May 22, 2015

Looking Forward To Summer League

It's been a week since the 2014-2015 Washington Wizards season ended in stunning fashion. Last Friday night I stood in the upper deck of Verizon Center and went nuts as Paul Pierce hit his miracle game tying shot to send game six against the Atlanta Hawks into overtime and preserve the Wizards' season at least for five more game minutes. Not wanting to miss even a second of the extra session, I rushed to the bathroom so I'd be back to see the opening tip and every other moment of overtime ball.

By the time I got back to my seat, the replay had been studied and restudied and the officials determined Pierce's shot was still in his hand as time expired. Game over. Season over! What a crushing blow. I'm not sure there's been an end to a Wizards season quite like this. Half the crowd filed out; the other half lingered like their feet were glued to the floor in front of their seats. I couldn't move for about two or three minutes. Then I left.

I think the statutory mourning period for the Wizards season is probably over. Over the past six days, I haven't watched a single whole game of either the Eastern or Western Conference Finals and I've done my best to stay off Twitter, although let's face it there are few things more difficult in life than staying off Twitter. That site has changed my life for the better in so many ways, especially when it comes to my favorite basketball team.

In the last week, we've not only had both conference finals start but we've also seen (I actually did see this although honestly I almost missed it) the Minnesota Timberwolves snag the number one overall pick in next month's NBA Draft via the annual Draft Lottery show, which is probably the least exciting NBA event outside of a Knicks-Sixers game last year. The Wizards were mercifully absent from the Lottery this year for the second consecutive year. So for the Wizards, the Draft is next on June 25 and then it's time for Summer League.

2013 with Wizards forward Chris Singleton.
Can I get a "Woot! Woot!" for Summer League? God I love this event. Las Vegas. Mid-July. NBA games featuring most of the 2015 Draft class and a bunch of folks who will likely never make an NBA team. How does life get any better than this, at least for the three nights maximum that I seem to be able to stand Vegas for on any single trip? The Wizards have been going to the desert each July since the event was founded in 2004. I've been there every year since I found out about it in 2008. Every year I say I'm not going to Summer League and every year I go back. I can't possibly miss this event. It's too good. There is absolutely no place else you can get up close interactions with general managers, coaches and players from around the league. It's essential for the die hard, no-life-outside-of-basketball, NBA fan.

Summer League this year starts Friday, July 10. I'll be on a plane out there the very next morning in time for tip-off that afternoon if the Wizards are playing that day. While I'm out there I know I'm going to run into some of the same Wizards fans I see every year, familiar faces from past years. I also know I'm going to get a chance to possibly check in with Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld and head coach Randy Wittman. My favorite moment from last year's Summer League was when I congratulated Ernie on the Paul Pierce signing as he walked past my seat and got a pat on the shoulder in return. Where else could that happen?

I don't know how many Wizards season ticket holders head to Vegas for Summer League but I'm sure there's someone there besides me. It would be great if we could get a core base of fans each year out there in the desert, at least for a few days. So if there are any Wizards fans headed out there, find me on Twitter and we can spend a few minutes maybe talking about our favorite hoops team. And for the Wizards organization, I'd love it if they would host an event each year for season ticket holders. For me, that would be a small gesture that could add a ton of value for this 15 year season ticket holder. Heck, Wizards season ticket holder Jose Andres has a couple of places out there now, maybe there's a deal in there somewhere. Can't wait for July 11!!!

Where else would a Wizards fan stay except in a castle? Excalibur is cheap, convenient and reliable. I assume I'm staying here again, but you never know.

May 11, 2015

D.C. Doesn't Deserve The Wizards

Last year, the Washington Wizards won a second round playoff game for the first time since 1982. Public confidence in the team was sky high. They had just beaten the Chicago Bulls 4-1 in round one and had taken game one in Indiana from the top seeded Indiana Pacers. Fans I didn't even know were Wizards fans were seemingly everywhere. I had requests from people to buy in to the presales for season ticket holders where upper deck tickets against the Pacers were selling for over $100 as a discounted price. The secondary market was exploding. Everyone wanted in. And I'm sure the team sold a ton of season tickets. Finally, the Wizards were popular. Surely this would carry over into this season and beyond, right?

Wrong. The Wizards managed only 63 points in game three at Verizon Center against the Pacers and the whole thing came tumbling down. The secondary market dried up. My friends who were so eager to pay more than $100 for those upper deck seats could have bought better seats for way less than they paid. Game six, which turned out to be the Wizards' elimination game, didn't even sell out. Are you kidding me? A major professional sports franchise in a city where playoff games are few and far between can't sell out a game? Wow!

This season I attended 41 Wizards games during the regular season: 39 at Verizon Center and two on the road in Toronto and Miami. I've attended all three home playoff games so far and I'm going tonight. I structure significant parts of my life around this team and I love that after 15 years of doing this year in year out, my team is finally in the second round of the playoffs in consecutive years. This is significant. In watching the playoff contests in the Eastern Conference, I can't believe the Wizards don't stand as good a chance as any team of coming out of the East, even without John Wall if he can't make it back this postseason. I'm serious. Who looks really scary on our half of the bracket?

