The Wizards Leave You Nothing To Root For But The Other Guys
3:18 PM EST on January 16, 2024
WASHINGTON, D.C. — The giveaway at the gate for Monday afternoon's Pistons-Wizards game, featuring the two worst and least exciting teams in the NBA's Eastern Conference, was a bobblehead figurine of Virginia Ali, the co-founder of Ben's Chili Bowl. In order to claim one I was forced to make a daring escape from the interior of a locked parking garage stairwell, on a holiday Monday, during a snowstorm. After parking my car in a garage near the arena in D.C.'s slushy and sleepy downtown, I entered the exit stairwell via a door that I found cracked open. At street level I encountered a locked door, and then discovered that when I'd closed the P2 door behind me it too had locked, and then that the doors above ground level and at P3 and below were also locked. Trapped!
My first thought was that someone would be along soon. After all, this was an Event Day for the garage, and I'd arrived pretty early, and soon there would be a swell of fans, and someone was bound to open up the exit stairwell as a necessary additional point of egress. This comforting thought was drowned out by the echoing words of Omar, the smiling garage attendant who'd met me at the gate. "You can park just below! It's very quiet today," he'd said, with a tone of apology. "Maybe no one is coming out in the snow, for this game." For this game. He'd then double-checked that I was, in fact, here for this game. "It's not a good game. Maybe no one wants to pay for it." His tone had shifted from apology to a gentle tut-tut. What are you doing with your money, my friend?
Strictly speaking, no one on Earth wants to pay for Pistons-Wizards, on a bleary and treacherous Monday, when the freebie bobblehead is of a 90-year-old restauranteur and the gameday program features Mike Muscala and Danilo Gallinari, a concerning enough sight even if Muscala and Gallinari hadn't just been traded from the home team to the visiting one. But the horrendous three-win Pistons might be the only team in the entire league that the Wizards should beat, and this makes them an attractive visitor for a long-suffering home fan with limited financial and psychic resources. The fact is, it has been years, and possibly decades, and possibly even my entire lifetime, since the last time that it was a good idea for a sincere Wizards fan to purchase tickets to a home game against any opponent that is, in technical terms, worth a shit. A D.C. transplant, indifferent to generations of Wizards incompetence, might get great value from a ticket that allows them to watch LeBron James or Kevin Durant or Giannis Antetokounmpo in person; a sincere fan of this shit-ass team—one whose joy in the experience of watching them play is derived in any part from the distant hope that they might ever win—is paying a lot of money to watch their boys get fucking flattened, in a stadium full of people rooting for the other guys.
No. The smart thing to do—as I've been doing for at least 20 years—is to save your ticket splurges for games against the Pistons and Hornets and Kings. It's cheaper, and there are fewer invading away fans, and you stand a chance in hell of catching a Wizards victory. I once scored half-court seats a couple rows from the hardwood at dirt-cheap prices and watched Jan Vesely enjoy a "breakout" performance against the dismal visiting Magic. It was Washington's seventh win of an eventual 29-win campaign; Vesely had 10 points. I almost literally could not have chosen a better game to attend that winter; it is, to this day, approximately as satisfied as this miserable team has ever made me feel.
Omar evidently did not share my view of best practices in paid attendance, and I frankly dreaded facing him a second time, now as my rescuer from a stairwell tomb. Nevertheless my escape would require assistance, and so I pressed the red emergency button located next to the P2 exit door, the one I'd entered. Nothing happened right away but I resisted the urge to press it a second time, and then to jam my palm onto it, and then to press it one thousand times while sobbing and screaming and begging for my life. A minute later I heard someone approaching and then I heard some muttering and then the door was opened, by an attendant who was not Omar. This man looked at me for a long second and then scooted aside so that I could exit the stairwell. He explained, as he walked me over to the nearby elevator, that they hadn't opened the stairwell—hadn't intended to open it, anyway—because the day was shaping up to be a quiet one. There was that word again. "Quiet." It must be parking garage jargon for normally we do brisk business but frankly only a deranged moron pays for parking on a snowy holiday Monday for a game against the Pistons, and we thought it best to protect those people from the dangers of staircases.
It was, in fact, eerily quiet in the blocks around the team's downtown arena, the bland and cheerless but sturdy and inoffensive 26-year-old home that Ted Leonsis is in the process of abandoning for a publicly funded development along Virginia's Alexandria waterfront. It has become profoundly uncool to be downtown. The word that is being used to describe the neighborhood is "distressed." It's a word that is perhaps too technical for the circumstances, relevant to consideration of the neighborhood's real estate or performance as an economic driver but wildly overstating what is perhaps intangible but is most readily observable in its decline. I feel oily even using the term, like I have adopted the anti-human lingo of market analysts. You think of a neighborhood in distress and you imagine broken windows, boarded-up storefronts, burned-out abandoned cars, overturned garbage bins and gutters strewn with refuse. Instead, D.C.'s downtown is clean and safe, and the parts directly adjacent to the National Mall still bustle with enormous tour groups of visiting middle-schoolers. There are historic hotels and fancy restaurants, there's a comedy club, there are art galleries, huge national headquarters, and public parks.
