You might not realize it, but the man responsible for convincing Michael Jordan to trade in his executive suit for a Wizards jersey is none other than. . .Wolf Blitzer?
Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration. But if you ask Blitzer, the host of CNN’s “Situation Room,” about when he became a Wizards season ticket holder, he might share the story of how he convinced Jordan to come out of retirement during the 2001 NBA All-Star Game in Washington.
Blitzer hosted a town hall meeting for CNN’s “Late Edition” at the old Newseum in Arlington that included Jordan, NBA commissioner David Stern, National Basketball Players’ Association executive director Billy Hunter and Jordan’s two agents, David Falk and Curtis Polk. Blitzer asked Jordan a question about how much he missed the game.
“At one point, I said to him, ‘This city would really explode if you put your uniform back on and started playing a little bit.’ And he laughed. Then I pressed him and pressed him. After the interview, he did it,” Blitzer said in a recent telephone interview. “Now being the egomaniac that I am, I take personal credit. But I suspect there were other factors besides my excellent questioning that convinced him to come back and play.”
Blitzer is probably right about the other factors influencing Jordan’s decision (since there were seven months between the interview and the actual comeback announcement — which somehow didn’t include Blitzer). But Blitzer purchased season tickets for the first time that year and has remained a dedicated Wizards fan, maintaining his season tickets as Jordan left to make way for Gilbert Arenas, and then Arenas got traded to open the door for John Wall. In a recent interview, Blitzer discussed the challenges that the franchise faces to get more people to support the team.
What do the Wizards have to do to win over fans?
You need a winner. I think these last few years, unfortunately, we haven’t been winning. I think people love the Wizards like they love the Nationals, the Redskins, the Capitals. But there is nothing like success that creates real followers. When the Wizards were doing well, going to playoffs, the games were sold out. I’ve been going for many years, but I really became a devoted season ticket holder during the Michael Jordan era and I think every game was sold out. Not only the Verizon Center but everywhere he went. Nothing succeeds like success. What the city needs, what the team needs, start winning some games and people will come. People will love the Wizards more than they already do. I think winning is really important. I think the Gilbert Arenas, the gun in the locker room thing, that really hurt the franchise. It was just an awful situation. What can I say?
You think about that incident, and also it’s been 30 years since they were a legit contender for anything. How tough do you think that’s been to overcome having some traction within the city?
It’s tough, but remember, there was a point for three or four years, we went to the playoffs. I think once we got out of the first round. We had three all-stars, that go to all the NBA all-star games, all-star weekend. And I was very proud, we had three Wizards who used to play and they were all nice guys. We all thought they were doing well. And I think the city liked them a lot and I thought we were doing well. But these last few years, unfortunately, we started losing games and I think that hurt. I think what also is hurting right now — and this is just anecdotally, I have no scientific evidence to back it up — is this whole lockout and the players. I did a blog on this on CNN.com, where you have millionaires and billionaires fighting each other at a time when there are so many poor people out there struggling just to make a living. People who have lsot their jobs, unemployment, the underemployment, and people just want to put food on the table. Nearly 50 million Americans get by just on food stamps, and the poverty. So when you hear somebody say, you know what, I’m not going to work, because I’m only going to make $700,000 for seven months of work. People say, ‘What is that all about?’ People are just anxious about that. It’s hard for me to explain the intricacies of the player caps and all that 53, 47 and all that, blah, blah, blah, when they are making millions of dollars to play basketball and why can’t they just play? I think this whole lockout has hurt not just the Wizards, but all of the NBA and I think they’ve got to resolve this quickly. Because I think, I don’t know if it’s going to be long-term or short-term, but there is going to be damage. I’m really hoping that cooler heads will prevail and they can resolve this.
They seem to be closer than they are leading on, it just depends on how committed they are to really getting something done. I know it’s tough for players with a system that was in their favor, to give that up, there is going to be some resistance.
