Wizards, Fans Play Waiting Game

By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, March 15, 2009

The fan's fate is to wait. Wait for the star's injury to heal. Wait for the next draft or trade. Wait for a better coach or young players to grow up. Wait for chemistry or the breaks to go your way. Wait for next year. Wait for a new decade. Or sometimes wait a generation. Wait in vain.

Sometimes, you just can't wait anymore. This week, as the Wizards went from a halftime lead to a hopeless deficit to the Hornets, one fan in a Maryland sweatshirt couldn't stand it anymore. Rising to his feet, beer in hand, he began a loud harangue at the Washington bench as the crowd tittered and clapped. Minute after minute he yelled, calmly, loudly, sensibly, once even saying, "I'm sorry" to an usher. But since he looked old enough to have waited the 31 years since the last Wizards title, he just had to get it all off his chest.

"Suit it up, Gilbert. A hundred million dollars and you're not playing," hollered the fan. "You been in that [business] suit the whole year. I love you, Gilbert, but I want to see you play basketball, homey."

To make the symbolism complete, Every Fan was raging at a ghost; Arenas wasn't even on the bench. The injured star -- who has barely played in two years -- sometimes works out on the practice court during home games and stopped going on the road altogether.

So, for Wizards fans, the long wait continues. The wait for Arenas to return won't end until next year, though interim coach Ed Tapscott says, "It'd sure be nice to get a peek at him this year, so you can plan for the future."

The wait to find out where the lottery-bound Wizards pick in the NBA draft will last until May. Will they get the ping-pong ball that could bring them Oklahoma's 6-foot-10 Blake Griffin to muscle up their front court? Fans will even have to wait until next season for the return of their injured centers Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas, as well as starting guard DeShawn Stevenson (back surgery).

They even wait to see if Tapscott, a D.C. native, will return as coach next year. A good executive, Tapscott has put his good name, but limited coaching experience, in the public bull's-eye. Inheriting a 1-10 team, he's helming a team that is now 15-51 following Friday night's loss to Orlando and on pace for the franchise's worst record since coming to Washington in '73 (19-63 in '00-'01).

"I'm waiting, too," Tapscott told me. "I'm waiting for young players to grow up. We've got six who are 23 or younger. One of these days, I'm going to look down that bench and see guys who shave." Or some other coach will.

The Wizards' plight illustrates a much broader truth. In sports, the promise of excitement is constant. But the ultimate payoff, the team that gets to a championship level, can take an eternity to build. The need for patience, and a knack for taking pleasure in the process, is prodigious.

"We're not the Cubs," Tapscott said tartly. No, the Wizards are not. They haven't played in an NBA title game in 30 years. They've won only two postseason series in all that time. Yet, with four straight playoff visits, the team finally seemed to be one brilliant (or lucky) trade or draft pick away from being a contender. Then the injuries hit.

"I grew up in Washington, so I know about waiting," Tapscott said. When he graduated from Sidwell Friends in '71, no local pro team had played in a title game, much less won one, since World War II, a generation of zilch.

"Waiting is the tough part for fans. But it's also what makes sports delicious. If you knew the outcome, what would it be? It would just be soap opera," Tapscott said. "Instead, it's real. But that means it can hurt."

If you wanted to pick a typical big-city sports town -- not great, not bad -- Washington of the last third-of-a-century would fit the definition. Including the Bullets title in '78, we've had a half-dozen monster celebrations, including three Redskins Super Bowl wins and NCAA basketball titles by Georgetown and Maryland. Another six teams lost the ultimate game, the Redskins and Hoyas twice, Bullets once and Caps in the Stanley Cup.

So, we've had a dozen title shots, not counting D.C. United or the return of baseball to town, in a generation. Yet "normal" can seem like so much dead time to endure.

This season, Redskins fans moaned that they hadn't won since '91. Joe Gibbs II fizzled. An 8-8 season ended with boos and empty seats at FedEx. One night, Steelers fans even out-cheered Redskins rooters. But just when loyalists had their doubts after a decade of Daniel Snyder, the Redskins signed Albert Haynesworth and Derrick Dockery this month to reignite dreams again. Is the wait almost over? Or, as with Deion Sanders and other free agents, will it be deferred, though with great expense and fanfare?

Caps fans, masters of endurance, can almost taste the end of their process. Next year, the year after (or will it somehow be this season?), the Great 8 will certainly help get them to the top, won't he?

This combination of anticipation, and anguish, is at the center of spectator sports. We must relish it, otherwise, why would we put up with it? Baseball fans here waited 33 years for the Nationals and 48 years for a new ballpark. Now we gripe that 102 losses just won't do. Warm nights by the Anacostia, bah humbug. Buy us that Adam Dunn guy.

Perhaps most frustrating, just when you think you are nestled near the top of your sport for a while, you aren't. Gary Williams won a title in '02, then saw his Terps fall lower than they'd been in the late '90s on their way up. John Thompson III got the Hoyas to the Final Four fast. Back to Big John days? Now, they can't win two in a row.

All of this can seem perverse, but it's just our sports reality. Being a fan is 97 percent waiting. "In the major sports, what are your odds of a title? You've got about 30 teams per sport. So, it's a 1-in-30 shot, unless you're the Lakers or the Yankees," Tapscott said. "No one ever said it was going to be linear, either. It's no straight line.

"Will you stay healthy? Is your team getting old? Do you have the right blend or need new energy? All of your hopes turn on things that are very slim, like the twist of a [Gilbert Arenas] knee. It can even be a puff of air that blows a ping-pong ball into the right slot," Tapscott added. "I'm 55. After all this time, I'd like to say it is science. But it's art."

At times, that art is ugly, as it is now with the Wiz. "Some nights, we have so many young players on the court together that it looks like we need a search warrant and a prayer," said Tapscott. "But there are good times coming."

Say the words together. We all know them.

Just wait.

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