Sports radio host Eric Bickel thought something was up when Wizards fans jammed the phone lines for most of the morning after the team upset the Indiana Pacers in Game 1 of the National Basketball Association’s Eastern Conference semifinals.
“That was unprecedented: Four hours of Wizards,” said Bickel, one of WJFK’s “Sports Junkies.” “The lines exploded.”
But if something was up Tuesday, it was down again Thursday, after the Pacers had come back the night before and tied the best-of-seven series at one game apiece.
“After the loss, they kind of disappeared again,” he said. “We had to smoke them out by calling them ‘bandwagon fans.’ ”
Two weeks into the Wizards’ surprising playoff run, Washington is semi-delirious. The city is yearning to catch Wizards fever; you can feel it in (some) crowded sports bars and hear it on (occasional) burning talk lines. Thousands of baseball fans were riveted by the Wizards game when Nationals Park showed it on the 100-foot-wide scoreboard during a rain delay. A Logan Circle running store called Pacers changed its unfortunate name for the weekend to Wizards. You can order a “Gortat” (a Schlitz Tall Boy and a shot of rye) at a D.C. bar and a John Wall burger at a restaurant in Virginia. Wizards wear has reappeared on the heads and backs of Metro riders.
And yet, the epidemic is still spotty. After decades of losing basketball, the antibodies have built up and the long disappointed are resistant to fall too easily. Television ratings for the first game of the series were half in the Washington market what they were in Indianapolis (a 6.4 rating vs. a 13.3, according to TNT). Tickets were still available for Friday’s Game 3 at Verizon Center a few hours before tip-off.
“The fact is, the town is desperate for a winner, but we’ve just been so let down by every team,” Bickel said. “It’s still kind of a sleeping giant. If they get into the Eastern Conference finals, I think it’s going to be on fire.”
The Wizards may have dampened the flames Friday night after losing to the Pacers, 85-63. The Wizards, who trail 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, will try to even things up, and reassure edgy fans, Sunday night in Game 4 at Verizon Center before heading back to Indiana for Game 5 on Tuesday night.
Things are already burning nicely in some spots. One is Grevey’s, the sports bar owned by former Washington Bullets guard Kevin Grevey in the Merrifield section of Fairfax County.
Two years ago, he began dressing his staff in retro Bullets uniforms on game nights in hopes of solidifying the place as a Wizards bar. But he found that losing teams do not pack the house.
Now he does three times his normal business when “the Bullets-I-mean-the-Wizards” (as he typically calls them) are on the widescreen, and it is building with every game. The team has hosted packed watch parties featuring Wizards cheerleaders, and the John Wall burger is a hot seller. (Featuring bourbon barbecue sauce and mint sprigs, the sandwich is the repurposed Kentucky Wildcats burger from the NCAA basketball tournament.)
“This has been a long time coming,” said Grevey, who was part of the last local NBA team to win it all, in 1978. “I’ve been a sports bar in this town for a long time without many teams that are any good.”
Many fans were caught off guard by a playoff run that few predicted even at midseason. If they keep winning, Grevey said, more bars will fill up at game time.
“We’re shocking not only our fan base, but the whole NBA world,” he said. “My mom called me from Ohio and said, ‘Kevin, everybody in my office is talking about these Wizards.’ ”
Before the game Friday night, Kevin Lew, 33, took in the carnival atmosphere outside Verizon Center, where a bucket band played on one corner and a brass band played on another.
Lew, a systems engineer for a government contractor, has been a Wizards fan since his high school years in Fairfax County. His blue shirt declared, “Bullets fever: It happens to me every year,” a reference to an anthem written after the ’78 title run. Not many of his friends have succumbed to the playoff giddiness yet, Lew said.
“A few are interested, but I wish there were more,” he said. “I keep telling them there is plenty of room on the bandwagon. “
At Verizon Center on Wednesday night, more than 1,500 people showed up to watch Game 2 in Indianapolis live on the center-court video screens. That left 19,000 seats empty in the echoing arena. But team officials said that crowd was twice the size of the one that showed up for a free viewing party during the Wizards’ first-round playoff series against the Chicago Bulls. And the Wizards plan to open the doors again for Game 5 on Tuesday night.
Overall, the front office is happy with fans’ response to the unexpected playoff run. Merchandise sales were up 25 percent over last season. The Wizards sold more than 2,000 new season tickets for next season in recent months, and more than 90 percent of current ticket-holders have paid to renew, according to Jim Van Stone, the team’s chief revenue officer.
“It will continue to grow,” Van Stone said. “Sometimes it takes a strong run to grow interest, and that’s what we’re enjoying right now.”
Washington’s Poles are already on board. The postseason play of center Marcin Gortat, the NBA’s only Polish player, has riveted his countrymen in the area. Gortat, who was born in Lodz, hosted a Polish Heritage Night at Verizon Center last month, packing one section with 500 newbie basketball fans, many of whom were waving soccer scarves.
“For many of them, the playoffs are the first time they’ve been exposed to this,” said Artur Orkisz, a senior adviser at the Polish Embassy. “Everyone is very excited that he’s having so much success. I mean, he’s virtually guaranteed to have a double-double every night.”