Seeing Ted Leonsis on the Verizon Center Jumbotron Sunday at the end of Game 4 — clapping rhythmically in his No. 42 Nene jersey, soaking in the paying customers’ approving applause — is again seeing that winning is sports’ great deodorant.
It not only covers up the stench of all those rebuilding years for Washington’s NBA team; it masks the fact that Leonsis, also the owner of the District’s newly reeling NHL team, parted ways a day earlier with his general manager of 17 years and his fourth coach in six years.
The Wizards are not just adept at setting screens for each other; they’ve finally started to set picks for the Capitals, providing cover for the owner of a former Stanley Cup contender suddenly in reset mode.
Actually, they’re returning the favor after the Caps very much had their backs since 2008, during lean basketball times on Abe Pollin Way.
The oldest fans in D.C. proper contend that Washington has always been a sleeping giant of a hoops town, awakening every 10 years or so when a team gives it a reason to care.
But the further the Wizards go into May — the more they would begin to resemble a genuine contender themselves — the more their turnabout story would become bigger than basketball.
See, three or four times annually the same question makes its way around barber shops, sports bars and bored newsrooms in Washington: Which local team is closer to winning a title? It hasn’t happened since Joe Gibbs’s first go-round in 1992, 22 years and counting.
Between 2008 and 2011, the Capitals, annually chosen by hockey observers to play for the Cup, were an easy answer. Then the Nationals joined the party two years ago, growing up in a blink, winning the National League East and coming within a sliver of playing in the NLCS. Then Robert Griffin III happened in 2012 and, well, didn’t happen in 2013.
But as major-revenue teams among the four major North American sports go, the Wizards have not been vaguely part of that first-team-to-a-title discussion since Gilbert Arenas crashed and burned. And even then, they were a remote choice because there were simply too many better teams in front of them.
It’s a different day with these Wizards.
The Nationals’ talent and depth still feel like the odds-on favorite to win it all first, especially with baseball’s recent postseason crapshoots.
But then, they have yet to win a single major league postseason series. In point of fact, except for the Capitals, no team in Washington has won a series or an NFL playoff game since the football team on Jan. 7, 2006.
These Wizards are closing in, one win shy of knocking off Chicago in the first round after two riveting wins on the road and taking Game 4 by force Sunday afternoon to go up 3-1.
Bradley Beal is knocking down improbable jump shots late in taut games; John Wall is a flat-out playmaker, his decision-making so improved at the point; Nene’s midrange jumper is nirvana (even if his poise needs work); and Trevor Ariza — once thought to be a journeyman contract in a recycling deal for Arenas’s and then Rashard Lewis’s $100 million-plus contracts — turned out to be a godsend.
Did we mention Polska’s own Marcin Gortat, that 6-foot-11 indefatigable, body-fat-of-a-hamster big man?
The Wizards aren’t just buying Leonsis cover for his hockey team’s foibles. Led by a 20-year-old Beal and a 23-year-old Wall, they are the young upstarts in an Eastern Conference soon for the taking.
No one knows what LeBron James will do for sure this summer in Miami, where he can either stay with the Heat or opt out of his contract. Either way, Dwyane Wade is calcifying and Miami is not the indomitable champion it once was.
Indiana looks to be imploding, its players feuding, its dominance earlier this season replaced with dysfunction and a team that has yet to find itself for good after February.
The Knicks have salary-cap issues and the reality that Carmelo Anthony might not be great enough to be considered the best player on a championship team.
The Nets are a mix of ancient (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett) and not as good as we thought they were (Deron Williams and Joe Johnson). Even when Derrick Rose is healthy, Bulls management doesn’t seem to care about championship aspirations enough to keep someone like Luol Deng, their second-leading scorer before he was traded.
Who’s to say whether the Wizards can close out the Bulls in Games 5 or 6 or make hay in the second round against either Indiana or Atlanta? Who knows whether they can keep Gortat, Ariza or both, since free agency could very well take its toll on a team most non-Wizards season-ticket holders are just getting to know?
But for the first time in a long time, a window is open for a pro basketball team here to jump through and ignite the multitudes, many of whom have just as hard a time remembering the last championship parade in town as they do the night Wes Unseld embraced Mr. Pollin, in 1978, when an NBA team last was the king of Washington.
Here’s hoping Ted saves his No. 42 Nene jersey for a night like that.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.