Because Washington has endured so long with the Wizards, paying much in time and dollars for almost nothing in return for the past 35 years, perhaps we need just a bit of context, to help us suspend our disbelief and enjoy our fun, as the Wiz return home Friday night to Verizon Center with a two-games-to-none lead over the Chicago Bulls in their first-round playoff series.
The Wiz have been such a joke, crushing enthusiasm across generations, that it’s hard to remember that Washington has always been a basketball town; a good or great pro team here is as fitting as a World Series club at Fenway Park or an NFC title game at (grump) Texas Stadium. That’s my story, sticking to it.
Once, long ago, in a different town under a different nickname, this franchise had a wonderful, thrilling team. My dad and I saw those Baltimore Bullets, including Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld, in the old convention center near the Inner Harbor. But we loved Gus Johnson. One of the immortal leapers, the 6-foot-6 Johnson won a bet from Wilt Chamberlain; he snatched a $100 bill, held in place by a silver dollar, off the top of the backboard. The silver dollar stayed put. Why, Honeycomb was asked?
“I left the change for Wilt,” Johnson said.
Maybe it happened. Maybe it didn’t. But with Wes and the Big E, Elvin Hayes, you were willing to believe anything. When they moved to Washington in ’73, it was solid, wall-to-wall joy. It lasted years.
The Bullets went to the NBA Finals four times in the ’70s and won a title for Washington in ’78. It seemed natural and appropriate. D.C. had lost a baseball team and hadn’t won an NFL title in more than a generation. We deserved great hoops. As a reporter, I rode in Unseld’s car in the title parade from Capital Centre to 14th and Pennsylvania. Crowds lined the streets for more than 10 miles.
So, the past 35 years have felt like a long damn time. They’ve left their damaging mark, one many of us are still shaking off. Since the team changed its name from Bullets 17 years ago, things have gone from bad (.470 as the Washington Bullets ) to unspeakably awful (exactly .400 as the Wizards.)
On Tuesday night, the Wizards trailed the Bulls by 10 points with seven minutes to play in the second game of their playoff series. They’d lost a 17-point lead. Midnight neared. So, because I’ve followed the Bullets/Wizards in the playoffs for so long— Rick Mahorn and Jeff Ruland in the ’80s, Chris Webber and Juwan Howard in the ’90s, Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison in the ’00s — I knew exactly what to do.
I went to bed.
But because they are also the new Wiz, not the team that has won only two playoff series since ’79, I also made sure to record the rest of the game, even though it appeared to be the kind the Wiz have specialized in losing for decades with a big lead gone and momentum swinging against them. Isn’t this when they quit on defense or take crazy shots or lose trust in each other or their coach?
This is the franchise that has fobbed off its fans with lovable basketball circus acts— a 5-foot-3 guard or a 7-foot-7 center. This is the team that perfected the draft bust, from John “Hot Plate” Williams to Kwame Brown to, perhaps, this year’s No. 3 overall, Otto Porter Jr. Many years before the guns-in-the-locker-room incident, a Bullet got chewed out at practice, went home, got his gun and came back threatening to shoot the coach. And he was the team’s best player.
So, Wednesday morning when I saw they’d won in overtime, “Wow!” escaped my mouth involuntarily.
“Come out and show us some support,” John Wall said into a postgame mike. “We’re serious right now.”
When a team plays well, it earns the right to give its followers fantasies. Long ago, that’s what D.C. always felt — often with reason. In ’77-78, the Bullets only went 44-38, the same record as this year’s Wiz. But in-season trades created chemistry and they won their only title.
That’s a light year from a prediction. But, as this season progressed, the Wiz have molded an eight-deep rotation that includes four of the NBA’s best three-point shooters and a pair of tough, smart 6-foot-11 veteran big men who pass, shoot and truly have a sense of the game.
No one knows yet if Wall, Bradley Beal, Trevor Ariza and Martell Webster will continue to shoot treys at what has been a near 40 percent clip all season. That, of course, is like shooting 60 percent on two-pointers and will drive almost any foe out of its preferred defense and instill some fear. The limits of the intuitive post-position play of Marcin Gortat and Nene aren’t known either. When do they meet their match? Will the Wizards’ current defensive intensity, misplaced for a brief third-of-a-century, remain intact?
Few teams in any sport have been drenched for so long in internal defeatism and weighted by well-deserved fan cynicism as have the Wizards. But it wasn’t always that way. There’s no rule of the basketball universe that prevents a Washington pro basketball team from playing its best in the playoffs.
Hold that thought. After 35 years, why not?
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.