Always, they pet Tiny. They hug him. Mail him juicy Christmas bones. Suggest mates, agents, diets and tricks.
And well they should. They say accss is the secret to Washington; well, how many dachshunds have shaken paws with three presidents? Or gotten free frontrow seats to the Bullets' games for the last 11 years, just for being mascot and retrieving a sponge ball thrown onto the floor during time-outs?
Tiny, baby, you're a legend in your own time. But no one would say remotely the same about your master.
He looks the way a dachshund's master should -- smiling, graying, balding, unruffled and unrufflable. From the cheap seats, he might appear to be a retired gent who's a friend of somebody important. Maybe some guy who breeds dogs and is looking for a little publicity. Or a guy who is just looking for a free way to see a basketball game.
Wrong on all counts. Tiny's master is a retired Naval officer and an in-from-the-cold spy who owns exactly one dog and doesn't even like basketball very much.
He was named John Edwin Gentry when he was born in La Junta, Colo., 55 years ago. But for most of the last five years, or since the Capital Centre opened, he has been known simply as the Chief.
Tiny's antics at Bullets games are only the visible part of the Chief's Capital Centre duties. The behind-the-scenes part is what really turns his motor -- and the Centre's.
The Chief is Centre production director -- the man who makes sure every last little thing gets done backstage. He has held tht bit of thanklessness from the beginning. And he has held it with distinction.
The word is out among entertainers, circus folk, horse show types and exhibitors. If you need someting done in Landover, he it fresh sawdust for elephants or last-minute lobster for Sinatra, find the Chief. And leave your crisp twenties at home. The Chief's not a palms-out type.
"I never take money. I get the job done with pride and the old Navy supervisor's creed: organize, deputize and supervise," says the Chief. "It's been close sometimes, but I ain't never missed a curtain yet."
His most time-consuming and basic responsibility is overseeing changes in the Centre configuration. A basketball floor does not become a hockey rink by divine intervention. It takes three hours of hard labor by a crew of 20.
The Chief is right there, all the time, every time. In his red cap, red jacket and turquoise bolo tie, he wanders the floor, occasionally stopping to lift or push something, but more often shouting orders and encouragement in a now-hear-this bass. Because the Centre has something going on almost every day of the year, the Chief averages a 70-hour week -- not counting Tiny time.
But reconfiguring gets repetitive. What never gets repetitive are the decisions the Chief must make in the battle of human relations.
You say Muhammad Ali is at the back door with an entourage of 300 and they all want in for free? The Chief faced this some years back. He stoutly said no dice. The Champ loved the Chief's nerve -- and now he sends a Christmas card every year.
You say that some genius decided to ship a dozen Lippizaner stallions to the horse show in one truck? It happened one year. "Looked like there had been a slaughter," the Chief recalls. "They had been kicking and biting each other for hours." The chief immediately called three veterinarians at the National Zoo. A few barrels of coagulating powder later, the show went on.
The Chief has singlehandedly convinced 200 rock groupies that members of Aerosmith were already back at their hotel. He has somehow found a pair of cowboy boots for a circus clown at the last minute -- and they fit. He once helped talk Lawrence Welk back onstageafter Mr. Champagne Music got a telephone bomb threat.
His closest brush with real trouble, the Chief says, was the time he helped convoy Elvis Presley safely back to his dressing room after The King tossed his cape to some admirers. A crowd was folowing him, demanding more, more, more. "Those Elvis crowds were the absolute zaniest," says a Chief who knows his zanies.
For most of his life, the Chief could not have been farther from the world of glitter and jump shots.
He spent 22 years in the Navy, mostly in telecommunications supervisory jobs. He served in Morocco, Europe and Japan, and rose to the rank of master chief petty officer (the source of his nickname). Then he spent nine years in a similar job with the National Security Agency at Fort Meade.
One day in 1963, the Chief got a call from the general manager of a professional basketball team that had just moved to Baltimore from Chicago and renamed itself the Bullets.
"'I understand youhve got a dog that looks like a bullet,' the man said to me. He had sen me with my dog at football games in Annapolis. I've been at it with the Bullets ever since," said the Chief.
First he was at it with Alex, a dachshund who died five years ago at 19 and who had retired in favor of a sprightlier Tiny long before. Alex is buried in a cinder block crypt behind the Gentry home in Odenton, Md. Bullets owner Abe Pollin paid for the plot and the burial.
For his Tiny show, the Chief still earns what he started at 15 years ago: $1 a year. "I do this for the love of it," he says. "They pay me more money for the production job than I can spend."
Thrills have abounded. Tiny made the trip to Seattle for a Bullets playoff game there last spring, and still gets fan mail fromth "other" Washington. After the Bullets won the championship, Tiny accompanied the team to the White House. The President greeted him first.
Around the edges, through the years, Tiny has made dozens of appearances on national television, ususally dragging behind him the miniature cannon-on-wheels that Capital Centre regulars know and cheer.
"The production work, that's work," says the Chief. "Tiny, that's family. Put 'em both together, it's a way you feel like you belong."