Flip Saunders has reached the conference finals four times but he probably hasn’t ever had his name dropped in a hip-hop song. That was before he arrived in Washington, where rapper Wale constantly tries to represent for his hometown and frequently uses sports metaphors in his songs.
Wale once mentioned his plans to “ball like Arenas,” and, he gives the Wizards’ 56-year-old coach a shoutout on his new single, “Bait.” He rhymes, “Floor seats at that Wizards game/So close I can give Flip a play.”
It’s tough to flaunt a love affair with a lousy team, but Wale does his best to stay committed, even as the Wizards have done little to inspire hope since Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league in 1979.
In a recent interview, Wale discussed what it’s like to be a Wizards fan; his relationship with owner Ted Leonsis and his son, Zach; his friendship with John Wall; and how he remains friends with LeBron James, despite the history between James and the franchise.
When you made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel, you wore the Wizards’ new jersey. Why did you represent the Wizards of all the teams?
Because I love the Leonsises. Zach and Ted. Little Leonsis and Big Leonsis. I really love the team, man. Before we had John Wall, I never had a favorite player on the Wizards. But I’m always going to rep it. Like LeBron is a personal friend of mine, and when LeBron comes to play the Wizards, I’m still rooting for the Wizards and I might make some friendly jabs. But I’ll rep LeBron anyway, whether that be on ESPN or whatever. Unfortunately, we haven’t been lucky enough to be in a position or a topic of discussion on a national level. They’d rather talk about LeBron or whoever is winning. But I think this is going to be the year, if we have a season, that we show a lot of people.
How do you balance being a LeBron fan and a Wizards fan given the history?
On my album, I got a song called, Miami Nights, where I’m talking…it’s almost like going back to Cali. A detailed description of Miami from an outsiders’ perspective. It starts off, ‘Who would’ve believed that I’d be well off/ have a life [people] die, go to jail for/” Just reflecting on how great it is to be in the position I’m in. and one of the things I say is, “Floor seats and we all fresh/Tell LeBron to drop 50 unless he playing us.” I ain’t never going to let go of my DC pride. I ain’t never going to let go of my DC pride. Tell LeBron to drop 50 unless he playing us. It’s always Wizards over everything. One day I want to go back to being the Bullets. I don’t see any relation [with Wizards], you know what I’m saying? But I love my team, I’m proud of everybody, from John Wall to even when we had Darius Songaila. I rep my team, like JaVale McGee. I was the only guy at the All-Star Game, going crazy for JaVale. Because a lot of these guys are friends of mine. We’re all black men. Most of us have money. Social life. We’re going to know the same people in the city. We’re going to bump into each other and we have a good rapport. I think they get it now.
Do you think John Wall has the potential to possibly own this town one day?
Absolutely. And I try to coach him through it now. He’s like five or six years younger than me, so he’s like a little brother. At the same time, he’s not a little boy. I talk to him like a man. I talk to him like a homie. At the same time, I try to preach. He’s doing a great job, staying out of trouble, but it’s very easy to get in trouble in D.C., coming from a guy who essentially stayed out of trouble. And it’s tough to do, especially when you have a target on your back, from being a rapper. I tell him, it’s a certain way to win this town over. There is a certain way to be, and conduct yourself he may not be used to. I say: ‘I understand you’ve been a star player. DC is a special town. If you’re good to the people, they’ll be good to you. At the same time, the media ain’t so forgiving. So you’ve got to be concerned about what you do off the court.’ It’s very very important. It’s not like such and such city where the cops are fans and they won’t do nothing because it’s such a small city. This town is run by down the street. You see that. This is secondary. We got the most powerful man in the universe that’s living like two minutes away from you. So it’s going to be unforgiving when you mess up. The media is unforgiving. That’s the synopsis of what we talk about. But I think he could be the guy if he continues to excel on and off the court.
How do you think most people in town view the Wizards?
