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Mike Wise

My Kind of Town

By Mike Wise
Saturday, October 2, 2004; Page D01

The first week of January, a good friend and fellow New Yorker strongly cautioned me against moving to Washington.

"Nice going, Wise. What a great sports town you picked," he said in a kind of annoying, sarcastic lilt. "Good luck at that Wizards-Charlotte game in mid-April. I hear Maryland has an outstanding field hockey team."

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He had a point at the time. The Wizards last won something during the Paleolithic era, the 5-11 Redskins were off the national radar, Freddy Adu still hadn't had a colonoscopy yet and Joe Gibbs was saving souls under NASCAR bleachers.

But this was before Jan. 7, the day Coach God announced he was coming back -- coincidentally the day I interviewed for this job.

Freddy, Montgomery County's 14-year-old stubby little man, became the sports pages' Britney -- coincidentally my first week on the job.

A few days later, another John Thompson came to rescue a moribund Georgetown men's basketball program.

On the upgrades went:

• On NBA draft day in June, the Wizards actually made a decent trade. They sent a rehabbing, burnt-out-on-D.C. Jerry Stackhouse to Dallas for a younger, less-jaded scorer, Antawn Jamison.

• Michael Phelps, unknown outside swimming nine months ago, is now well-known in Speedos than "Baywatch" in syndication. He won as many medals at one Olympics as anyone in the history of the Games.

• The Mystics -- the Mystics? -- made the playoffs. They actually got ink because Chamique Holdsclaw, their best player, mysteriously could not play for the rest of the season. Controversy in the WNBA! (Admittedly, a reach.)

• Big, gruff softie Ralph Friedgen, the Maryland football coach, now has one more national television commercial than Bobby Bowden or Joe Paterno.

• The Capitals, once a Stanley Cup finalist and now futile and forgotten, may not play this season. That's not an upgrade?

• And this past Wednesday . . . baseball. Back after 33 years. A crowning civic achievement. (Unless your PTA has to pay for a Xerox machine because your child's public school cannot afford it. I mean, you can almost hear The Voice, speaking to Kevin Costner in the middle of the Anacostia waterfront: "Pay for it and they will come.")

Did I mention Maryland's 10-1 field hockey team was No. 1 in the nation last week? The Terps have a huge game tomorrow at 2 p.m. against ninth-ranked American at home.

So, you've got your legendary coach returning. Your soccer and swimming prodigies changing the landscape. You've got people caring about basketball at MCI Center again and no one disemboweling the Caps' first line for at least a few months. You've got Montreal's orphaned National League team.

I'm not saying Washington's inferiority complex should necessarily end. Or that the long-suffering fans of this region shouldn't keep transferring their passions to the Lakers, the Cubs or the Maple Leafs once their own franchises are mathematically eliminated from the playoffs five games into the season. And I'm not inferring that I, and not Coach Gibbs, am the Chosen One, whose divine presence started this chain reaction -- although my parents would get a kick out of it if you did.

I'm just saying something is going on here, a conversion of the stars, a lining up of constellations, a vernal equinox in autumn, maybe.

Or it could be the leftover chicken vindaloo and basmati rice in my fridge. I don't know.

I do know Washington is a much bigger and viable sports town than it was last week -- and certainly bigger and more viable than it was when the year began.

And frankly, I'm worried. Forget the White House's identity crisis; it's frightening around here for a journalist seeking fame and glory. Pretty soon, the sportswriters might not even be the biggest celebrities in town. What if they eventually make a sitcom about an athlete or a coach?

The most threatened of all by this newfound Washingtonian athletic pride are the local sports zealots, who took so much grief from friends in New York, Boston, even Chicago, for more than a decade. Even in rough times, they had the Yankees, the Patriots and the Bulls. You had Maryland basketball and . . . the Yankees, Patriots and Bulls.

Successful Washington area sports teams has been a dormant notion for a long time. This is the town where Chris Webber, Jaromir Jagr and Deion Sanders had their worst years. It is where the Hoyas fell off the college basketball map. It is where new-money, petulant owners made their biggest news by accosting fans during hockey games or terminating the services of men named Norv, Marty and Steve. Michael Jordan -- Michael Freakin' Jordan! -- got fired in D.C.

Yet today, even at 1-2, the Redskins matter more than they have in 12 years. Do the Wizards win the NBA title this season or next? No chance. But beyond Shaq and Miami, the Wizards, Orlando, Atlanta and the expansion Charlotte Bobcats compete in the new Southeast Division of the realigned Eastern Conference. Eddie Jordan's club could realistically finish second and be in the running for the East's last playoff spot.

Do Friedgen's Terrapins nudge out Southern Cal and Oklahoma for a BCS bid? No. But scalpers stand sentry at home games now, whispering outside sold-out Byrd Stadium. A national title game could be two years away.

Maybe Gibbs keeps going mortal on us the next few weeks. Maybe the Wizards are the Wizards in a few months and the Expos are still the Expos by next summer. Maybe the Caps play again.

But after these past nine months, the idea of the nation's capital as a sleepy little southern sports town north of Greensboro, a place desperately trying to escape a luminous shadow like New York's, is gone.

We're big. Oh, we're very big.

Now hurry up and applaud before the Yankees celebrate another title.

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