In his corner office Monday afternoon at Verizon Center, Ted Leonsis got up from his chair and pointed to a humongous notebook on a stand. A page was open to the Wizards’ 2011-12 roster. Next to the heading “Blatche” were notes in the owner’s writing: “What to do?”
“I’m torn,” Leonsis said during a 45-minute interview. “I believe people should have second and third chances. On the other hand, I don’t know where he fits now in this lineup. He’s the last, remaining touch point from the previous teams. That’s what [was] being discussed and weighed.
“I’m not afraid of amnestying him and paying him the money.”
Sometime in the next 24 hours, Leonsis, the man who wrote “The Business of Happiness,” ultimately decided to pay Andray Blatche $23 million to not work for him, using the NBA’s amnesty provision to effectively sever all ties to the Gilbert Arenas era in Washington.
“We are all in it together — so we are all to blame,” Leonsis wrote two days later in an e-mail addressing some follow-up questions I had. “Buck has to stop with me though as owner. I appreciate Andray’s apology to the fans, and I hope he is able to turn around his career.”
The decision was at once Leonsis’s most expensive mistake and his most impressive commitment toward winning since he became the team’s majority owner in May 2010, for it jettisoned a player who had become the embodiment of fan discontent, essentially dead weight dragging down a reinvigorated roster.
Goodbye ’Dray and all the kids who never grew up; hello, Nene and the adults.
In less than two seasons, the locker room has completely been turned over. Like Leonsis’s Capitals once were, the Wizards are in the third year of a drastic rebuild. The boss says it’s time to win.
“I won’t be happy with our plan if we’re back in the lottery,” Leonsis said. “If we just miss making a playoff spot, no, the world is not going to end. If we’re picking third because we have the second-worst record, no, I will not be happy. . . .
“Culturally, every one of these guys is a good guy. It’s a big change. And no one is playing for a contract. I don’t think Nick [Young] and JaVale [McGee] were bad people. But they wanted stats. . . . They weren’t playing as a team. You saw at the end of the year with Nene, who already got his big contract, right. So stats weren’t important to him. The little things were important to him.”
Little things are big things to Leonsis, who said he now employs statisticians with PhDs and Stanford educations for analyses to help his clubs. He can get emotional in the moment and says he hasn’t gone all “Moneyball” on everyone. But he never lets his feelings trump empirical reasoning.
That’s why, he says, he kept Ernie Grunfeld as the Wizards’ president, Randy Wittman as coach and George McPhee as the Caps’ general manager for the past 13 years.
When told he had yet to fire a general manager, Leonsis replied: “I haven’t had to yet. You have to look at the arc of the team. It’s not just how the team is performing. It’s how the fan base is performing. The Caps have 98 percent renewals. 98 percent. We raised prices. We sell out every game. Again, counterintuitive, I’ll hear, ‘Well, everyone wants this.’ And I go, ‘Really? So you’re tuned in? Because if everyone wanted that, they wouldn’t renew. They’d say, ‘I don’t believe.’ They wouldn’t come to the games. They wouldn’t pay higher prices. They wouldn’t rock the red. So the decisions have been empirical.
“With Ernie what I found was, could we be on the same wavelength? Would he build the team with eight or nine first-round picks? Could he make trades? I thought trading Gilbert was impossible. I thought trading Rashard [Lewis] was impossible.”
Leonsis is so good at talking frustrated season ticket holders off a ledge, the genteel and caring shepherd in times of crisis. In person, I have to admit it’s hard to pierce his we’re-making-progress veneer. He often comes across as the Tony Robbins of sports, the self-help owner who is going to Tell You How Great Your Life Can Really Be If You Come to a Wizards or Caps Game.
But in those moments when he lets his guard down, he is revealed as a heavily involved owner-fan who so wants one of his teams to bring the first major-revenue sports title to this town in 20 years.
“I’m the first to admit I haven’t broken the code yet,” he said. “Until you win a championship, you can’t have a definitive point of view. We’re trying really hard with the Caps. With the Wizards we’re in a different place. We can’t talk honestly, authentically about a championship until you say, ‘We’ve improved. We’ve made the playoffs.’ Then, it’s, ‘Oh we’re in the playoffs and now how do we improve the team.’ ”
You tell him it all feels like a Jedi mind trick, where he keeps saying in a hypnotic voice, “Yes, we will be good, we will be good,” like Luke in “Return of the Jedi” saying, “You will take me to see Jabba.”
He laughs. “You know what, though? I believe that enthusiasm, positive culture — the players seeing you making investments — [make] players want to play here. Nene is probably a case in point, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to Washington. Hey, I just met the owner. You know what? I kind of like the owner. Hey, I just spent some time with the young players. I think they’re going to be good. Hey, we’re playing pretty good. You know what? This is a great city. Geez, I was unhappy with the trade. Now I’m really happy with the trade.’ So I mean, it happens. So I do think that positive force of will and energy is good.
“When you write about Andray now, that’s one of the bad things. He played and he would get booed by the fans. Bad for the fans, bad for him. Right? Not a positive, energetic act. So I do believe changing a culture, a business and franchise takes an inordinate amount of a-a-a-a-h-h-h,” Leonsis says, miming moving a large weight.
On its face it still seems insane, paying $23 million for one guy who never seemed to have real desire just to go away. But Leonsis anted up, moved on from the wreckage of the Wizards’ past for all the right reasons, proving how expensive the business of happiness can sometimes be.