Wizards fans: Hopeless optimists or just plain crazy?


From left, Nir Levy, Adam Hammerman and Jonathan Waksman, all of Rockville, cover their heads at the Wizards game. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)

It’s just that simple: Nolan Walter is here at the arena, and the woeful Washington Wizards’ fortunes are about to change.

He’s the ultimate Wizards fan, dressed in retro Bullets cap and Wiz jersey in the old teal and gold. The team doesn’t know it, but he’s their lucky charm — they’ve won every time he’s been in the building over the past two years.

“I’ve been watching them since I was 9, in 2000,” says Walter, who lives in Howard County and is studying to be a math teacher. “I just keep thinking they’re going to get good.”

“He says that all the time,” says his girlfriend, Victoria Herr, who bought him a pair of tickets to Monday night’s game as an anniversary gift.

By definition, a Wizards fan expects little. The team last made the playoffs in 2008; its only championship was in 1978. This year’s start — winless after the first month of play — is the worst in franchise history, the previous record having been set last year, which began with eight losses.

The team has the league’s worst offense. Its big star, John Wall, is injured and has yet to play this season. The other top-flight player, Nene, was back on the medical shelf Monday after a brief return last week.

Still, the Wizards draw thousands of hardy fans every time they play. Sure, some of those fans have scored unimaginable bargains, grabbing tickets off StubHub for $2. Yes, $2. Others are the 8,000 season-ticket holders, who paid big money for their seats and want to see how their investment is panning out.

But as the Wizards stumble into the new season garnering hoots and catcalls from the paying customers, the fact remains: The folks who head to the arena on a Monday night after a holiday weekend are here not only to enjoy some allegedly professional basketball, but to prove a point: They are with their team, no matter what.

Well, at least for a while longer.

 

6:58 p.m., Section 117, Row R

Three college freshmen find their $50 lower-bowl seats — they snagged them for $14 each — and don brown paper supermarket bags, fitted with holes for eyes and painted with tears streaming down their recyclable cheeks.

“It was a group idea,’’ says Nir Levy, 19, who goes to the University of Maryland. “This was teamwork. The Wizards could learn something from us.”

“We don’t want to show our faces as Wizards fans anymore,’’ says Adam Hammerman, 19, who grew up in Rockville and attends the University of Denver.

Despite the bags, the boys will not abandon their team. “One day, we’ll be good and end up having all these stories about how we stuck with them,’’ Hammerman says.

He wears a cap with “RG III” on the front, bought for $5 outside the arena, the Redskins quarterback being hotter than the Wizards’ no-name players.

That’s how it is in Washington. Robert Griffin III has the Redskins winning some games. The Nationals made the playoffs. Even the Nats’ losingest racing president won.

Wizards fan Jonathan Waksman, a student at George Washington University: “We’re worse than Teddy Roosevelt.”

The man in the owner’s box understands fans’ pain. Ted Leonsis, who owns the Wizards and Capitals, grew up in Brooklyn, a stalwart fan of the Jets and Mets, surefire recipes for frustration. “Every sports fan has endured a stretch when his or her favorite team isn’t winning, and obviously some stretches are longer than others,” he says.

“But I remained a fan because the Jets and the Mets were my teams. There is a romance associated to sticking with a team through its tough times, and when that team begins to have success, you feel a sense of gratification — or at least that has been my personal experience.”

 

7:16 p.m., Section 101, Row T

The Wizards take an early lead against the San Antonio Spurs, 11-7.

“This could be our night,” says Arnold Jackson of Silver Spring. He does not expect miracles. “I just want to see a team that’s competitive. Their draft choices, their trades — they don’t have a clue.”

 

7:20 p.m., Section 116, Row C

Vicky McPherson, 38, first bought season tickets a decade ago, believing Michael Jordan might lift the team to greatness.

“It didn’t happen, and I’m still coming,’’ said McPherson, a lawyer. “I don’t know why.”

This year, she joined a group that bought four seats for $8,000.

“They just need time,’’ says her husband, Clint. “We’re willing to be patient.”

