The Washington Wizards are in the preliminary stages of planning a practice facility separate from the Verizon Center, owner Ted Leonsis said in a recent conversation.
Leonsis has appointed a team to set the groundwork for a state-of-the-art basketball complex that would be the hardwood equivalent to the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington that he has already built for the NHL’s Washington Capitals. Leonsis would like to complete the project by 2017, at the latest, and said the next step — which has yet to begin — is to find a location in the District, Virginia or Maryland.
“We’ve envisioned . . . our own major facility close by," Leonsis said from his office at Verizon Center. “We’re excited and committed and we think it’s the right thing for the franchise. We think it’s the right thing for the fan base. We certainly think it’s the right thing for the players.”
In the past 10 years, the Los Angeles Clippers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder have all built new practice facilities. The New Orleans Pelicans were the latest, opening up a 50,000-square-foot, $15 million facility — with $10 million coming from the state of Louisiana — in October in just nine months.
The Chicago Bulls announced in November 2012 that they plan to move from their suburban practice facility in Deerfield, Ill., into an approximately 55,000 square foot facility next to the United Center. And the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings both plan to build new arenas with practice facilities inside by 2017.
“It’s almost become like an arms race. A lot of NBA teams started to make these big kind of investments,” Leonsis said, “so we want to do it, too.”
The Wizards have been practicing on a cramped court at Verizon Center since the building opened 16 years ago. After practices, players often operate in the same spaces and have to move out of each other’s way as they run drills or shoot free throws. The WNBA’s Washington Mystics also practice on the court during the summer. When told of the possibility of having a new practice facility, John Wall — the only player on the Wizards roster who is signed beyond 2017 — started beaming.
“That’s something that would be great for us. I think it’s big for us, so we can go in anytime we want to, especially when guys are in the summer and the girls are practicing and doing things that, you don’t have to really wait,” said Wall, who trains in Los Angeles in the offseason. “You can just know that it’s your facility.”
Leonsis said he would prefer to have the facility close to public transportation, similar to Kettler. The Capitals moved into Kettler in 2006 after previously practicing at a rink in Piney Orchard, near the Capital Centre.
The 137,000 square-foot Kettler facility cost $42.8 million and was built atop a parking lot. It has two indoor rinks, offices, eight locker rooms, athletic training and medical facilities, a weight and fitness room, lounge areas and a theater-style classroom.
Leonsis wants to have similar amenities for the basketball facility. He would like to have multiple courts with stands so that high schools, colleges and other groups within the community could also use the facility to train and play games. Although he couldn’t offer a fair estimate on the cost, Leonsis expects it to be at least $20 million.
“This is going to be a 21 / 2 or three year process, I would believe,” Leonsis said. “It’s just the way it is. 2016. That’s what I would think. Could be, we’re opening up for camp for 2017. It seems like a long time. But it will go like that, and then we’ll be in it.”
The process of turning around one of the NBA’s least successful franchises over the past three decades has been a difficult challenge for Leonsis, who is in his fourth season since purchasing the team from the Pollin family. The Wizards (9-13) are currently on a four-game losing streak and are tied with Toronto and Chicago for the eighth-best record in the Eastern Conference as they prepare to take on the New York Knicks on Monday at Madison Square Garden.
Leonsis thought he made a bold statement in late October when the Wizards swapped the contract of injured center Emeka Okafor to get Marcin Gortat from the Phoenix Suns. Leonsis didn’t want any excuses as the team attempts to end a five-year postseason drought, and he wanted to send a message throughout the league that the Wizards were, as he likes to call it, “a have team.”
“A have team is a team that just says, ‘We can do what we think is in our best interest and has the financial resources, the wherewithal and the commitment,’ ” Leonsis said.
The Wizards have the league’s 11th-highest payroll at $70.4 million — almost $1.3 million below the luxury tax — and that doesn’t include the $7.8 million that the team is paying Brooklyn Nets forward Andray Blatche, who was waived under the amnesty provision before last season.
In the past two seasons, Leonsis has invested in remodeling the locker room and upgrading the bathroom and providing meals after practices. The team had SportVU cameras installed a year before the league required them in all arenas, and it also relies on the input of analytical consultant Joe Sill to provide more information for the basketball personnel department.
“We need the team to perform better and make the playoffs,” Leonsis said. “We need to have a team as good as the fan base. And then sell the building out. That makes you a ‘have.’ And then the practice facility will add to the imprimatur of what we do. Because it will be, ‘They really take care of their players.’”