So given all that enthusiasm from this long time fan and considering how crazy things got during the playoffs last year when the team was ahead, Wizards fever must be at an all time high, right?

Wrong again. I get that the Atlanta Hawks are not the most glamorous opponent but the secondary market for Wizards tickets is really flat, like totally down. If you wanted to make a last minute decision and head to tonight's game, you could have bought pretty decent upper deck tickets for less than $50 this morning. That's cheaper than the season ticket holder additional tickets discount price, even with all the Ticketmaster taxes and fees added to the price. I know this by the way because I bought some additional tickets for game three and ended up selling them at a loss.

I understand how deflating John Wall's injury is but come on, people, let's go out there and support our team. In round one, the support from the Verizon Center crowd was absolutely pathetic. There were times you could hear chants of "Let's go Raptors!" quite clearly in the building. Let's go Raptors?? Are you kidding me? This is not a popular franchise from north of the border, folks. We had them outnumbered at least 20-1 in my estimate and the only thing we could do is boo loudly while our guys were bringing the ball up court to drown out the opposition's chants. Not much of a home court advantage there.

I don't expect Hawks fans to be at tonight's game in any sort of numbers. I guess it's sad for the Hawks that their fans travel poorer than a franchise (Toronto) that has won only one postseason series in its history. And to be a little fair to our crowd on Saturday night, there was a lot of noise being made and I didn't hear any boos when the Hawks closed a 21 point gap to zero with about 14 seconds remaining. But tonight the Wizards are giving tickets away for people who will permit their head to be shaved before the game. This is a playoff game! Tickets aren't supposed to be free!

Now I get that this lack of popular support is as much the Wizards' doing as anything else. The team hasn't won anything in 36 years so it's understandable that about two generations of Washingtonians have grown up not caring about the Bullets / Wizards. If we actually make it through this round, we'll end up playing either the Chicago Bulls or the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. I guarantee those games will be sold out because both those teams have significant fan bases. We'll end up with "Let's go Bulls" or "Let's go Cavs" chants at Verizon Center during that series for sure.

This year's Wizards are exciting to watch and they win. Maybe not enough for some folks (especially all the Randy Wittman critics out there) in the regular season but the playoffs are what matter aren't they? Look I know I'm preaching to the handful of die hard Wizards fans out there when I say that the entire city should be behind this team. We shouldn't be in a spot where the playoff tickets for this team are about the same price as tickets to see the Washington Nationals play the Atlanta Braves. Not in May. No way. If the city of Washington can't turn out to see this team play this week and hopefully beyond, then maybe the city just doesn't deserve this team. Either that or long time season ticket holders like me really do deserve this and so much more. Go Wizards! Let's make it 3-1 tonight.

Empty seats in Section 109 right before tipoff of game three.

May 3, 2015

New Blood

Since I arrived in the United States in 1979, just nine franchises have won an NBA title. It's the most exclusive club over those 35 plus years in the four major American sports. Over that span, there have been 16 different Super Bowl winners, 17 different Stanley Cup champions and 20 different World Series champions. In the NBA, just nine. And two of those franchises (Philadelphia and Dallas) won the title only once. The sport has been dominated by just seven franchises over the last three and a half decades. 

Last night, the Los Angeles Clippers defeated the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs in game seven of their first round series. That means that the teams that have won the NBA title for the last 16 years are no longer in the NBA playoffs and for the first time in a while, we may actually have an NBA Champion who hasn't won it recently. As a measure of how much the landscape has changed this year, consider this: there are only two franchises that have made the second round of the playoffs both this year and last year and those are the Los Angeles Clippers and the Washington Wizards. How crazy is that?

Because it might be difficult for the average NBA fan to recall when each of the remaining NBA franchises won a title (I know it was for me), here's a look back at the last time the final eight won it all.

Atlanta Hawks (1958)
The last time the Hawks hoisted an NBA trophy, they were in St. Louis and there were eight franchises in the league. EIGHT!!! And six of the eight teams made the playoffs. That year the Warriors were in Philadelphia, the 76ers were still in Syracuse and known as the Nationals, the Lakers were still in Minneapolis on the westernmost edge of the NBA and the Kings were still in Cincinnati named the Royals. How different things are now.

That year the Hawks had a first round bye and knocked off the Boston Celtics, who had won the title the previous year and would win the subsequent eight, despite Boston having home court advantage. This year, the Hawks posted the second best record in the NBA and despite that accomplishment, most folks don't seem to be giving them much of a chance, preferring the Bulls or Cavaliers as the Eastern Conference champs. For my part, I hope the Hawks really are done, but I obviously don't want the Bulls or Cavs in the Finals either.

