Wizards flight got diverted the previous day due to weather which got them into town late and I ended up staying in Minneapolis overnight because of weather back home postponing all flights back to DC. But this is the trip that got me hooked and the night downtown convinced me that spending some time in a city instead of just focusing on the game itself was a great way to cover the U.S.

That '07 trip to the Target Center is all I got here. Denver is likely the next city in this division to see me in town. It's a long way to go to Portland and Utah and there are no direct flights from D.C. to Oklahoma City. Maybe I can hit OKC when the Wizards sign Kevin Durant away from the Thunder in a couple of years.

Pacific Division
If it was no surprise that the Southeast Division is the most complete for me, then it should come as an equal non-surprise that the Pacific Division is the least complete. Four of the five teams in this division play in California, a place I have visited a ton in the last 20 years but only once since 2006. I've never seen a hoops game in person in California. The only credit I can take here is a couple of games I saw in the desert in Phoenix on a vacation in 2001. I've got as much work to do here as I do in the Southwest division, only the Southwest cities are a heck of a lot closer.

A couple of years ago, my friend Mike told me I'm going to have to visit more than one road arena per year if I want to hit them all anytime soon and he's absolutely right. I have a ton of work to do here. I think my trip to Miami just before Christmas represents the last Wizards road trip I'm taking this season, although as I mentioned I do plan to make it to Brooklyn's Barclay's Center about the middle of February. I might be lucky to complete this quest by 2025 but I'll remain committed to it until I do. Can't wait for the 2015-2016 schedule release in August so I can project where I'm going next season.

Milwaukee, March 2014. Me and the statue of the Fonz before a Wizards win over the Bucks that same day. 

December 28, 2014

Beat The Heat!

Nine days ago, on a Friday night in south Florida, the Washington Wizards won their 19th game of the 2014-2015 NBA season by beating the home Miami Heat 105-103. 14 years ago, my first as a season ticket holder, the Wizards won 19 games all season. ALL SEASON!!! And no, it was not a strike or lockout shortened season; it was a full 82 games. In some ways, it's amazing I came back for more. The fact that the current Wizards won 19 before Christmas is in many ways a microcosm of how this franchise has grown over the past decade and a half. I think this team is without question the best the Wizards have fielded since I've been a die hard fan. The 19 win fiasco that was that first season was repeated by the way in 2008-2009. Not good.

About seven years ago, I started traveling to see the Wizards play on the road. It started in Minnesota in 2007 and continued as much on as off each year until last season, when I ramped my road trips up to two games, one in Philadelphia and one in Milwaukee. This year, I decided to travel to two away contests again. The game in Miami a week and a half ago was the second of my two trips this year.

Road games fill me with a certain amount of dread. There's something brash and cocky about walking into another team's building wearing the visitor's colors and applauding every good Wizards play and booing the home team. Other fans do it in our building in Washington and I hate it. And the absolutely last thing I want to have happen to me on vacation is to be mocked for being a Wizards fan after a loss to the home team. 

I assume most people around us at Verizon Center wearing Heat / Cavaliers / Thunder / take your pick of team shirts and jerseys are fair weather fans and I have to assume some road game fans view me the same way, although admittedly Washington Wizards fans or "fans" are still somewhat rare and I'm hoping the autographed Martell Webster jersey pegs me as a bit more than a bandwagonner. It's difficult to find Webster jerseys in Verizon Center; in fact, I don't believe I've ever seen another unless Martell is wearing it on court.

If you had told me before that Friday's game that Nenê and John Wall would tie for our leading scorers with 20 each; that Wall would tally 10 assists; that we would out rebound and shoot 14 more free throws than the Heat; and that both Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts would miss the game, I would have relaxed significantly before tip off. On the other hand, if you told me that we would shoot 3-14 from three point range; give up 53.3% shooting and 103 points to the Heat; and that Rasual Butler would shoot only a single shot from downtown, I'd be really worried about showing up for the game at all.

The Wizards actually got off to a good start in Miami, unlike the following two games against Phoenix (loss) and Chicago (loss). While the first quarter was tight at 29-25, I felt that the Wizards would play their traditional ramping-up-the-defensive-pressure-as-the-game-goes-on game plan and we'd end up cruising to a victory. It certainly seemed that I was right when we jumped out to a good start in the second quarter, extending our lead  a couple of minutes into the second half before a Heat timeout.

