Theoretically, they're supposed to be doing the speed-dating thing, surfing from one seat to the next in search of that perfect match, or failing that, the next best approximation -- a date for New Year's Eve. But mostly, it's women sitting with women; men sitting with men. In one corner, head propped up on a beefy hand, a man dozes.
On the court at MCI Center Friday night, the Wizards are trying to annihilate the New York Knicks. In the stands, in a special section cordoned off just for them, singles of every hue are trying to annihilate the Ghost of Christmas Past. You know, the one that spent an embarrassing amount of time hanging out under the mistletoe. Alone.
It's Singles Night with the Wizards, at a time of year, holiday season, when no one, not even Scrooge, wants to be flying solo.
Dating is supposed to be fun, but anyone who's spent more than a year or two Out There will tell you it's not. It's certainly not for the weak-willed -- witness the runaway success of that self-help book with the horrifying title, "He's Just Not That Into You." Dating is a competitive sport. So why not pair the mating ritual with another blood sport -- NBA basketball?
Pre-game, they're hanging out, a hundred or so singles (the numbers will swell to around 300, according to event organizers) in a club room off-court, meeting and mingling, drinks in hand. Tommy the Matchmaker, a little man with a big voice, is careening around the room, mike in hand, grabbing unsuspecting singles and shoving them into the path of members of the opposite sex.
"Do you have a date for New Year's Eve?" he asks one woman in a pink sweater, grabbing her with one hand and clutching his prey -- a single man with a job -- in the other.
"Yes," Pink Sweater tells him.
"Well, she's ineligible," Tommy the Matchmaker tells the guy, who doesn't look completely heartbroken.
"But -- " Pink Sweater interrupts, looking up and down with approval at Tommy the Matchmaker's selection. "We might be able to work something out . . . ."
And with that, Tommy the Matchmaker releases his prey and is off, using his Spidey Sense to sniff out other potential pairings and indulge in a little public humiliation at the same time.
"This is a wonderful idea," Tommy the Matchmaker (aka Tom Curtis) says. "You can meet at Safeway, you can meet at the Yacht Club in Bethesda" -- that's where Tommy the Matchmaker normally plies his trade -- "or hey, you can meet at the Wizards' Singles Night. . . . The world is a singles bar. You just have to be a little proactive. . . . You can meet anywhere. Walk on K Street and keep your eyes up."
And then there's Mike Carpenter, a database administrator from Rockville, who is doing everything he can to not keep his eyes up. He stands apart from the fray, his head jutting forward just a bit, his spectacled nose leading the way, his neck disappearing into the folds of his sweat shirt. He looks as if he would like for the rest of himself to disappear, too. But here he is. And so he smiles a little smile, a smile aimed at no one and everyone.
He's 47, he says, never married, not dating. He'd like to be dating, sure, why not? He's never tried Match.com, although his friends have urged him that online dating is the way to go. He's not sure he's ready for that, but he's a Wizards fan and, well, heck, you can't beat the price of the ticket. (It's $50 and includes club-level seats.) Maybe he'll meet somebody. You never know. But still, he says, looking around a little ruefully . . .
"Seems like there are a lot of people here that aren't single."
"They came with people!"
Will he be partaking of the speed-dating?
He is apprised of the basics of the practice: Three minutes or so with a potential someone. Chitchat, chitchat. Stop. Switch seats. Repeat with another potential someone.
Carpenter looks mildly horrified.
"Oh, I don't know about that," he says, "I've got to be at work at 6:30 in the morning. It gets late very early for me."
And with that, he wanders off, smiling his little smile.
Later, there will be a celebrity dating game with D.C. United's Alecko Eskandarian and Washington Redskins receiver Darnerien McCants fielding questions from bachelorettes that they can't see, women who will drop coy answers that are meant to convey just how hot they are. It'll be hard to hear, and most people won't pay much attention. And during halftime, roughly 50 of the singles will parade onto the court, where they'll engage in a hyper-energetic game of Simon Says. But that will come later; for now, they are being shoved into the stands. It is, after all, game time. And you can't have a singles night with the Wizards and not watch the game.
Crystal Haley, a 34-year-old systems analyst from Fort Washington, is watching the game. And she's watching the stands. She is here because she loves basketball. And, let's be real:
"To. Meet. Some. Men," Haley says.
"To make a love connection," adds her friend, Rene Woodson, 35, another systems analyst from Fort Washington.
"It's fun," Haley says, looking around and pointing out possibilities. "I'm like, Him. Him too. Him too. . . . The one in the green" -- she points a few rows down -- "and the one in the blue shirt," pointing up. "He was looking at me. I was seeing a victim over there," pointing sideways, "but he hasn't seen me yet."
But enough with the small talk.
"We've got to go play Simon Says," she says, jumping up from her seat.
As she passes his row, the one in the green scopes her out. He pauses, for just a minute, and then he hops out of his seat, in pursuit of Haley.
Meanwhile, in the farthest possible corner, Carpenter is all focus. On the game. From time to time the database administrator stands, fingers on one hand drumming the railing with impatience, the other clutching a Diet Coke. He speaks to no one.
A few rows up, Brian Fasani is hunkered down in his seat with beer in hand, making occasional, polite conversation with the blonde in the seat next to him.
"You show up and whatever happens, happens," the 31-year-old accountant says. "I came to watch the game anyway. I met some nice people."
"I guess not."
For Stuart Small, 37, from Alexandria, it's all about the prospects. To that end, tonight is a success. Oh, yeah. He's mingling with the singles, collecting a number here and there. And now he's standing in front of his seat, working up a sweat as he shake, shake, shakes it. The stadium camera -- the Dance Cam -- homes in on his rotund frame, and he shakes it up some more, until the marquee pronounces him that evening's Dance Cam winner.
"I don't drink," he says of his beer-free exuberance. "That was pure energy."
Tucked a few rows behind Small, Therran Oliphant is practicing a more laid-back approach. He's leaning back, watching the game, getting all friendly with the ladies around him, glasses slipping down the nose of his baby face. He'd never heard of a singles night at a basketball game, but he figured, why not? He came with his boy, he says, pointing to a man in the row in front of him. His boy -- a man with a Kojakesque pate -- dances in his seat, his arms rotating round and round in the approximation of a man churning butter.
"And by the way, on the record," Oliphant says, pounding his hands for emphasis. "I was not wrong. I had a ball." Well, it would seem so, seeing that he is surrounded by womenfolk. "Of course," Oliphant says, with a grin that slides sideways, "that's the reason for the season."
Game's over. The Wizards beat out the Knicks by a white-knuckle two-point margin. The singles roar to their feet, dancing little victory jigs and then swarming out into the hallway for the next round of singles activity.
Carpenter walks into the swarm, smiling his little smile.
Did he have a good time?
Oh yes, yes. It was a great game, nerve-wracking, down to the wire.
No, he says, shaking his head.
Still, hope springs.
There are, after all, two more Singles Nights before the Wizards call it a season.
"But I'll try again," Carpenter says. "Yes, I'll try again."