Golden State Warriors (1975)
Before this season, the Warriors last won a division title in 1976. That was their second division title since they moved to California, having won it the previous season when they won it all. It's the only NBA title in team history. The 1974-1975 NBA season had to have been one of the tightest ever. The Warriors were the best team in the Western Conference with a 48-34 record. This year, that record would have secured them the eighth and final spot in the West.

Despite the field being a little wide open this year, the Warriors have to be considered the favorite to win it all. They killed the entire rest of the NBA; were the second best best offensive team and the best defensive team; and the only team with any success against the Dubs this year (the Spurs) were eliminated by the Clippers last night. Crazily enough, if the Warriors don't win the title, the season might be a waste. They get the banged up Grizzlies in round two then have to face the winner of the Houston Rockets - Clippers matchup.

Washington Wizards (1978)
The last time the Wizards made it to the second round of the NBA playoffs two years in a row, it was the year after the one and only title in franchise history, which they won as the Bullets. Since then, it's been mostly futility. There were a series of first round losses in the 1980s, one playoff appearance in the 1990s and a brief run of mostly non-success with Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas during the last decade. 

Now it's John Wall's turn and for the first time I've been a Wizards fan, it looks like the team might actually make the Eastern Conference Finals. Either that or the sweep that the team just completed over the Toronto Raptors was just our team mopping up a group of guys that were done months ago north of the border. We'll see how we stack up against the Hawks, who sort of genuinely struggled against the Brooklyn Nets over the last two weeks and are maybe a little banged up with Al Horford and Paul Millsap nursing injuries and Thabo Sefolosha having been taken care of by New York City's finest. Series starts in a couple of hours.

Houston Rockets (1995)
When the Hawks, Warriors and Wizards (Bullets) last won NBA titles, I either didn't exist or didn't know what basketball was. But I remember all too well the Rockets' back to back titles in 1994 and 1995. Fresh out of college and a budding New York Knicks fan, the Rockets killed me in 1994 on my birthday by knocking off the Knicks in game seven in a game when John Starks, who I still love, couldn't hit a shot to save his life.

Hakeem Olajuwon, Mario Elie, Kenny Smith, Robert Horry and the newly arrrived Clyde Drexler with Sam Cassell off the bench managed to sneak in the second of their two consecutive titles in 1995. I say sneak because they won both while Michael Jordan was off playing minor league baseball. This was supposed to be the Knicks' window, but it ended up being the Rockets'. In 1995 they swept the Orlando Magic in their only finals appearance. Those unis…wow!

Chicago Bulls (1998)
I hate Michael Jordan but damn, he was good. The best even. I first hated him as a Knicks fan during the 1990s. Then in an odd twist of fate cheered loudly as he led the Wizards to two consecutive 37 win, non-playoff seasons in 2001-2002 and 2002-2003. Then applauded Abe Pollin as he showed Jordan the door in Washington and I renewed my hatred with perhaps a little less enmity after that as I realized Jordan just put our franchise's development on hold for a couple of years while wasting a number one overall pick. 

The Bulls won six titles in the 1990s and honestly, I'd hate for them to win another one. Ever. This year with Derrick Rose back at pretty much full strength the Bulls think they can knock off the Cavaliers (I hope so; hate the Cavs more than the Bulls) and then whoever they face next (I hope not). The Cavs-Bulls series promises to be one of the best in recent years. I hope it is. And I still hate Michael Jordan.

Los Angeles Clippers / Cleveland Cavaliers / Memphis Grizzlies (NEVER!)
The Los Angeles Clippers (as the Buffalo Braves) and Cleveland Cavaliers entered the NBA together in 1970 and neither has ever won a title. The Cavaliers came won one conference championship in 2007 but then were unceremoniously swept by the San Antonio Spurs in a Finals that was pretty much over before it began. Other than the current incarnation of each of these franchises (I'm counting LeBron's first go-round in Cleveland as part of the current run), neither has had much success.

This year the Cavaliers seem to be most people's favorites to come out of the Eastern Conference; it will be interesting to see the effect of the team losing Kevin Love for the rest of the season in the finale against the Boston Celtics in round one. Other than the Derrick Rose ACL tear in the 2012 playoffs, I can't remember an injury to someone this important to their team in a playoff run. I'm of course hoping the Cavs can't recover. On the Clippers' side of things, why not? I mean other than the Warriors, it's an open heat in the West, which might mean it's not open at all of course.

Then there are the Grizzlies, one of two teams who have never won anything at all (the other is the current incarnation of the Charlotte Hornets). The Grizz have it tough this year. With point guard Mike Conley on the floor, you could almost talk yourself into thinking this team has a chance against the Warriors (who they will face in the second round) but with Conley out with a facial fracture at least the first two games, they are likely to be on the path to getting the Dubs a whole lot of rest before the Western Conference finals. I'm pulling for the Grizzlies out West, but I'm not sure it's going to do any good.

The second round starts today at 1 p.m. eastern time with my beloved Washington Wizards taking on the Hawks in Atlanta. This is absolutely the best time of year. Go Wizards! I mean, why not?