“Who is?” she interrupts. “Not me. Sometimes I can’t even give my tickets away. Everyone’s first question is, ‘Who are they playing?’ ”

Wizards fans may not match the Redskins in numbers. They may not be as loud as Caps fans, as rabid as D.C. United followers or as fulfilled as long-suffering Nationals fans were this season. But Wizards fans have been loyal, renewing season plans at a rate above the league average.

Attendance is down a bit, averaging 15,710 through five home games, 21st among the league’s 30 teams. In the past four seasons, when they failed to make the playoffs, the Wizards sold about 1,000 fewer tickets per game than in the previous four years, when they got to the postseason.

Leonsis says he keenly feels pressure to turn things around and is rebuilding the Wizards as the Caps and Nats did, from the foundation.

“We are a team that has been completely reconstructed in less than two years,” he says. “We are hardworking, fun to watch, easy to cheer for and have exciting young players.”

 

7:40 p.m., courtside

The Wizards fall behind, but John Backus, a venture capitalist from Great Falls, brims with hope. This is his ninth year with season tickets, and the Wizards still bring his family together, still provide the thrills they did when Jordan’s arrival brought Backus into the fold.

In his business, dreams only go so far. A company produces numbers or loses support. “We’ve had a lot of knuckleheads on this team,” he says. “But this year, we have serious players. This team hustles. That’s something to root for.”

“In the venture capital world, you invest in winners and cut off losers,” he says. “If this team hasn’t developed a chemistry by January, you’ll see a real evaluation point, action in the trading room. In my business, we can change the CEO. Ted can change the coach or general manager.”

 

8:10 p.m., disabled seating

At last, fans who are professionally suited to explain why they keep coming back. Manny Roman, 78, and his daughter Nancy are loyalists going back to Bullets days, and they are both psychiatrists.

She lives in North Carolina, where people talk college hoops. Nancy talks Wizards, and people think she’s a little nutty.

But she dares not venture into the mind of a Wizards fan.

“Analyze this? I don’t think so,” she says. “I might prove that I’m nuts.”

 

8:15 p.m., TNT

As the cable station shows first-half highlights, analysts Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley mock the Washington team.

“You want to call them Bullets, Wizards. I call ’em the Washington Generals,” Barkley says, referring to the pathetic squad whose job is to lose to the Harlem Globetrotters. Whereupon Smith sings the Globetrotter theme song, “Sweet Georgia Brown.”

 

8:23 p.m. Section 411, six rows from the ceiling

Rob Watson bought his first season ticket in October, after Wall went down with a knee injury, after sportswriters dismissed any chance that the Wizards would play like anything other than the Wizards.

A chef at Rockville’s American Tap Room, Watson, 40, scraped together the $450 and paid for Seat 13 in installments. The action is far below and not very good, but he has never felt closer.

“I’ve invested in this team,” says Watson, who has been a fan since his uncle took him to a Bullets game in 1977. He laughs. “Some investments don’t pan out, I know. But it still feels good to say you’re a season-ticket holder.”

 

8:35 p.m., 106.7 the Fan

On Wizards radio, Glenn Consor sounds down as the Wizards fall farther behind the Spurs: “They’re a much better team than this. They’re thinking too much.”

 

8:45 p.m., Section 116, Row C

The Wizards are down by 24. McPherson gives up her “DEE-fense” chant. “Maybe they’re just tired,’’ she says. McPherson vows to stay. How can you walk out on your team?

Ten minutes later, behind 107-81, she and her husband climb the stairs.

“Maybe they’ll do better at the next game,’’ she says. “I’ll be here. It’s not like anyone will buy my ticket.”

 

8:54 p.m., Section 109, Row J

Nolan Walter can’t believe it. He is in the building, and the Wizards are not winning.

“It is what it is,” he says. “I’ll keep coming back. Eventually, they’ll win.”

He stays to the last second, always, “because who knows what’s going to happen?”

His girlfriend has had a splendid time, but this is too much. “I think I know what’s going to happen,” she says.

 

It does: 9:12 p.m. Spurs win, 118-92.

As fans — the team reports 13,879 were on hand — troop out, several stop to take pictures of the teens wearing the Giant paper bags. Finally, something to smile about.

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.
Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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