Making the right call: Leonsis connects with Wizards fans

By Dan Steinberg
Thursday, July 1, 2010

Since Ted Leonsis assumed control of the Washington Wizards, he's talked frequently about following the example of the Washington Capitals, and why not? The Caps were ranked 11th in ESPN the Magazine's just-released "Ultimate Standings," which measure how much teams give back to their fans. No other D.C. team was in the top 90.

This Caps emulation counts for on-ice strategy -- building through the draft, trying to form a young core of players who can grow together, not going crazy on long-term deals for pricey free agents until success is near -- and it counts for off-ice matters, too.

Which helps explain why Wizards President Ernie Grunfeld picked up a phone to join a conference call with about 1,500 ticket buyers Wednesday afternoon and spent more than 45 minutes answering their questions.

One guy asked about the chances of landing Jeff Green, Carmelo Anthony or Kevin Durant next summer. Another was curious about Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer this summer. A woman wanted to know how the Wizards will help their young kids transition into mature professionals. A forward-looking type wanted to know how the Wizards could keep John Wall happy in Washington throughout his entire career. Someone asked how the Wizards could be sure about new acquisition Yi Jianlian's age.

"His birth certificate says that he's 22 years old and that's all we can go by," Grunfeld said with a laugh.

These conference call klatches are old news for the Caps; Coach Bruce Boudreau, GM George McPhee and Leonsis have all held them. So have players like Brooks Laich, Matt Bradley and Mike Knuble. So have the team's television announcers, Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin.

In fact, for this Wizards call -- which was suggested by Leonsis -- the host, radio play-by-play man Dave Johnson, actually traveled to the Caps' offices in Ballston. He started the proceedings with a few generic questions about the recent transactions and the upcoming dawn of free agency.

Then the event was turned over to the callers, many of whom wanted to talk about a certain veteran superstar.

"I wanted to ask if you have discussed with Gilbert [Arenas] the idea of Gilbert playing the two-guard position, Gilbert being Ray Allen to John Wall being Rajon Rando?" one fan asked.

"I was very heartened when I heard Ted Leonsis and you say that you really were gonna give Gilbert another chance, and that you thought he'd be an important part of the team," another said. "Most of us love him, everyone in our section misses him and wanted him back."

"We're all excited, we love the Hibachi, we love what he did in the past and looking forward to seeing this again," someone else said.

Grunfeld, truth be told, wasn't terribly more quotable with the fans than he is with the media. He told them that Arenas is "really looking forward to playing with John [Wall] and not having to have as much of the ball-handling responsibility." He declined, politely, to discuss any players under contract with other teams. He said the team needs to pick up at least one more big man and somebody who can play on the perimeter before next season. He acknowledged that John Wall is already "the Great Wall of Chinatown," and decided that Yi could be "the Great Supporting Wall, I guess."

He allowed Johnson to make several pitches for fans to be connected with the ticket staff, and he did not shy away from the hockey comparison.

"We are gonna follow what the Capitals did, building through the draft and building through youth and trying to do it the right way," Grunfeld said.

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