The view outside Ted Leonsis’s Verizon Center office was a little murky about 5:30 p.m. on Friday, with dark clouds hovering and raindrops splashing against the windows. The Washington Wizards were a few hours from playing their first home playoff game in six years, the payoff for a painful and embarrassing road back to relevance. ¶ Though his team had won the first two games of its best-of-seven, first-round NBA playoff series on the road against the Chicago Bulls, Leonsis was hardly at ease. “I’m being very, very sincere here: I’m really nervous here,” Leonsis said, “because you’re a creature of your experiences.” ¶ The relationship between Washington and its professional basketball team has long been defined by disappointment and heartbreak. Since 1980, the team has
won only two playoff series — once in 1982, when the team was called the Bullets, and once in 2005 — and has failed to reach the 16-team postseason field 22 times.
Fans seemed similarly hesitant to embrace their team’s resurgence this season, even when it became clear by March that the Wizards would make their first playoff appearance since 2008.
The team ranked 18th among NBA teams in attendance and had only four sellouts in the regular season despite 44 victories, matching its second-highest win total since the team lost to the Seattle SuperSonics in the 1979 NBA Finals.
“I guess they wanted to wait and see,” point guard John Wall said when asked why so many fans were late to get behind the team.
That moment arrived on Friday, when a raucous sellout crowd at Verizon Center dressed in red, white and blue T-shirts and erupted at every basket. It was the Wizards’ first game to be nationally televised by ESPN in more than three years. The atmosphere should be just as festive for Sunday’s Game 4, which will fill the marquee television time slot of 1 p.m. on ABC.
Wizards merchandise sales increased by 100 percent on the online retailer Fanatics.com from the previous week, the largest bump of any franchise. Sales of apparel featuring Wall ranked fifth among NBA players after Tuesday’s Game 2.
NBA analysts, many of whom picked the Wizards to lose to the Bulls, have joined the Wizards’ bandwagon. TNT network analyst Charles Barkley, a Hall of Fame player who famously said two years ago that he would only refer to the Wizards by their former name, “the Bullets, ’cause I want to shoot ’em,” is now at the front.
After the Wizards won the first two games of the series, Barkley said the Wizards were “growing up before our eyes,” that Wall “is learning to be a point guard instead of just a tornado out there” and proclaimed that second-year guard Bradley Beal “has arrived.”
“We don’t look at it as the fans hop on the bandwagon or nothing like that,” Wall said. “The main thing for us is to make the playoffs as a team and bring excitement to the city and to all the people and the fans that deserve it and have been through the tough times over the past few years. I think they felt the same pain as us, but we felt the pain more, because we’re playing.”
Wall became the centerpiece of the Wizards’ rebuilding efforts when the franchise selected him first overall in the 2010 NBA draft, just a few weeks after Leonsis purchased the team from the Pollin family. Wall arrived in Washington at age 19 charged with the revitalizing a franchise that was rebuilding after an embarrassing incident in which two players, star Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton, brought guns to the locker room.
It took four seasons filled largely with losses and injuries for Wall to mature into an all-star, and for the team to accumulate enough talent and veterans to be taken seriously, for the fans to fall for the Wizards once again.
“The goal was to build a franchise as good as the fan base and I’ve always believed this was a basketball town and a sleeping giant. And that if we could just give the fans a team that they could believe in and be proud of, we sell it out,” Leonsis said. “When we announced our rebuild, we said it’s going to take a while but we’ll be really bad until we’re really good and all of sudden, you’ll wake up one day and it’ll be sold out. So, by your tickets today, it’s like Malibu real estate.”
Bobby Dandridge, the starting forward for the franchise’s only championship team, in 1978, and executive director of the Bullets/Wizards alumni association, said he usually shows up about an hour before games. On Friday, that qualified as being late as traffic was uncommonly congested outside the garage entrance to Verizon Center on Sixth Street NW and caused a delay to his usual routine.
“I definitely think this is the biggest thing that’s happened to Washington since the Nationals had that outstanding season two seasons ago,” Dandridge said, referring to Washington’s Major League Baseball team, which advanced to the playoffs in 2012. “So I think the competition for the sports fan has only gone deeper now with the Wizards playing so well.”
Leonsis said the Wizards will have almost 90 percent season ticket renewals from this season to next and are closing in on 10,000 for the 2014-15 campaign. “The fan base here is so sophisticated, they reject bad actors. They reject bad basketball,” Leonsis said, “and they’re liking what they’re seeing. I believe that [Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld] has done a really good job of mixing young players and vets and they really like each other, they respect each other, the vibe is very, very strong.”
Larry Hinton, 64, an NBA fan from Woodbridge, said: “I see a lot of people getting more excited because it’s the home team and they are finally back in the playoffs. With the young players they drafted and brought in, you could see this coming, and if John Wall can stay healthy, I think this city will see its team be competitive for years to come.”
As fan interest has heated up, the Wizards have gained national exposure. The Wizards were left off the schedules of the NBA’s network television partners — ABC, ESPN and TNT — during the regular season, limiting the team’s exposure to fans in the Washington area and subscribers to cable, satellite or Internet broadcast packages.
Friday’s game marked the first time that the Wizards had been on ESPN, ABC or TNT since Wall’s rookie season, on Nov. 25, 2010.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently addressed the rigidity of the league’s broadcast schedule, which forces networks to mostly stay committed to games that are announced months in advance regardless of the quality of the teams involved. The NBA’s contracts with the three networks are set to expire in 2016.
“We can do a better job making every game available to every fan who wants to see it. Right now we are not doing as good a job as we can matching demand and supply,” Silver said. “One of the things we hope to accomplish in our new set of television deals is to make all the games more accessible, so that if the great game that night happens to be a Wizards-Bucks game, but that wasn’t one that we planned on to be shown on national television, it becomes more accessible to fans through their tablet or through their television as part of our expanded product.”
Until then, the Wizards will have to earn the respect of the networks by proving to be a viable playoff team. A series win would go a long way toward raising the organization’s profile.
Also the majority owner of the NHL’s Washington Capitals, Leonsis recalls the sense of accomplishment and agony in 2003, when the District’s hockey team won the first two games in Tampa Bay — only to lose the series in six games.
“That really taught me, it ain’t over till it’s over,” Leonsis said, revealing the angst shared by many of the fans of the long-downtrodden Wizards.
The next day, hours after the interview, the contrast between the franchises’ current fortunes would become more apparent when Leonsis informed Capitals general manager George McPhee and coach Adam Oates that they would not return to their positions next season.
In Friday’s Wizards game, the home team set off some of that old foreboding among the boisterous Verizon Center crowd. They not only narrowly lost to the Bulls, 100-97, but played the last eight minutes without beefy Brazilian forward Nene, who scuffled with Bulls guard Jimmy Butler and was ejected. On Saturday, the NBA announced Nene would be suspended from playing Game 4. The Wizards still need two more wins to claim their first playoff series win this decade.
“The plan hasn’t worked yet,” Leonsis said. “I think it’s important for us to be an authentic contender and we have a really, really good team but we have to get better.”
Brandon Parker contributed to this report