By Mike Wise
Thursday, October 30, 2008
There are loyalists, especially puckheads and Redskins extremists, who show up no matter how bad or boring the home team. But as pro sports go, Washington usually is an event town. Bigger buzz begets bigger games, bigger gates and a larger casual-fan following.
So the question after a lackluster opening night at Verizon Center is: Will the Caron and 'Twan Show be enough to keep the masses in the seats?
Can a team anchored, led and mentored by Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison make the Wizards a must-see entertainment option in a depressed market where the 6-2 pro football team has made itself front and center more than ever?
Gilbert Arenas won't be in a suit and tie on the bench forever. But in the month or more without Abe Pollin's No. 1 attraction, it's going to be a real chore for the two veterans of yet another watered-down team coached by Eddie Jordan to keep the masses entertained and coming back.
Judging from last night's season-opening 95-85 loss to a very flawed New Jersey team -- the Nets have to be among the least in the East -- it's already clear that there is not much at the moment to be excited about after Butler and Jamison.
DeShawn Stevenson will drop in the three-point bomb with aplomb and play rugged defense. And it was nice to see Jordan go to his bench in the second half and show faith in the rookie, 7-footer JaVale McGee, who has the tools to be a factor this season.
But mostly on opening night, the first time Washington opened an NBA season at home in nine years, it felt like almost an Arenas hangover from last spring -- people shuffling out of the building early, realizing Gil the Thrill won't be back for a while and knowing that it's most likely uphill from here.
Butler missed eight shots last night, which would have been fine had he not taken only 11. The misses weren't as maddening as the idea that the all-around best player on the floor -- yes, better than Vince Carter -- had 11 attempts in 41 minutes. The sharing-is-caring Princeton offense is very democratic, but when Andray Blatche takes two more shots than Butler, it's not working.
He still had a decent game, ending with 13 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists. Jamison was not much better offensively, finishing with 14 points on 6-of-18 shooting.
But they both had to work for everything, and without another scoring option like Arenas on the floor, neither player went on one of his patented 8-0 and 10-0 runs by himself. It was slow going, just like the Wizards' offense.
There were a few highlight moments, such as when Butler threw back-to-back long outlet passes to Nick Young for a dunk and then a circus layup. Etan Thomas received a nice ovation after he returned from open-heart surgery a year ago, and Juan Dixon received sustained applause after the former Maryland star checked into the game for the NBA team he originally sparked off the bench. But it also had to be galling for Jordan and the entire franchise to see Jarvis Hayes knock down so many big shots at the end, shots that used to clang off the back rim in Washington.
And the pregame pageantry actually had a nice feel to it, from tributes to former Washington players Kevin Duckworth and Nick Weatherspoon, who died in the past year, to the one reserved for the late Tim Russert, the longtime season ticket holder who, yes, showed up even when the home team was bad and boring.
As the players were introduced before the game and strode out before a shimmering backdrop of light flashes, reminiscent of the scene in "The Natural" when Roy Hobbs blows up a stadium light fixture with a moonshot, the crowd was treated to a well-planned and well-executed opening.
But as the game wore on, the Nets got to the Wizards defensively until they began taking bad shots -- Blatche took several -- and eventually succumbed to a team that generally moved the ball better and got it to the open man quicker.
With the Wizards outscored 26-18 in the final quarter, there had to be a sense of concern -- or was it resignation? -- among the sellout crowd that came to see yet another show not starring Arenas.
Butler and Jamison will not let this team fall into the abyss, especially after last season's 0-5 start. Jordan can be sure of that.
"Caron and Antawn are great leaders in the locker room," Jordan said. "One does it one way, the other does it the other way. Antawn is a little quiet. Caron is a little more verbal. Antawn can be verbal when he wants. But certainly their presence, what they do by example, and what they say and how they communicate is followed by their teammates."
But they can't play for their teammates, who need to give them more help if another cut-and-paste, Band-Aid season is going to work in Washington. You can be bad for a while and this town will forgive you. If you win enough to make a difference, you can even be boring for a bit.
But take it from the Nationals and their empty seats: You can't be both at once for too long. Not in this market. Not with all the competition for the entertainment dollar. Even on opening night.