Andrew Unterberger is on the home stretch of his quest to see a game in every NBA arena …
I rushed up to my friend Dan’s place in DC (although not after trying something called “Low Country Gumbo” at Mert’s in Charlotte–are you supposed to take the crab legs out or eat them whole or what?) because I wanted to get there in time to watch the Eagles play the first Tuesday Night football game in 64 years. Dan and I are both fans, but due to countless extraneous circumstances, neither of us had gotten to watch more than a couple of full Birds games all year, so we relished the opportunity to catch up in front of what was sure to be a home blowout against a hapless and shorthanded Vikings squad. Didn’t exactly turn out that way–Joe Webb and Michael Vick decided to switch uniforms before the game, and the Eagles ended up dropping a game which they were favored by two touchdowns by ten points. At least we decided not to go to the local Eagles bar for the game–I can’t imagine a drinking environment that would’ve been more depressing.
The next day we met up for a game at the Verizon Center, where the Wizards would be playing the Pacers in the I Can’t Come Up With a Player Who Played For Both of These Random-Ass Teams Bowl. I took the suggestions of everyone and went to Ben’s Chili Bowl beforehand, though for one of the first times of my trip, I was mildly underwhelmed by the experience–I dunno, tasted good and all, but not much moreso than your average chili dog, and the bland funk music blaring from the jukebox was seriously uninspiring. Sorry, DC.
The Stadium: The Verizon Center is located in the heart of D.C.’s Chinatown–or as Dan and his friends call it, “Chinablock,” given that the neighborhood isn’t exactly all that expansive. Like few of the other stadiums I’ve visited, the Verizon Center really sneaks up on you. Passing by it the first time, it blended in so well with the other buildings on the block I wasn’t even entirely sure if it was the arena itself, or just some random building advertising that the actual Verizon Center was in the nearby vicinity.Given the number of stadiums I’d visited this trip where there was absolutely nothing else of interest in the surrounding area, though, it was cool to visit one that had so much going on around it–there was even a little shopping complex with a movie theater and a couple bars and restaurants attached to it. “It’s completely revitalized,” Wiz blogger Kyle Weidie of Truth About It said of the surrounding area. “Shops, restaurants…you can go out for a night on the town into a nice area after the games now.”
About the arena’s insides, though: I think someone needs to have a sit-down with the Wizards organization about the team’s look these days. I don’t even know what it is exactly, but it’s just not working for me. The color scheme just doesn’t seem flattering, for one thing–it seems like everyone looks uglier in a Wizards uni, and while that might have something to do with there being a high concentration of uggos on the Wizards team to begin with, I don’t think that weird blue color (“Slate Blue,” according to Wiki) is doing anyone any favors. And that logo–it wasn’t until I was staring at a 15-foot, flame-shooting 3D rendering of it that I even understood that it was supposed to be of a wizard shooting magic out of his fingers, before that I just thought it was some weird looking W dude. It all just seems to me like it’s one of these schemes we’re gonna look back on 20 years from now and think “Damn, why the hell did anyone ever think that was a good look?” (According to the same Wiki page, though, Ernie Grunfeld has announced a return to the Red, White and Blue of team old for the ’11-’12 season, so perhaps the sit-down is actually unnecessary. Good call, Ern.)
The Game: A barnburner as predicted between these two sub-.500 Eastern Conference teams. The Gilbert Arenas / Rashard Lewis swap may have been a good move basketball personnel-wise, but it was definitely not a good move me watching your home games-wise, as Arenas always kept things entertaining, and there’s no uglier-looking shot in the league than Rashard Lewis’s sky-high release when it’s not going in, which it definitely wasn’t for most of the first half. And with John Wall still working his way back from injury, we started the game with steady ol’ Kirk Hinrich at point for the Wiz, though at least Wall ended up playing for most of the rest of the game once entering, putting together a couple end-to-end layup drives that seemed like a fairly good approximation of a healthy John Wall. Still, it was definitely the kind of game where missing the first four minutes of a quarter getting a beer was a more-than-acceptable compromise.
The most compelling thing about the game was watching the recently-under-fire Wiz frontcourt tandem of Andray Blatche and JaVale McGee. It was fun getting to tell Dan, a casual hoops fan for the most part, all about the two’s checkered history–the former’s hilariously un-self-conscious battle to secure himself a triple-double, the latter’s perpetually Hall-of-Fame-worthy play in the Summer League and its frustrating inability to translate to Fall and Winter, and the fight-not-fight the two of them had outside a nightclub recently, which may end up leading to one or both getting shipped out from the team. On the court, they were their typical high-upside, low-IQ selves, McGee connecting on a beautiful alley-oop from Wall and then losing the next one off his fingers out of bounds, Blatche missing two wing jumpers for every one he sank and throwing an entry pass into a duo of Pacers defenders, earning a nice round of boos from those in attendance. Never a dull moment with those two, at the least.
