Ever since he was fined $100,000 for comments he made about possible changes to the NBA’s salary structure to a group of local business leaders last September, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has been very careful about what he says for fear of the Wrath of Stern.
And, with the NBA on Day 13 of what is expected to be a protracted lockout, Leonsis made sure he wouldn’t receive any phone calls from NBA Commissioner David Stern, or anyone from the league office, for anything he said during a 30-minute speech and a question-and-answer session on Wednesday at a luncheon with the National Press Club on 14th Street NW. He even made sure it was announced that he was prohibited from talking about collective bargaining for the NBA or NHL before he stepped to the podium.
Leonsis spoke at length about the growth and power of the media through the Internet, how his teams and the individuals who cover them are “married to each other” and also explained his responsibility to the community to deliver successful teams that could be a source of pride for residents in the D.C. area. He also talked about the NHL’s Capitals and the Wizards, though he was at liberty to say much more about his hockey franchise, which endured a lengthy lockout in 2005.
When asked about the difference between building a contender with the Wizards compared to the Capitals, Leonsis deftly explained his rebuilding plans for the basketball team without ever mentioning the cornerstone of those efforts, John Wall.
“We wanted to follow the blue print that we did with the Capitals and that was to hoard young picks and prospects and in 12 months of owning the team, we had three first-round picks last draft, with the No. 1 pick in the whole draft, then we made a trade in the middle of the year that was another first-round pick for a team and this year, we had two first-round picks and a very high second-round pick and we’ve been graded – I never want to win the offseason races, if you will – but we got really good grades on our drafts for the Wizards,” Leonsis said. “We got really good grades for our free agent signings with the Caps and it’s no secret that I believe that the way that you build generational teams is culturally, bringing young players, training them, retaining them, developing them, and hoping that they go through hard times together and they toughen up together and eventually, they make the playoffs and once you make the playoffs anything can happen.”
NBA team representatives have been placed under strict orders not to contact players or risk a hefty fine. They are also not allowed to make public comments about players — and that includes simply mentioning their names. The images of Wizards players have already been stripped from the team Web site. Although the league pays a fixed $25-million annual fee for the licensing rights to the players, that was not a factor in its decision. (“We do not think it is appropriate to be using video and photography of our current players at this time,” Michael Bass, the NBA’s senior vice president of marketing communications, said in a statement).
Leonsis was asked what his message would be to Wizards fans on the fence about forking over money for season tickets, especially if there is a prolonged work stoppage on the horizon. He said, “I’m afraid I can’t comment at all.”
For probably the bazillionth time, Leonsis was asked about possibly changing the name back to the Bullets, but he decided instead to focus on changes that the team recently made with its new red, white and blue uniforms and logos. “I’m not going to comment on the name. Hopefully, everybody saw what we did with the re-branding and I couldn’t be happier with the re-branding. It did exactly what I hoped it would do. It played appropriate amount of homage to the past and the good past. The team won an NBA championship. But it allowed us and allowed me to make my own way. I have to be my own person and I thought we struck that balance of respect but also, we can look to the future. I think the fans have responded well. When you can do something where there is an alignment on happiness, then that’s a good thing.”
Leonsis also credited his predecessor, Abe Pollin, for changing downtown by building the Verizon Center, which he purchased last June and has become an “iconic piece of real estate” since it opened 14 years ago. He said Pollin deserves more than having one block on F Street named, “Abe Pollin Way.”
“I often laugh that it’s nice that they put a sign there, but it probably should be a monument somewhere,” Leonsis said. “Because he turned around, because of his vision, the downtown community. We have the Verizon Center, right near the Mall, right near the Capitol, right near the White House. It’s becoming an iconic piece of real estate. It activates local commerce.”
He then explained how he left from meeting with the Dalai Lama at the arena on Sunday, walked out and spoke with a friend who was headed to the Shakespeare Theater and dined at Rosa Mexicana.
Leonsis concluded his speech by sharing his own personal story — which he has shared often — about the power that sports have in bringing people together. He shared the story of how he attended New York Jets games with his father and how they were so happy when the Jets upset the Baltimore Colts to win Super Bowl III in 1969. Before the Jets faced the Colts in the AFC championship in 2009, Leonsis said he was watching a replay of the game and started weeping as he thought of his childhood. His wife, Lynn, walked in and asked if he was okay.
“I’m crying, like, Joe Namath,” Leonsis said. “She said, “You’re pathetic. Men and sports. I don’t get it.”
“I know what business I’m in now . . . To make grown me cry,” Leonsis said. “Forty years after the fact. And I know that if we can one day win a championship, it will bring our community together and create that connective tissue between fathers and sons and mothers and daughters and best friends that obviously will last a lifetime. That is a huge responsibility and one that I take very, very seriously.”