Democracy Dies in Darkness

D.C. Sports Bog

Why I showed Ted Leonsis my ‘Fire Ernie’ sign at a Wizards game

By Eric Shapiro

December 15, 2016 at 12:29 PM

The idea to “protest” Ernie Grunfeld at a Washington Wizards game started from a group text. My two friends and I are Washington natives and grew up with the Bullets/Wizards — MCI Center opened when we were in elementary school, Michael Jordan arrived during middle school, our high school years featured Agent Zero, and it has been the John Wall and Bradley Beal show since college. We’ve texted through almost every game, and in recent years, that’s meant a lot of discussion about the frustration of watching this team stall out.

The Wizards lack a path to success and possess no realistic plan or assets to improve. In Grunfeld’s tenure as team president, Washington has consistently developed players poorly, made awful decisions in free agency and drafted badly. In his 13 years at Washington’s helm, Grunfeld has only drafted one all-star. That was top overall pick John Wall. Wall has never played with another current all-star in his Wizards career. Make no mistake: We love and support the players, especially Wall, Beal, and Otto Porter Jr. This isn’t about them.

As the losses mounted and resale ticket prices plummeted, the idea of a “protest” seemed appropriate — but, more importantly, affordable. A Wednesday night matchup against the Hornets at a half-full Verizon Center seemed like the perfect opportunity. My friend and I got seats a couple of rows behind the bench to make our point. We figured an illustrative sign with a couple emoji would make it more creative and noticeable.

(Photo courtesy of Eric Shapiro)

We found a very receptive audience — fans at the game wanted pictures, tweeted their support and voiced their agreement with our sentiment. Wizards owner Ted Leonsis, however, wasn’t as pleased. As my friend and I held up the sign before halftime to grab Leonsis’s attention, he asked why we talked so much and how old I was. After I replied that I was 25, he commented that I acted more like I was 15. He said that I should act my age. Then, a few minutes after the second half began, he came over to my seat, on his own accord, and handed me a cookie. The Wizards owner sarcastically “thanked me” for my efforts in creating the sign.

(Editor’s note: Leonsis confirmed the conversation with Shapiro in an email, writing that he was sitting with a 7-year-old boy at the game. He also confirmed that he had given Shapiro a cookie. “You know, Cookie Monster and all,” he wrote. “It was a fun exchange, not an angry exchange.”)

Yes, we spent $100 or so on the game (a Wizards win!), but we got Leonsis’s attention. We trust that he will make the right call and replace Grunfeld — but he needs to do so quickly and salvage hope that this team’s core can win before it’s too late. Washington’s next general manager will be in quite a bind, his hands tied by bad contracts and few trade assets. But the team needs to move forward, and the time for the fresh start is now.

Oh, and thanks for that cookie, Ted — but I didn’t eat it.

Eric Shapiro is a disgruntled, die-hard Wizards fan.

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