Michael Wilbon: After decades without a true headliner, D.C.'s teams could each have someone front and center

By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, May 23, 2010

For most of the last 30 years, the true superstars of sports have been entirely a road show. They've existed pretty much everywhere except Washington. You could see them on a weekend trip to the Bronx, or on holiday in Miami, or on television being beamed in from Chicago or Green Bay, Wis., or when the Cowboys or Broncos or Lakers came to town. But the men who packed stadiums, drove national television ratings and filled the gossip columns never called the nation's capital home.

So the arrival, almost all at once, of Donovan McNabb with the Redskins, Stephen Strasburg with the Nationals and presumably John Wall with the Wizards, to join Alex Ovechkin with the Capitals would seem to guarantee us at least one -- if not three or four -- bona fide stars. Every serious basketball observer expects the Wizards to use the No. 1 overall pick in next month's NBA draft to select Wall, the point guard phenom from the University of Kentucky.

This is entirely new territory for Washington, to be able to bear witness to sporting royalty. It's been 25 years since our last two star athletes waved goodbye. Joe Theismann and John Riggins have been gone that long. (And please don't tell me Cal Ripken was ours -- because he no more belonged to Washington than Johnny Unitas did. Just because we didn't have a baseball team doesn't make Ripken a Washingtonian. The fact that we had to try to poach another city's darling for two decades tells you volumes about what we didn't have. He wasn't any more ours than Michael Jordan, whose legacy was rooted in Chicago when he came out of retirement and seemed on loan to us for two seasons in Washington.)

Stars fill seats. Stars adorn magazine covers. They start barber shop and barroom arguments that go on for hours. Stars need bodyguards on the road. They have to change cellphone numbers monthly and check into hotels under an alias when their teams hit the road. Stars cause controversy, sometimes trouble. You care about stars even when you don't necessarily care about their teams. Stars force you to figure out how you feel about them; they make you choose sides. But mostly, stars win and demand your attention while doing it. Art Monk is a Hall of Fame wide receiver; Michael Irvin, with almost identical statistics, was a star.

In three weeks it'll be 30 years that I've covered sports for this newspaper. And the thrill of my professional life has been watching the biggest stars in the world play.

I watched John Elway play in Denver, Jordan play in Chicago, Brett Favre play at Lambeau Field. I watched Mark Messier carry the Rangers to a championship in New York, and Derek Jeter define the modern athletic icon in Yankee Stadium. Long before that, I got to see Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Los Angeles, Larry Bird in Boston, Julius Erving in Philly. I got to see Roger Clemens pitch in Boston and New York. San Francisco would positively crackle when Joe Montana played quarterback, particularly on a Monday night, in a way I've never felt before or since.

On the days those athletes performed, the cities where they worked seemed intoxicated with happiness. People couldn't wait until the game started and hated for the night to end. Every time I left Chicago in the 1990s, when Jordan meant $1 trillion to the city, according to the Chicago Tribune, I wished Washington could know what it felt like just once to see Jordan introduced on a game night. Not the game, mind you, just the introduction.

I guess it is just coincidence combined with perhaps bad luck that D.C. didn't have stars. Oh, there were plenty of great players here. The Redskins had to have them to win three Super Bowls in 10 years. The Bullets had Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes and went to the NBA Finals four times in less than 10 years. The biggest stars for many years in D.C. were Georgetown's John Thompson and the Redskins' Joe Gibbs, and if coaches are your biggest stars, you know you don't really have any.

Quick story: A couple of summers ago, Ronde Barber of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was having dinner at Cafe Milano in Georgetown, a place where whatever stars we have routinely dine, when Clinton Portis walked in. As he walked to his table, almost unnoticed, diners began to ask if that was a Redskin. A few patrons thought it might be Portis, but most weren't sure. Barber was stunned. A football-mad place like Washington and nobody knew for certain the starting running back's face?

McNabb is one of the 10 most recognizable pro football players in America. Though he hasn't won a Super Bowl, he's won enough, been involved in enough episodes of consequence, that he's a Big Star. He'll have the biggest immediate impact. He and Coach Mike Shanahan, another star, make the Redskins instantly relevant again, which is proof of stardom.

Ovechkin's a curious case. Being the best player, or one of the two best players, in your sport makes you a star. And Ovechkin has personal appeal on top of that. He's young and wildly charismatic, but hardly ever can a hockey player be the biggest star in a four-sport town. I don't know that Steve Yzerman, playing in a place that calls itself "Hockeytown," was at any one time the biggest star in Detroit. But Ovechkin, with his outsize personality, could be the exception, even in a town like D.C. where hockey has no real roots.

The question is whether McNabb and Ovechkin, in time, can be overtaken by Wall or Strasburg, whom the Nationals made the overall No. 1 pick last year. It's easier for a point guard from the University of Kentucky than it is for a pitcher, usually. But it's a little different when a kid can hit 100 mph on the radar gun, as Strasburg can. I'm more concerned with Strasburg being healthy than I am about his star status.

The history of big league baseball is littered with men who had talent similar to Strasburg's but couldn't avoid shoulder or elbow issues. Nothing in sports is as promising or as vulnerable as the arm of a young pitcher who can throw it through a brick wall.

But if Strasburg can stay healthy, he'll have the chance to be to D.C. what Tom Seaver was to New York or what a young Clemens was to Boston, which is to say stars from the time they first took the mound.

Stars have been absent from D.C. for so long, it seems the sporting gods owe us three or four, minimum. New York and Chicago seem to juggle that many at once every year. What for decades was simply unrealistic now seems entirely possible, not just for one of Washington's professional teams, but for all four.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company