The Wizards ended up winning the game fairly soundly, 104-90, as several of the Wiz guys ended up with stat lines more impressive than they seemed while watching–25 and 9 for Nick Young, 16/10/4 blocks for JaVale McGee, even 22 and 11 for Andray Blatche, who still needed 23 shots for his 22 points. Given the prior 7-24 record, I felt honored to bear witness to one of the team’s few legitimate victories.
The Fans: Not a particularly resounding turnout in DC for a Wednesday night Indiana game, unsurprisingly. Scattered fans throughout, and it filled up semi-decently over the course of the game, but it was not exactly a madhouse of exuberance for this disappointing-to-date Wizards team. The Wall-McGee oop got a nice ovation, but aside from that, it was certainly one of the more sedate fanbases I’ve seen on this trip. “People have always called this a basketball hotbed,” Kyle told me. “But getting the #1 draft pick wasn’t a magic potion. It’s gonna take a couple playoff appearances in a row to get the fans back.” Dan said that the town had been won over by the Capitals, they being the only of the major four pro teams to keep from the cellar the last three or four years, but Kyle insisted it was still a Redskins town first, second and third. “They have been the thing in this town for a long time,” he said.
A fan I talked to named Adam expressed understandable frustration that the team hadn’t improved more from a year before. “It’s been a little disappointing,” he said. “”I had higher hopes for John Wall and the couple new players…the team hasn’t come together as well as I thought.” Kyle felt similarly. “When they won the lottery, there was a lot of positive feeling, with a new owner, combined with Gilbert coming back,” he said. “But expectations were a little higher than they should have been…and I think we’re at the point now where the team is falling short of even reasonable expectations.” Kyle and Adam both thought it was probably time for Gilbert to go. “It got to the point where all that [trade discussion] was underlying depsite the positive talk, so it was time to move on for him, the team, for everyone,” Kyle said. “Too much of a disruption” was how Adam put it. “It outweighed what he was doing on the court.”
The one thing the fans seemed to have unreservedly positive feelings on, besides John Wall (“He’s got a great head on his shoulders,” said Kyle), was the stadium itself. Adam liked the nearby restaurants and bars, saying he got a drink at the movie theater attached to the stadium before the game, and fan Rob was super-impressed with the light show before the game and the presence of a nearby Chipotle. “You can tell Leonsis has done a lot to improve the fan experience,” a guy sitting in my row told me.
Most Popular Jerseys: Not a lot of people in the crowd wearing jerseys in general, but of course Wall was probably the most popular of currents. For retros, there were still a number of fans rocking the Gilbert Arenas #0, and at least a couple of ol’ MJ #23s as well.
Also Worth Noting: G-Wiz … I just don’t know. I mean, I guess the Wizards are allowed to have a mascot by my standards, but I don’t get why you don’t just stick a guy in a wizard suit and have him perform lame magic tricks and stuff. Instead you get this specially-ambiguous blue blob of a mascot that comes off like a brain-damaged version of the Phillie Phanatic, who bless his soul, was never particularly all-there mentally himself. Why over-think it? I never liked the Wizards moniker to begin with, but as long as you got it, I figure you may as well use it.
Local Pop Culture Tie-Ins: Wolf Blitzer, live from The Situation Room (well, maybe not actually live) came on-screen pre-game to prophesize a Wizards victory over the Pacers. Does he do that for every game, or just the ones where there’s actually a chance of it coming true? I wonder.
Swag Acquired: After missing out in Orlando, I figured I’d be able to get an Agent Zero jersey pretty cheap in the Wiz discount rack. Indeed, I was able to secure a Gilbert classic for $25, but what I hadn’t counted on was a Caron Butler XXL in the same rack for the measly price of $10. I had already set my heart on the Arenas, but could I really turn down a Tuff Juice throwback for $10? Answer turned out to be no, as I ended up splurging on the both. “I’ll throw in another $15 if you got an extra Antawn Jamison jersey back there,” I cracked to the sales person. She looked confused and proceeded to ring me up in silence.
2010 Jam of the Day:
The Naked and Famous — “Young Blood.” From what I can tell, all these guys’ songs either sound like MGMT or Passion Pit rip-offs (or both). This one’s more of the latter, but it’s good enough that I guess we can refer to it as an homage instead. An homage to plagiarism, that is. Whatever. Try it, you’ll like it.
With my 16th W in DC, I’ve now officially secured a winning record for my trip. A couple more wins and I might be fighting for home-court advantage in the East–we’ll see in Boston on New Year’s Eve.