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Where's the Party At? MCI, Baby!

Playoff-Bound Wizards Pack 'Em In

By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 19, 2005; Page D01

His game plan wasn't working out so well, but the night would get better for 18-year-old Adam Dantus.

Okay, so no luck scoring a LeBron James autograph -- even though he had strategically purchased a perfect seat six months ago, even though he arrived at MCI Center super early, even though he came with a pair of LeBron's signature Nike sneakers and a Sharpie.


Washington fans, some in throwback jerseys, try to raise the roof in the MCI Center stands as the Wizards continue their march into the playoffs for the first time since 1997. (Joel Richardson -- The Washington Post)

_____Eastern Conference_____
The Wizards and Bulls are vying for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, which carries home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Washington holds the tiebreaker over Chicago.

Team W-L Pct. GB
4. Chicago 46-34 .575 -
5. Wizards 45-35 .563 1

REMAINING GAMES
Bulls (2): Tonight, vs. Knicks; tomorrow, at Pacers.
Wizards (2): Tonight, at Nets; tomorrow, at Knicks.


_____Wizards Basics_____
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_____NBA Basics_____
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NBA Section

But with 30 seconds left in last Friday's Wizards-Cavaliers game, Gilbert Arenas came to the rescue. He spotted the high school senior's large yellow cardboard sign: "Gilbert, All I Want For My Birthday Is Your Jersey." Attached to the sign was a miniature basket, with net, and a photo of the Wizards' scoring leader hoisting his jersey into the crowd.

"It was his birthday, so why not?" explained Arenas, shortly after tossing the youngster a jersey.

This has been a storybook season for the Wizards and their fans, more luck than heartbreak for a change. The team has locked up its first playoff appearance in eight years with a running, gunning group of ballers who can liven up an arena and send a marketing department into ecstasy.

Being in an NBA arena is the most intimate experience in professional sports, but this season at MCI has been like no other -- from the smoochers on Kiss Me Cam to the rump shakers on Dance Cam, from the starting lineup to the bench, from the floor seats to the upper-upper deck.

You can be in the same building and never see what someone else sees. Did you notice which players sprinkled rosin powder on their hands before entering the game? Were you scoping out the rapper Nelly, in his red St. Louis Cardinals cap, sitting behind the basket Sunday, heckling Wizards players at the foul line? Everybody is processing the game differently, through their own prisms. They see what they choose to see, and hear only what they are listening for.

This is what Bobcats owner Bob Johnson sees when he comes to MCI: "There is a very large African American [fan] contingent. As an African American sports owner, you notice that."

Gheorghe Muresan, the 7-foot-7 former Wizard/Bullet, now views the game from his perch as "suite ambassador," meaning he visits the corporate suites. He poses for photos and talks basketball with fans who are watching the game from private rooms heavily stocked with food and drink. Often these fans just want to gaze at his size and ask him questions like: Do you play golf? Do you sleep in an extra long bed? Can I get on your shoulders?

Muresan is polite, and gentle, and always accommodating -- though not with the shoulder rides. "Right now, my head is clear," he said the other night. "It's not in the game." It's into being suite ambassador. "I tell you, it's the best job in the world." Then he paused. "I like it better after they have a few beers."

Whatever your vantage point, the Wizards are worth paying attention to again in mid-spring. Usually at this time of year, all that's left of a crowd is yawning with nonchalance or actively expressing its disappointment. Not this season. The Wizards have sold out 12 games, compared to four last season. And the average attendance was 17,197, up from last year's 15,741 fans per game.

Now, the question from fans is: How can I cop some playoff tickets? Now, the sights and sounds from a Wizards game might actually have real meaning.

Juan Johnson was sitting in Section 403, Row F, corner of the basket, for the Wizards' final home game against the Bobcats on Sunday when his cell phone rang. "Man, I'm up in the nosebleed seats," he quipped to his caller. No matter. "As long as you're in the arena," said Johnson, "you feel the excitement. And it definitely helps by us making the playoffs."

The NBA playoffs begin on Saturday, but the Wizards are likely to start their journey on the road, in Chicago. MCI Center won't feel postseason excitement until sometime next week.


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