So my friend Reuven was at the steps outside the American Art Museum Sunday night, watching Game 4 of the Wizards-Pacers series with a bunch of other folks — some dedicated Wizards fans, and other casual observers.
The team had announced earlier in the day that the game would be shown on Verizon Center’s large outdoor screens. Something like 50 or 75 people gradually gathered across the street to watch the game en masse. Virtually all were rooting for the home team.
“Fun crowd on the steps out here for Wizards,” Reuven texted me.
“Now they’ve started to get vocal and cheer,” he texted me later.
“Some walking home,” he later wrote. “Some tourists. Even a couple with suitcases. A few in formal wear. A couple families.”
They put the games on the screen yeaaaaaa pic.twitter.com/qEj5LGJv6R— Visionary (@DwavY) May 12, 2014
“Probably about two hundred now,” he wrote still later. “A lot of sidewalk standing.”
“And a panda,” he finally wrote.
A panda, huh? Now, before we get to the panda, let me formally cast my vote in favor of anything that gets people on Washington streets to stand in random groups, to pause for a moment in communal reflection, to associate with strangers and people in furry costumes and all come together behind a Washington cause. That’s cool. This might not be Toronto’s pregame crowds just yet, but it’s better than nothing. And that area around the American Art Museum and Portrait Gallery is great for it.
Lead singer Ethan Spalding, who grew up in Takoma Park on the D.C. border, once suggested the group always insert a panda smoking a joint in the back of its music videos. His bandmates asked why.
“People would think it was weird,” he said.
“If you’ve got a panda suit, I’ll rock it at shows,” one of Spalding’s friends said.
“I swear to God, if you’ll wear it, I’ll order it right now,” Spalding responded.
Not long after that, he was ordering three $500 panda suits from China. And the panda suit became the band’s calling card, with the panda serving as Spalding’s alter-ego, present not just at every show, but at every appearance and every interview, even interviews not featuring any cameras or photographers. And it worked. People were drawn to the panda.
“Women come up to me at the end of the show — and I’m the lead singer — and they say where’s the panda?’ ” Spalding told me, in my job as professional sportswriter. “Once we started having the panda, people really really gravitated to the music even more. It’s not just a gimmick; it’s adding to the music. We’re not just doing it for any random reason; we’re actually representing where we’re from. It’s not just a panda. It’s a matchup of the music, the good feelings, representing the area. And it brings more attention to the music at the end of the day.”
So this was seven or eight years ago. Spalding is now in the process of filming the first video for his solo project, the I Am Ethan Spalding project. Sunday was spent taping scenes all over town: at Howard Theater, up Georgia Avenue, in Petworth, by the monuments, and so on. Near the end of the night, Spalding and the panda headed to Verizon Center, hoping to capture mobs of happy people. (The song is called “Happy Feeling.”)
“I thought the let-out was gonna be crazy,” he siad. “It didn’t end up being as great because we lost. But it was still awesome.”
Despite the loss, Spalding said people were happy to see the panda. And the musician was happy to see Washingtonians partying outside together.
“Everybody out there was all cheering for the Wizards. It was really cool. I didn’t know anybody until I went down there, and I knew just about everybody when I left,” he said. “The only problem was that we lost. But the energy, and to have people from the city representing where we’re from, it was awesome.”
So now you know. You can follow Spalding on Instagram at @Iamethanspalding, and on Twitter at @ImEthanSpalding. He is scheduled to headline a release party for his new project at the Fillmore in Silver Spring at the end of June. And here’s to more watch parties on the museum steps, and more good sportswriting.