And that's just when the Wizards relaxed and let the home team start to dictate the pace, like we allowed the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic to do earlier this month. We got lucky against the Magic on a buzzer beater game winning alley oop pass from Andre Miller to Bradley Beal and managed to emerge with a one point double overtime win against the C's in Verizon Center after falling behind by seven in each extra period, but the sloppiness got us in the game in Boston and goes down as our only terrible loss so far.

From our corner seats near the top of the upper bowl at American Airlines Arena we could see perfectly the lack of defense being played in the lane as drive after drive from the Heat resulted in easy layups. On the other end, we could see equally perfectly the Wizards offense stick on the perimeter and the absolute refusal of most of our players to enter the wide open paint area possession after possession. With less than one quarter to go, the Wizards were still kicking, down only five, but showing little desire to win the game over a clearly crippled opponent.

Ultimately, our guys did manage to pull out the game behind a series of good plays from the largely absent for the first 46 minutes of the game Bradley Beal. Brad managed to hit four free throws in the last couple of minutes and his steal from Dwayne Wade sealed the deal, even if Wade did manage to hit a buzzer beating three as the final horn sounded. Too bad for the Heat that he needed four points, not three. Make no mistake, the Wizards won this game not because they played better than the Heat but because they have more talent. That's a strange sentence for me to write but it's true.

The Miami game was followed by two consecutive losses by the Wizards where they allowed easy lane penetration and focused on a perimeter shooting offense. Maybe they figured out what they were doing wrong after the Chicago game because the last two games against New York on Christmas Day and the Celtics two days later looked far more polished. Or maybe it's just that the Knicks and Boston are just terrible teams. We'll see how we fare this week in Texas before making any judgements I think.

One of the things I love most about traveling to away games is laying eyes on another arena. Most folks would likely argue that the amount of individuality in arenas where the sport is played on a standard sized court or rink or field is limited, unlike baseball stadiums where the dimensions of the playing field can vary from park to park. I wouldn't necessarily disagree with the argument that baseball offers the arena designer a ton more flexibility but I know from visiting a dozen or so NBA arenas that there is enough variation between buildings to make each new visit a voyage of discovery.

I've offered the opinion in past posts on this blog that of all the arenas I've visited in the last seven plus years that Verizon Center in D.C. is one of the more space limited arenas. Squashing a building suitable for playing basketball and hockey into Washington's city grid has left the Wizards a building with tight concourse spaces with little room for expansive lobbies like Banker's Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis or the types of historical displays about the team's history like they have at the Amway Center in Orlando.

The AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami definitely does not have the type of urban constraints we have in Washington. In fact, the building is probably the most gorgeously sited building in the NBA, right on the water facing the harbor where all the cruise ships are loaded up with passengers eager to spend a week or more packed into a mobile building which allows them to get away from home but not really see anything of the world. The siting of the building and the tropical climate allowed AAA's architects to effectively expand the lower concourse of the building to a plaza facing the water on the back side of the arena. I imagine it must be great to spend halftime outside with a drink during a late spring game.

On the city side of the arena, the front facade of the building is approached on foot up a huge staircase, which gives the building even more prominence relative to the street. The steps are a necessity here. There's no way the court could be located below grade in Florida, where the water table is a few feet or maybe even less below the surface of the ground. In the case of the AmericanAirlines Arena, the court is raised over the parking garage which makes the entrance to the arena that much more spectacular. 

Inside the walls of the arena, the place is less impressive than it is on the outside. The concourses are really wide in spots which allows a dizzying array of food vendors serving the 100 level of the building. There's no question the availability of different kinds of cuisine kills the selection at Verizon Center. There are Asian, barbeque, Latin (makes total sense), burgers, chicken and frozen yogurt and ice cream food options to choose from in addition to more standard Papa John's and popcorn vendors. The arena also reflects the city of Miami being a more liquor based town than Washington's beer based sports going fans. There are huge Grey Goose and Bacardi bars on either side of the arena in addition to several smaller Bacardi bars around the remainder of the building.

The only other comment I have on the AmericanAirlines Arena is that it exists solely for the Heat as a permanent tenant. The NHL's Florida Panthers play in Sunrise, Florida, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale about 35 miles north downtown Miami. As such the Heat can afford to deck the building out in red, yellow and orange and have a sort of flame design laid out in the seating areas, which is unfortunately all too visible during the games when the apathetic Heat fans show up late or not at all for a mid-December game against a division opponent that nobody in south Florida cares about.