Nobody can feel sorry for millionaires and billionaires fighting against each other, at a time with such economic distress in the country right now and what really upsets me and I’m sure it upsets a lot of people. I don’t care about the millionaires and billionaires. They’ll do just fine. They’ll survive. It’s all people that work at the stadiums, that work at the restaurants. I think of, I always park at the Verizon Center and I go in the same door and there is the same lady that takes my ticket, scans it, and I think about her. Because I’ve gotten to know her over the years and I say to myself, ‘I hope she’s working for the Capitals games.’ And that she hasn’t suffered because of this lockout. I worry about her because I don’t know how she’s doing without 45 home games, preseason and regular season, however that works out or whatever. I’m worried about the people who make a living out of these games, directly or indirectly and I hope they’ll do okay in these tough economic times.
Do you see this as a basketball town, and if so, what will it take to really improve the popularity around the city?
I think Washington, D.C. Maryland, northern Virginia is a great basketball area. I know that just from my experience, we love basketball and not just NBA basketball, but Maryland, GW, AU, all of the local college teams, Georgetown, obviously. We have a lot of basketball fans in this area. College basketball, professional basketball, they want to go to games, they want to be entertained, they love the sport, they love what’s going on. But we need to start winning some games and they’ll start to turn things around, I don’t think it’s all that complicated. I do think we’ve got good management. I think with Ted Leonsis taking over, he’s a very, very smart guy. I’m very optimistic about the Capitals. I think Ted Leonsis, [General Manager] Ernie Grunfeld, [Coach] Flip [Saunders], these guys, they know what they are doing, they’ve got proven track records, they’re smart. They can get the team back on track. We’ve got good potential. I was upbeat. I was thinking the roster that we have right now, we’re going to start winning some games and surprising some people and people will like the team. I was pretty upbeat going into the season. I just hope that once the season starts, if the season starts, everybody will be ready to play basketball. I think the Wizards can do well. I don’t think they can win the NBA championship, but they’ll do well.
John Wall has really taken his game to another level this summer.
He’s great. You have a couple of guys like that, you don’t even need a few. You’ve got one guy like that and he starts some spectacular play, people will come. I’m not worried about that. We’ve got good potential. We’ve got a good roster, we’ve got good leadership and I’m confident that this city will love the Wizards the way I do.
Why have you stayed committed?
I renew my season tickets every year. Costs me a lot of money, but I love the Wizards. Even if I can’t go to a game, I give my tickets to my staff at CNN and a lot of these younger people can’t afford to go and they are thrilled to go to the games and everybody is thrilled. I think that Washington, D.C. is a good sports town for all of the sports. Football, basketball, baseball, hockey. Look, I grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. and I remember when we had an NBA team in Buffalo, which unfortunately we couldn’t sustain and it was sad to me. I grew up with the Sabres and the Buffalo Bills. I come from a heavy sports background. If I wouldn’t have gone into political journalism and foreign policy, I could’ve easily gone into sports journalism like you.
I think you made the right choice.
I’ve done all right. But I love sports. I’ve gone to a lot of Nationals games and I love our local teams. I’ve lived more of my life in Washington than I have in Buffalo, but I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Bills and the Sabres because you know what, Buffalo is a great sports town. Unfortunately, the city is losing so much population, it’s not easy to sustain these teams, but the Sabres and Bills do well, so I’m happy about that.
Never had the temptation to hop on the bandwagon of a more successful team?
No, I’m loyal, not just when they are winning but when they are losing. I love the Wizards and I support the Wizards, just like the other local teams. It’s fun. Basketball is a great sport, because it really moves. You’re always seeing stuff going on and very often, it’s down to the last 20 seconds and there is excitement there. It’s just great. All the years, I’ve met some of the coaches and players. It’s always exciting to see these guys.
Shame Jordan didn’t have the best run here …
But still. Didn’t we sell out every game that he played? Abe Pollin was a great owner. I also admired Mr. Pollin, what he did, he built the MCI, before it was Verizon, that whole area, I remember that whole area around Chinatown was a disaster. You have to give Mr. Pollin credit, he really revitalized that whole area of Washington, D.C., just because of the Wizards and before that the Bullets. I love basketball. I decided I wanted to be a season ticket holder and I have been over all of these years. I support them all, the Nationals and the Caps. Whenever I can get away, it’s really relaxing for me, because it’s so intense, all of the news that I cover. I love to get away and see a game. It’s a pleasure for me. It gets my mind off all the craziness of Washington, in terms of the politics and all that stuff.