Night Terrors and Day Drinking: The Self Inflicted Trauma of Being a DC Sports Fan Part 2
At one point in time in my past my father owned the most successful photography story in the Washington DC area. I once asked my dad where the original building was and he said, “The floor of the convention center.” The company had moved from DC to Fairfax in the 1970’s but had existed in the area since 1915. Because of this Kodak, Keronite, and Fuji were always giving my father gifts and trips. We went to Disney World with the only stipulation being we had to go on a 4D ride featuring Michael Jackson sponsored by Kodak. I’m currently wearing a watch my father earned by selling the most Hassleblad in 1982. So it was that at some point around 1997 or 1998 we got free tickets to the club section of the MCI Center to watch the Washington Capitals take on the Carolina Hurricanes. I remember it so well because I’ve been in that building so many times since then and I’ve seen many hockey games. This was the beginning of a rising. We didn’t know it then but we were about to be sucked in and my father was going to milk the free tickets for all they were worth.
The game we attended was remarkable because of one player. Peter Bondra that day scored a hat trick and did so by scoring an even strength goal, a power play goal, and a short handed goal. It would be the most remarkable hockey performance I could have seen in my first ever hockey game and wouldn’t be bested in my memory until I was Alexander Ovechkin years later. And this is what makes DC sports so painful. They have an ability to draw you in. Give you just enough hope to be smashed and wonder what could have been. The free tickets for this game had come from the Capitals themselves. They wanted my father to become a season ticket holder, but he needed more evidence that he should. So he got more and more free tickets before we finally bought a ten game plan for the next season in order to get playoff tickets for that season. We saw Adam Oates and the gang take on the Boston Bruins and the Buffalo Sabres in route to winning the Eastern Conference before getting swept by the Detroit Red Wings density in the Stanley Cup finals.
Let’s go back to Richie Petibone for a second. His 4-12 season was two years after the Redskins Super Bowl victory over the Buffalo Bills. All I remember of that Super Bowl is the Giant grocery store up the street sold buffalo steaks and we watched it in the basement of our house on Carr Place. We went to Rocco’s Italian Restaurant in Springfield after the Redskins previous Super Bowl victory over the Denver Broncos but I don’t remember much of the reaction to the win over the Bills. It was the third Super Bowl and winning was what the Redskins did. Dan Snyder still trots out those three Super Bowl trophies at every press conference. That Super Bowl against the Bills was just another Redskins game. Then there was the Super Bowl hangover season and Richie Petibone the season after. Little did I know watching the Capitals in the playoffs in 1998 that that would be the high water mark for DC sports from the Super Bowl victory to now, and players like Alexander Ovechkin and Peter Bondra make it worse. Some of the best players of their sports have played in this city and their efforts have been all but wasted.
As good as all those other players are they are nothing compared to the greatest single team sports athlete of my lifetime, and in 2001 Michael Jordan was about to come out of retirement for the second time and he was going to play for the Washington Wizards. Now the Wizards were never really a team on my sports fan radar despite the fact that basketball was my favorite sport growing up. I went to several basketball camps and it was the sport I most wanted to play, but reaching my full height of 5’6” in fifth grade didn’t help and while I was great at defending and had good range on my jump shot I simply wasn’t gifted with the physical height to do anything but play the sport on the blacktop. That didn’t stop me from watching and I was enthralled by the Suns vs Bulls seven game series. I cheered for Charles Barkley and the Suns that series but Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan and the Suns couldn’t stop him. He was just too good. NBA Jam the video game and Space Jam the movie were also things at this time and it is easy to see why basketball was my favorite sport. Michael Jordan was everywhere. An easy hero to root for and an athlete of incomprehensible skill.
What I remember most about the Wizards around this time was a giant Chris Webber poster on a side of a building that no longer exists near an arena that has been twice renamed. My friends and I went to every Starrcade that was at the MCI center and it was on these trips and when I attended hockey game that I saw the Webber poster. I remember Chris Webber and Juwan Howard and how they were going to lead the Wizards to the promised land. Webber would end his career averaging 20.7 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 4.2 assists. Good numbers for a big man and we and Mike Bibby would be key players on a Sacramento Kings team that would give the early 2000’s Lakers fits in the playoffs, but at this time Chris Webber was on the Wizards and to me he was a giant poster. The ironic part of this is the Wizards made him the face of their franchise to go along with a total rebranding from being the Bullets. Chris Webber would play for one season after the name change, but the giant post would remain until that building was torn down to make way for Rocket Bar.
Chris Webber was traded to the Sacramento Kings for Mitch Richmond and Otis Thorpe. They were both disappointing and consider this to make matters worse. In Webber’s time in DC he played with Ben and Rasheed Wallace who would later go on to win a championship for the Detroit Pistons along with fellow former Wizard Rip Hamilton. Three fifths of a championship team was composed of former Washington DC basketball players and they had those three plus Webber and Howard and could never figure out how to build a winning team around any of them. Then came Michael Jordan to the rescue.
This is now 2001 and I am an adult or as much an adult a 20 year old college kid can be. I never used a fake ID to buy alcohol. I simply walked into a gas station, put the beer on the counter, and if asked for an ID told them I left it in the car. It worked far more than it didn’t and this is the extent of my level of maturity at the time. I was in college reading two, three, or four books a week while writing papers, partying, and finding time for video games and TV. I look back at that time and wonder how I did it. There were still only 24 hours in a day at that time but somehow I managed to use all of them to accomplish something whether it involved my social life or my studies those hours got used. And this is why the Michael Jordan Wizards era feels like it happened at a different time for me. Sports was really not something I did when I was in college and if you were to tell me that the Yankees v. Diamondbacks World Series happened in the same year Jordan played for the Wizards I wouldn’t have believed you. I would have said Jordan had already come and gone, but that wasn’t the case.
Michael Jordan’s legacy as a Wizard comes mainly in the form of Kwame Brown, and while there have been plenty of terrible players to play in DC Kwame Brown is a symbol in his own right. The greatest basketball player of all time was riding in on the white horse to save the moribund franchise and they had the first overall pick. They used it on Kwame Brown. It was reminiscent of the Redskins drafting Heath Schuler to be their savior but unlike the Redskins the Wizards had no Gus Frerotte. Redskins quarterback saga could be it’s own chapter in the DC sports fan book of misery, and I’ve glossed over much of it but as I said I gave up on the Redskins long before most, At this time the Capitals were my favorite teams and basketball my favorite sport. Jordan was the easy hero of my youth and the Kobe and Shaq drama in LA was perfect for my young adulthood. God, did I root for Mike Bibby and Chris Webber to unseat them.