It fluctuates. It’s a very…a lot of fair-weather fans. A lot of people couldn’t name two starters on the Wizards. it’s like, we’re fair-weather. Me personally, I talked to Flip Saunders. That’s how deep I am. I talked to Flip [a few weeks ago].
What did you tell him, or what did he say to you?
I’m working on some music for them this season. Hopefully we have a season. I talked to my guys, the Leonsises. We’re working on something special for the fans, for the team, to give them some energy. Those types of things are more important for me, than anything I’ve done for my career. To be an ambassador for your city, musically. To make music, specifically for your favorite teams is incredible.
You say fair-weather fans. When would you say was probably the best era to be a Wizards fan? The Chris Webber days, the Gilbert Arenas days, was there a time?
I think they all had a high and low point. I can’t even lie. For instance, one of the highs was when we changed our uniforms, because everybody loves the change. Then you started regretting having those ugly blue and brown uniforms. Then the high was getting a new coach. We felt Eddie Jordan, he was great. Then it just turned to ugly. The high was getting Michael Jordan. We got Michael Jordan, the high went away, then the low points came. It was a high moment, from the time we found out we had a first-round draft pick to Kwame Brown’s second game. It was the highs and lows, my man. We haven’t had one of those organizations where we can say, ‘This is the year.’ Not in my lifetime. It’s just highs and lows. I still remember Rod Strickland leading the league in assists [in 1998] was a great high. It taught a lot of people. For a kid like me, I was a point guard, he showed us how to really be that efficient point guard. Just having one of the best players in the league on your team, one of the best, or the best point guard in the league, essentially, was a great moment for us.
What can the team do to gain more relevance in the city and gain more popularity?
It’s up to the people. We’ve got to support them the same way we support the Capitals. Capitals is winning. Don’t tell me everybody was just born Capitals fans. Don’t tell me they sell out because they enjoy seeing Mike Green and Ovechkin every other day. Support the Wizards the same way you support the Capitals, the same way you support the Redskins. When it turns around, you don’t want to be one of those people everybody looks at crazy.
But it seems like with the Redskins, it doesn’t matter. They could win six games, 10 games or three, there’s still going to be passion around them.
The games aren’t as frequent. Every weekend is a gathering. ‘Let’s go get drunk and watch the Redskins!’ It’s our little weekly, ya know. That’s all that is. Then, you’ve got to remember, we play the Cowboys at home every year. No matter what our record is going to be, people want to see how many Cowboy fans show up and you can argue with at the stadium. We have four games at home that we play against division rivals, so all of those are going to be packed. That’s another thing to take into consideration. And it’s not in D.C. It’s breathing room around the stadium. A lot of people don’t like that traffic going to the Verizon every other day. There’s a thing with basketball, where you say: ‘Oh, I’ll go to the next one. There’s probably one in another three days anyway.’ Whereas people know the Redskins won’t be there in another three weeks.
Another thing with LeBron. Considering his success against the Wizards in the playoffs, did you every find yourself conflicted, because he beat your team in the playoffs.
I’m always rooting for my Wizards. I’m a friendly dude. A lot of athletes see me in them, because I played ball for years.
The Wizards will never have the popularity of the Redskins…
We could. We could. We got to turn into that dynasty, or that young exciting team. and if we’re going to be that young, exciting team, we’ve got to be disciplined. I think if we have a season this year, we’re going to put our claim in to play good ball. We could definitely be as popular as the Redskins. It’s a process, though.
It’s very hard to be consistent in basketball, especially now, because players are choosing where they want to go. And free agency is about to be crazy.
How worried are you about the lockout, probably taking out the season?
Um, I’m concerned about it as a fan, honestly. It’s not a good look for anybody. It makes the players and the owners both look greedy and crazy and the people will never understand what a professional athlete’s life is like, what he has to pay for monthly or who he has to take care of. But it just doesn’t look good. No matter who’s right or wrong, it just looks bad for everybody.