The neighborhood isn't, in any human sense, distressed. What it is is wack. Some of what is so offensive about Leonsis's determination to abandon it to its wackness is how the Wizards and their arena and the related sweeping effort to surround that arena with things that must appeal to what planners and real-estate types evidently believe to be the lowing bovine dullards who attend professional sporting events—the work that has been done over the last 26 years to turn what used to be D.C.'s Chinatown into a sterile outdoor shopping mall or airport food court—is overwhelmingly to blame for that neighborhood becoming the sort of place where generations of cool and self-respecting teens would prefer never to be found. Coolness has moved permanently uptown, and downtown has been overtaken in whatever novelty is found in shiny new-construction homogeneity by redevelopments and gentrifications of several waterfront areas, newly engaged in their own dreary march toward future wackness.
What I am saying is there was a lot of free curbside parking to be found in the echoing, lobotomized blocks surrounding the arena, for anyone who did not mind walking a little bit more than I did in driving sleet. Downtown doesn't feel distressed, but its neutered anti-vitality is certainly distressing. Omar's associate, as he walked me literally all the way to the door of the elevator and even pushed the button, as if I could not be left alone to manage such a task, reiterated that I had chosen a poor excuse to visit. "It's a horrible game," he warned, with a sheepish grin.
Horrible game or not, this was a thing to do on a snowy day off, and the crowd, in the end, was not a small one, just a late-arriving one. A woman seated to my right rode the subway in from Arlington with her very polite 12-year-old son and his also very polite friend, as a celebration of the school holiday. It was their first game of the season. The dad and his daughter to my left had made a couple games, and chose this one with no real regard for the opponent, because the time of day was appealing. The dour couple in front of me said they usually come to a handful of games a season and often leave at halftime; they're not really Wizards fans—she was wearing a Steelers jersey—but "more often than not" they cheer for the home team. They left at halftime, with a grim little half-wave.
A Defector editor suggested that if I asked enough people how they'd turned up at a 3 p.m. Monday game between the Wizards and Pistons I was bound to encounter someone in the witness protection program. I had no such luck, but an extremely handsome and cool young guy I chatted up as he hovered with a frosty cocktail near a row of good seats said, "What the fuck else am I doing?" and then seconds later was chased off by an elderly usher; the two were evidently engaged in a cat-and-mouse game, with him and a friend trying to sneak into better seats and her stalking them from section to section. Their exchange evinced a certain fondness that had developed between them, despite their opposition. I would not have been surprised to learn that she was his grandmother.
Directly behind me sat Marvin and Cheryl. Marvin is a Michigan native, and a very funny and charming person who Cheryl, from nearby Prince George's County, believes "should have a TV show," and is a very sincere and good fan of the Detroit Pistons. Cheryl has never really paid much attention to basketball and was rooting for the Pistons to support her man. They had perhaps chosen even more poorly than I had: His nightmarishly bad Pistons were playing without Cade Cunningham, down with a knee injury, and without Bojan Bogdanovic, down with calf pain. These aren't just Detroit's two best players; they are perhaps the only two Pistons who would have rotation jobs on any NBA team that has won more than 30 percent of its games. Cunningham has not yet developed into the star the Pistons envisioned when they drafted him first overall in 2021, but he is the best and perhaps the only real hope on the roster for a bonafide starting-grade NBA player. Buying a ticket to watch the Pistons play without Cunningham is like buying a ticket to watch a dogless and dead-serious Beethoven sequel where Charles Grodin and Bonnie Hunt go to marriage counseling.
Starting in Cunningham's and Bogdanovic's places Monday were comprehensively useless French point guard Killian Hayes, and accursed former Knick Kevin Knox II. Detroit's starting lineup was a thing of tragicomic beauty, laying bare the roster deficiencies that have made the team's preseason hype look, in retrospect, spectacularly wrongheaded. But in the game's early going it was hard, even as a Wizards fan, to avoid rooting for Detroit's plucky bozos, and not just because a sweetly energetic Marvin was becoming heartened by his team's unexpected resilience. Marvin cheered for his guys, called out "that's a bucket" whenever any of them took a shot, and shouted encouragement at lumbering half-dead doofus James Wiseman. But he waited most of three full quarters before finally shouting "DE-TROIT BASKETBALL" at such a volume that it almost certainly was picked up by security sensors at the White House. Well-meaning rookie Ausar Thompson had scored a nifty bucket to put the Pistons up seven, the home team was looking demoralized, and the Pistons, God love them, deserved the applause of an appreciative audience.
