I have never been much of a sports fan. Fair to say, in fact, that I’ve been generally disdainful of sports fans throughout my life. Whether it was football, basketball, baseball or just about any other professional sport, I just never got it and never cared.
Now I do — and I have to admit I am ashamed of my past narrow-mindedness. What changed me? It’s simple: the Wizards.
I haven’t just jumped on the bandwagon because the team is now winning. My conversion came more than a year ago, when the Wizards were still losing. It was about persevering through losses. About the power of a shared experience. About believing in something. And about finding new ways to have fun 22 years into your marriage.
I grew up in Washington, but the city’s impressive basketball and football highlights of the ‘70s and ‘80s never flickered on my radar. My parents took my sister and me to plenty of theater, ballet and museum exhibits, but nary a sporting event.
My own childhood participation in sports, meanwhile, could be summed up by a few unremarkable tennis lessons and a little bit of high school lacrosse, which I’m pretty sure fulfilled some sort of requirement. What I most remember about lacrosse was that I was a little better than I expected to be, but I was too cold to care.
I naturally married man who neither played golf nor watched professional sports on Sunday afternoons – but he did watch any college basketball game that featured his alma mater, Villanova, and he followed the contests during March madness. I couldn’t get into it; I mostly just felt sorry for whatever team was losing. Seeing those poor kids welling with sadness after losing at the buzzer or some other drama was just too heartbreaking.
This drove my husband nuts.
A few years ago, when the Washington Capitals started catching fire, Jim began watching the hockey games, too, especially with our older daughter.
He took me to a game once.
“Wait—what just happened? Where’s the puck?”
He never took me again.
I have always heartily endorsed my own kids’ participation in sports, which is so obviously good for them: the exercise, the discipline, the friendship, the self control and the responsibility, among other things. But professional sports? It seemed primarily about making the athletes and team owners rich.
Two years ago, though, Jim decided to get season tickets to the Capitals for his law firm; it would be a great benefit for staff and clients, he explained. But Ted Leonsis’ Monumental Sports and Entertainment, in a feat of its own marketing genius, had reserved the few remaining season tickets to the Caps for those who also purchased season tickets to the Washington Wizards for one year. Yes, those Wizards, of guns in the locker room and a 20-46 record. The team was so bad it seemed they had to extort people into going to the games.
But Jim signed up for both. When the first half of the 2012-2013 hockey season was canceled in a lockout, he was left with … Wizards tickets.
The first home game fell on a Saturday night and Jim and I went together, unsure what to expect. The Wizards got creamed. Nene and John Wall were both out with injuries, not that I knew the difference. Trevor Ariza had zero points. Bradley Beal – so amazing in the post-season this year – had two points. Two.
But I found that basketball has two great advantages to a sports novice: the action almost never stops and it’s pretty easy to tell what’s going on. The ball either goes in the basket or it doesn’t. In person, especially, the game’s acrobatics and athleticism just draw you in. When players make shots that seem to defy the laws of physics, it’s a plus.
The added, almost unexpected benefit of this trip to the Verizon Center, and many more after that, was that I was out alone —amidst 17,000 fans —with my husband, something we haven’t done as much as we’d like in the past few years. I have loved getting to know the friendly usher in our section, high-fiving the older gentleman who sits right behind us, watching women decked out in 4-inch heels trying to negotiate the stadium steps (really?), trying to out-scream the fans of visiting teams, watching families with young kids enjoy a night out and texting game updates to my daughter.
The Wizards lost repeatedly in the beginning of that season, but somewhere along the way I stopped feeling sorry for them when they lost. Increasingly, I just felt excited, because it really looked like they were on the verge of winning. They almost had so many games, only to lose in the final seconds. It was enough to drive you crazy, but I was struck how the players supported each other, then came back and tried harder. Each frustrating loss seemed to make them better, more cohesive. You couldn’t help but admire them (while eating popcorn and drinking a Stella).
I began reading the sports page the day after games because it helped me learn, and it felt good to know that someone cared when no one else in D.C. seemed to.
When Wall and Nene returned, and the Wizards finally started to win at the end of last season, I was so happy for them I could scream. And I did. The more they won, the more I found I wasn’t just happy for them; I was happy.
“This team will make the playoffs next year,” my husband predicted, after a 29-53 season. People scoffed. But here we are, not just in the playoffs, but strong in the second round.
This season has been thrilling, and not just because they’re winning. I’m invested now. Even when the Wizards lose games they should win, I don’t give up on them. Instead, I eagerly watch each successive game, at home or in person, with that special kind of devotion that can only be found in sports fans – just like me.