Tracee Hamilton - Sports Columnist

Ted Leonsis has another rebuilding project in the Wizards

Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis has reached a deal to buy the Pollin family's majority share of the Washington Wizards and Verizon Center, and will push to get the paperwork finalized before the June 24 NBA draft.
By Tracee Hamilton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 28, 2010

More than 100 years ago, one of my favorite Irishmen wrote, "When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers." Oscar Wilde came up with the line, but Meryl Streep -- who played Karen Blixen, who wrote as Isak Dinesen -- immortalized a very similar version in "Out of Africa."

Now Ted Leonsis -- playing himself, and doing a bang-up job -- is living it. Although perhaps the line should read, "When the gods wish to punish Ted Leonsis, they answer our prayers."

On Tuesday, Leonsis reached an agreement with the family of late owner Abe Pollin to purchase its share of the Washington Wizards and Verizon Center. Leonsis has waited more than a decade for this chance, which was negotiated as part of the deal when he purchased the Capitals in 1999.

We know how that turned out. After a few false starts -- Jaromir Jagr, anyone? -- Leonsis decided to build the club from the ground up. Stars were welcome, but make them young stars. As a result, the Caps are making their third straight postseason appearance. They finished with the best record in hockey this season and secured home ice for the playoffs.

Fat lot of good that did them.

And helpful comments such as that one are the downside in owning one professional sports team, much less two. No one is ever satisfied. Success doesn't bring happiness; it brings increased expectations for even more success. Thus Caps fans have made it clear that anything short of winning the Stanley Cup this season is a failure. (In fairness, that pregame scoreboard montage at Verizon Center also makes that clear.)

The despair over the Game 6 loss in Montreal -- and the fact that the Caps have been pushed to a seventh game in this first-round series -- was palpable Tuesday, online, on talk shows and at Kettler Ice Complex in Ballston, where a very small crowd gathered at noon to watch the optional workout (and no, neither Alex Ovechkin nor Albert Haynesworth were there). At one point I counted 31 fans in the stands, maybe a dozen along the boards, and just three waiting at the gate for autographs. That's certainly a playoff low.

This isn't a tragedy; these aren't paying customers. Game 7 Wednesday night at Verizon Center will still be a sellout. But I received e-mails on my Tuesday morning chat suggesting the Caps fire GM George McPhee, Coach Bruce Boudreau, the goalies, Mike Green, Alexander Semin and the Capstronaut. One e-mailer confessed to already "being down" on next season.

I get 30 minutes of e-mails like this a day, and I have a craving for a Zoloft Smoothie by the time I'm done. This is Leonsis's life, 24/7. On his blog, Ted's Take, Leonsis recently described a day of running errands that became more of a gauntlet of well-meaning -- or mean-meaning -- fans offering comments, criticism and advice. He finished by saying he'd stay in the rest of the weekend.

Leonsis seemed to take it all in good humor, of course -- his hide has grown thicker in 11 years -- but now he's in for more of the same. By taking over the Wizards, he'll be able to disappoint two groups of fans simultaneously. Lucky him!

Picture that same day of errands, and imagine that instead of the Caps being up 3-2 in their series (as they were at that time), Gilbert Arenas had just gone coco-loco in the locker room with his own personal gun show.

(Oh, and if I'm casting the movie version of this little passion play? No part for Streep that I can see, but Joe Mantegna as Leonsis, Michael Chiklis as Bruce Boudreau, Colin Farrell as Ovechkin and Don Cheadle as Arenas, because Don Cheadle should be in every movie. The roles of angry, disgruntled and distraught fans have already been cast.)

Of course, this is what Leonsis has waited for. If the original deal was a steakhouse, the Wizards were the potatoes, Verizon Center was the steak and the Capitals? House salad. Except that Leonsis decided to make something out of the Caps, instead of tapping his toe for 11 years. So he's more than earned the opportunity to try his hand at the NBA. His Capitals outdraw the moribund Wizards, yet he sees not a penny of income from the luxury suites and club seats. That has to have been hard to swallow.

No more. Now he's got a chance at a second rebuilding project that might make the first seem easy. The Wizards need to be "tore up from the floor up," and not in a hip, slang kind of way, but in actual "tore up" kind of way. Leonsis has done it once; the second time around should be a piece of cake. The perfect ending to any steak dinner.

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