There is a kind of moral superiority to just about any team facing these Wizards. Jaden Ivey, handed a heavy share of ball-handling duties with Cunningham in street attire, makes some bone-headed plays, but watching him in person you cannot miss that some of the ball-stopping and frantic grenade-tossing he does (and that evidently drives head coach Monty Williams insane) comes from an intense and very sincere desire to make the right play. Ivey, in his second season, appears to lack the court-vision and playmaking instincts of a primary ball-handler, but he has that dashing, valiant quality of being willing to hurl himself bodily at any problem that he cannot solve with careful strategic execution. I was not expecting to root for him. The quality in Ivey of always earnestly seeking the right play, even and especially in circumstances where he is badly struggling to comprehend it, is so starkly opposite the approach of Washington's primary guys, that he inevitably grabs up a share of your affection. Perhaps it comes from all the losing, but Ivey and Thompson and Hayes and Jalen Duren and Isaiah Stewart and even Wisemen are out there sincerely rooting around for solutions. They want to make the right play.
Kyle Kuzma, by contrast, wants to prove that the right play is whatever thing he just did the last time he had the ball. This is a consequence of Washington's decades-long habit of treating any player with a national profile who joins their roster as if they are engaged in philanthropy, and bestowing upon them Big Dog Status. Washington opened the game posting up Deni Avdija on the left block on consecutive possessions, and scored points both times, once against a size mismatch and once against Kevin Knox, who is horrible. Avdija had it going a little bit: He threw in a vicious transition dunk over Jackson and then buried a 30-foot three-pointer to score Washington's first eight points. Wizards head coach Wes Unseld Jr. pulled Avdija on schedule at about the seven-minute mark of the first quarter; from that point until the end of the game, Avdija had just four more shot attempts. Kuzma, who'd missed a couple early jumpers prior to that first substitution, took another 19, and made just seven total in the game, and the Wizards were outscored by 17 points in his 33 minutes. Kuzma, as he does most nights, decided that it was his prerogative to Go Off against the Pistons; because he is a flawed player and a shitty excuse for an alpha scorer, this once again led to disaster. For good measure, Kuzma was ejected after picking up two frustration technical fouls inside the game's final three minutes.
The crowd booed a lot at this sequence, but almost certainly in disapproval of the referees, and not of Kuzma's mercenary grandstanding. The truth is, nobody loves this team enough to feel offended at it being hijacked and repurposed as a star vehicle for an ambitious clown or two. There are so few Wizards fans left in this city. A succession of supremely wack and astoundingly inhuman presidential administrations and the legislature's devolution into a pool of slime has stuffed the lower half of the city with America's absolute worst political creatures, a class of ostentatiously uncool and anti-cool grifters and remoras who are happier dumping their folding money on Restaurant Week bargains. The rest of the city is in the final stages of a scouring sterilization executed via decades of cruel gentrification.
If there are Wizards fans—fans serious enough about this team to be offended not just by the losing of a game or some games but by ownership's indifference to the work of becoming actually good and genuinely supportable—they've been shoved out by design, to places from which a jaunt into the city is impractical for any game that is not played at 3 p.m. on a snowy holiday Monday. An uninterrupted succession of mayors and an all-consuming class of developers have succeeded in replacing these people with a different demographic of consumers, people who could take or leave the Wizards, who take some comfort from the city’s local culture being scattered to Maryland, who may not even have noticed that Chinatown is now just a place where the Potbelly has its name also posted in Chinese characters. Enthusiasm for the things that are authentically of this city has been exiled. It offends me that Leonsis is headed to the suburbs, but also his organization is suited to this disgrace, just as the long-term project of unmaking this city has finally deserved this abandonment.
Of course, Wizards love will not be found in fucking Alexandria. This move, if anything, relocates the team even further from its fans. There's not a shop or stall or grocery store south of Anacostia that sells Wizards regalia. Nobody in Virginia gives an honest rip about this franchise, certainly nobody who is lurking around a disused rail yard. Monday's game presentation was loaded down with FOR THE DISTRICT branding, and it was grotesque, and it will be even more grotesque when the Wizards are playing in front of a sparse crowd of bored mall patrons in an uncanny tax-funded faux-urban shopping center. For my entire life, it's been hard bordering on masochistic to root for this team; you have to ask yourself, now, whether they wouldn't prefer to be loathed.
Alec Burks, Detroit's only purely unethical hooper and possibly the least ethical NBA hooper I have ever watched in person, knocked down the free throws resulting from Kuzma's technicals. By this time Marvin had decided that Burks was A God, if not The God. It was after the second of these, with the Pistons now up 13 points and Unseld just seconds away from emptying his bench in surrender, that Marvin muttered, in a heartbreakingly quiet voice, "Damn, we're about to beat the Wizards!" Cheryl caught me laughing in delight and the three of us shared some good cheer about Michigan Week, a sequence that saw—in chronological order and ranked by prestige in a descending slope so steep that it's almost dizzying—the Wolverines win a national title, the Lions win a playoff game, and the Pistons beat the Wizards. By the time it was over I was so happy for Marvin, who'd been shouting "DE-TROIT BASKETBALL" at esophagus-shredding volume for the final two minutes, that I turned around and shook his hand. I don't know if I've ever been happier for a perfect stranger.
My turncoat act did not save me from Omar, who cackled, "What did I tell you!" into the open window of my car as I exited the garage. I didn't bother telling him how easy it had been to switch allegiances to the only outfit in that arena worthy of the support. The road was slushy but foot and car traffic in front of the arena was sparse; smart people were once again elsewhere.