I will say I was relatively impressed by the amount of passion displayed by the Heat fans. There were clearly a lot of fans in Heat apparel and I think I only saw one LeBron James jersey in my roamings around the building (just get a new jersey, dude). I also got booed by two of the arena staff for wearing Wizards colors and got sarcastically welcomed to the arena by a third staff member. During the game, the fans seemed to be making a lot of noise during critical parts of the game, although admittedly, it was difficult to tell over the piped in noise from the arena's sound system. I've never heard a building so loud after a relatively meaningless mid game jumper like Shawne Williams' two point basket in the second quarter.

I'm glad I made the trip down to Miami, especially after the blowout loss I attended earlier this season in Toronto. That's one more arena checked off my list and a lot more to go. Hey, maybe it would be a good idea to write about that in this blog. Maybe very soon.

Heat fans headed for the exits with a  little time left on the clock. Pretty satisfying after a poor game.

December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

It's December 25, 2014 and for the first time since 2008, the Washington Wizards are playing a game on Christmas Day. This is kind of a big deal. It's only the second time in the 15 years I have been a Wizards season ticket holder that the team has had a game scheduled on Santa day, which is typically reserved for the best or most popular teams in the league. And I can attest based on the spotty attendance at Verizon Center during the first two months of the season that the Wizards are more "best" than they are "popular" right now.

The last time I watched the Wizards play on this day definitely made Christmas worse rather than better. The game was in Cleveland against the hated Cleveland Cavaliers who had just eliminated the Wizards from the playoffs during the previous three seasons. The two teams loathed each other. It was perhaps the fiercest rivalry in the NBA at that time and the 2008-2009 season was supposed to be a year in which both teams contended for the NBA crown or at least the Eastern Conference title.

Unfortunately, things never seem to work out for the Wizards the way we fans think they are destined to. Our hope that year was that Gilbert Arenas would return from his major knee injury in the spring of 2007 at full strength after being limited to a handful of games the previous season and that his return, along with a mix of veterans and younger draft picks would yield a Wizards squad better than the team which had made the playoffs the prior four years. It didn't work out that way. Gilbert, as it turned out, was no longer Agent Zero and we lost Brendan Haywood, one of the only Wizards inclined to play any defense, during the preseason for the entire year. On Christmas morning, the Wizards were 4-22. The Cavaliers were 24-4.

That year the Wizards put up a pretty good fight after getting behind early, but ultimately fell to the Cavs 93-89. I'm hoping this year's game, set for a noon tip-off against the mostly hapless New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, will go the same way our last Christmas game went, with the team with the better record prevailing once again. The Wizards are prone to lapses in concentration and this is an ideal trap game early in the day against a seemingly easy opponent. Just for the record, the Cavaliers didn't win the Eastern Conference in 2009 either. The Orlando Magic knocked them off in the Conference Finals.

Regardless of the outcome of the game, this Christmas is incredibly special for our family because my niece is two and half or so years old and at this point in her life understands what presents are. She may not understand why they are here or how they got here but she knows there may be something new and exciting beneath the brightly colored wrapping paper that might distract her for a few minutes, an hour or so, or the better part of the next year or two. We'll see how that goes when she gets here in a couple of hours and the tearing open of presents begins, likely accompanied by a lot of shrieking and looks of wonderment. This will likely outweigh any sort of joy from a Wizards victory. Those are not words I write lightly.

For my part, I'm hoping Santa brings me some Wizards loot and a Wizards victory to help my turkey and everything else I plan to eat as part of my minimum three platefuls of food go down a little smoother. I'm making my family wait about a half an hour longer to eat today and I appreciate that just as much as I appreciate the NBA scheduling this as a road game; I know there's no way my mom lets me go to a game on Christmas Day. For everyone else that reads this, including the dozen or so people who read this blog semi-regularly, I hope the rest of Wizards fans out there have a happy Christmas day. Go Wizards!

December 13, 2014

The Lone Bobblehead

Me and G Wiz: Both with the organization 15 years. Coincidence? Totally.
I've done plenty of complaining in this blog recently (see here and here) about the lack of Wizards bobbleheads being made available from the team this season for hardcore Wizards fans and bobblehead collectors. I'm still not quite cool with the complete absence of in game bobble giveaways but I figure it's time to stop complaining and start celebrating. Why celebrating? Because I finally got my hands on a team issued bobblehead this year. It wasn't exactly free and it isn't one of our players, but it's on my bobblehead shelf just the same and I know it's all I'm getting this year so I'm coping.

Last year for the first time ever, the Wizards decided to make an exclusive Martell Webster  (my favorite player) bobblehead available through membership in the G Wiz Kids' Club. Now in past years, I would have been upset about this since the G Wiz Kids' Club is technically only for kids 14 years and younger and I would likely have resorted to making up a child so I could get my hands one of the only two bobbleheads the team decided to issue last year. But last year was different than past years and so instead of inventing a son or daughter for myself, I did the only thing any doting uncle and godfather should do for his niece. I signed her up for the G Wiz Kids' Club so WE could add Martell to OUR growing collection of Wizards bobbleheads. Makes sense, right?

This year, the Wizards did it to us again and made an exclusive G Wiz bobblehead available to Kids' Club members. This year, however, instead of showering fans with free bobbleheads, this is the only one the team is issuing. Since I can't very well deny my niece a critical piece in her future bobblehead collection and we are not getting any others this year, she is once again back as a member of the Kids' Club, courtesy of my hard earned $20. How excited can I get about a G Wiz bobble vs. a player bobble? Well, let's just table that discussion.

This year's G Wiz bobblehead is not the first G Wiz bobble the team has ever released. A few years ago, the team gave away a G Wiz bobble belly, so named because his entire upper torso is on the bobble spring, imitating the signature G Wiz jiggling the stomach motion that whoever is inside the costume performs for the entertainment of kids and adults alike. But this is the first G Wiz bobble issued since the 2011 team's red, white and blue rebrand, so it's good to get an updated mascot bobblehead to "support" the bobble team of John Wall, Bradley Beal, Martell Webster and Nenê I have on my shelf while bobblehead Phil Chenier and Steve Buckhantz call the game. Yes, I know I only have four current players, which is precisely why the Wizards should have scheduled Marcin Gortat bobblehead day sometime this year. I believe I have made this point before.

This G Wiz bobblehead is significantly more athletic looking than the G Wiz bobble belly I have. He's dribbling a basketball in the same sort of pose that John Wall was depicted in free bobble form when he was a rookie. His fur is about as realistic looking as you can make fur look in hard plastic form and he's wearing the absolutely completely up to date jersey, complete with the NBA logo moved to the back of the jersey just below the neckline and the gold championship patch the NBA introduced this year right above that. The shorts are missing the monument ball logo on the waistband but other than that, it looks like they made a decent attempt to make the uniform as accurate as possible.

I predicted last month that the quality of this bobblehead would be pretty much the same kind of quality as the free in game giveaways we have received in past years and I'm almost right here. The paintwork looks pretty good, maybe even a bit more than a touch above average, but there are some telltale signs of imperfection which makes these free bobbleheads so endearing. I'm missing some paint on the G on the base of the item and the gold championship patch (below) is more of a darkish gray rather than a gold. Not sure how they got that wrong. Maybe it was the end of the shift or something.

I'm taking this bobblehead for what it is. I'd rather have a Marcin Gortat, Paul Pierce, Drew Gooden or even Randy Wittman bobblehead (please, please, Wizards!) but I clearly am not going to have one of those this year. I'll have to make do with this one until next season. You can bet I'll start campaigning early next year, rather than waiting to see what the team decides. Overall, I'm as happy as I really could be to add Wizards bobblehead number 31 to my growing collection. Considering the beatdown we put on the Clippers last night, nothing can really upset me today.

December 6, 2014

Stop Yelling "O!"

This is about the strangest opening to a blog post you will ever read from me but there have been so many damn home Wizards games recently that I haven't had any time to do any blogging. Over the past four weeks there have been an astounding nine home games with only two road contests in there. Not a complaint exactly; I'm just saying…

We are about 20 to 25 percent of the way through the 2014-2015 NBA season and I couldn't be any happier. The Wizards are 13-5, a mark they haven't had at this point in the season in about forty years (not a typo), and they have just finished a 4-0 four game home stand including three victories against Western Conference opponents. They are in first place in the Southeast Division (one game ahead of Atlanta) and they sit just one game out of first behind the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference. 

The Wizards have beaten every team they should have beaten, with the possible exception of Atlanta. They have shown improved poise in getting out of difficult spots in games; the offseason signings of Paul Pierce and Rasual Butler have paid off really well; and Randy Wittman's in game coaching adjustments have seemed to be spot on all year. All this while missing Bradley Beal and Nenê for a handful of games and being without the services of Martell Webster entirely. Wow! What a season already.

Going to Wizards games over the last 14 years has been like waiting for the other shoe to drop. No matter how well the team was doing game to game or in the season in general, there was always the feeling that something, somehow would go wrong. And it usually did. Maybe I'm letting my guard down but these days the only thing I get overly anxious about is the anthem between the end of pregame warmups and the opening tip. That's right, the anthem. I got something to say here and so that's what this post is about.

The Star Spangled Banner has been a little bit of a crap shoot over the last decade and a half at Wizards games. Unlike the Capitals, who generally stick with Bob McDonald and Caleb Green for the anthem, the Wizards like to share the wealth and have different performers sing (or play) the anthem on most of the 41 home nights. Now I get that people can get nervous and flub a line every so often but it happens way too much for my liking.  If you are allowed on the court to sing the anthem, you ought to be able to get it right. Guaranteed that we are going to get a few "For the land of the free"s over the season and maybe one or two other more egregious mistakes like the dude who asked us "Who brought stripes and bright stars?" to the Mavericks game earlier this year. I certainly didn't pack my stripes and bright stars that night.

But all that in the previous paragraph is a bit of a tangent, because that's not the complaint I have to offer here in this post. No, not at all. What annoys me about the anthem at Verizon Center on game nights is what happens right after "our flag was still there." That's right, I mean the "O!" that about 25 percent of the crowd lets fly for a reason that they may or may not understand, although let's face it, they probably don't.

From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the Baltimore Orioles were one of the most successful teams in baseball. From 1966 to 1983 (a span of 18 seasons), the Orioles made the playoffs seven times, went to the World Series five times and won it all twice. This was an era where only four teams made the postseason in baseball, not the 10 teams who make it these days. They also fielded teams with a slew of future hall of famers: Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson, Jim Palmer, Earl Weaver, Eddie Murray and Cal Ripken, Jr.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, one of the fixtures at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore was Wild Bill Hagy spelling out O-R-I-O-L-E-S with his body on top of the Orioles' dugout while the fans in the stadium spelled it out loudly with their voices. Hagy performed his routine on the dugout near Memorial Stadium's Section 34, where a number of die hard Orioles fans sat every night. According to the story told by WBAL TV's Jason Newton, one night a single fan, Mary Powers, in this section yelled "O!" at the beginning of the "O say can you see" line in the national anthem. The next night, Hagy joined her and it snowballed from there.

Now I know I'm not the first person to ever write about this and I don't have some fundamental objection to people yelling one part of The Star Spangled Banner like some writers have noted. I'm honestly torn between this being an important part of sports tradition and it being totally stupid. Because it's the first butchering of the anthem, I think it's kind of cool. Much better at least than Capitals fans yelling "RED" during the "rockets' red glare" line. Orioles fans are the original; Caps fans are just copying. I'm sure if I went to a pro ball game in Houston that the whole arena wouldn't yell "ROCKETS" during the same line. Maybe they would. I don't honestly know.

The problem I have with this whole "tradition" is the exporting of it to events other than Orioles games. The "O!" chant has meaning in Baltimore and Baltimore only. In fact, it really only has meaning at Orioles games. Nowhere else. Not Ravens games, not Capitals games, not Wizards games, not the Washington D.C. NFL team's games and certainly not Nationals games. It's not about Baltimore or Washington or any other team. It's only about the Orioles.

I wonder how many inside Verizon Center on a Wizards game night know this. I'm guessing not too many because if they really knew what they were saying when they yelled "O!", I have to believe they would cut it out. I've been to Wizards games in a number of places in this country and I've never heard the "O!" anywhere else and that's because it's stupid and not relevant outside of Oriole Park. There weren't even any at the Philadelphia 76ers game I attended last year and I struggle with the notion that Philly fans are smarter than Wizards fans here.

So here's my plea for folks heading to Wizards games. When the anthem singer finishes "our flag was still there" stay quiet. Don't say a word. Let him or her or them finish out the anthem with you being silent and attentive. And when the anthem's over, applaud, except maybe if they screwed up the lines really badly. Let's not perpetuate this nonsense any more. Go Wizards!! I'm hoping for a quieter crowd during the anthem at Monday's game.

The Stars and Stripes in Toronto's Air Canada Centre. No "O!" here.