D.C.: No sports town like it
By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist
WASHINGTON (Monday, 2 a.m.) -- My bosses sent me to Washington so I could "capture" the D.C. sports scene. Puh-leeeze. Here's the D.C. sports scene, in a nutshell:
- College hoops
- Everything else
Thank you, please drive through.
Truth be told, I've been dreading this column all weekend. Every other column we planned sounds fun. Tuesday's column is supposed to describe my experiences at the Caps/Wizards games this week (let the flame-throwing begin!). Wednesday's column is supposed to detail my trip to the White House (my blue Gap dress is dry-cleaned and ready to go). Thursday's column will involve me, the Hogs, and RFK Stadium (sounds like my prom night.) And Friday's column will cover the first day of March Madness from a sports bar du jour in D.C., and a first-person account of the most stunning upset in NCAA history (No. 16 Holy Cross over No. 1 Kansas, like I even had to tell you).
|LaVar Arrington's Redskins will be No. 1 in D.C. forever ...|
Those columns will be cake. But this one ... I mean, jeez. For instance, if they sent me to San Fran, I'd be ranting about those wine-and-cheese, "Let's leave the game at the end of the 3rd quarter to beat the traffic" airheads at this very moment. If they sent me to L.A., I'd be wrapping up a three-part trilogy comparing Magic, Kareem and Riley to the Axis powers of World War II. If they sent me to Atlanta, I could have started out my first column with the sentence, "Gentleman, start your bandwagons!" If they sent me to Detroit, I'd be complaining about the fact they sent me to Detroit.
Not only does D.C.'s sports scene fail to give me that "Hide the women and children, I'm going on a rant!" feeling, it lacks New York's charisma, Boston's provincialism, Chicago's diversity, Denver's tunnel vision and Philly's sweeping hostility. And the people here would be the first to admit it.
They keep sports in perspective around here, for a few reasons:
This is a pretty serious place. Drive downtown and you'll see the Library of Congress, the White House, the Capitol, the Supreme Court ... you name it, it's here. You want drama? You want subplots? You want memorable personalities? The political climate produces these things every day. That's why the sports scene provides more of a diversion here than anything -- unlike a place like Boston or Philly, where fans overreact more frequently than Tony Schiavone during a mid-1990s WCW pay-per-view.
|... unless Daniel Snyder, left, drives them into the ground.|
The D.C. scene is actually split into three regions -- Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia -- so with the exception of the Redskins, there isn't a dominant team here that unites everyone. The college teams (Georgetown, Maryland and Virginia) capture people's attention more than anything else, and college sports always attract more of an unbiased, unconditional brand of support (you either love a college team or you don't care about them at all). So the pettiness, vindictiveness and general "Oh my God, the sky is falling!" routine that plagues so many professional sports cities (and bands people together) just doesn't play here.
Many of the younger, post-college professionals who move into D.C. are transplants from other cities -- drawn to Washington for obvious reasons -- so there's a surprisingly high population of Bandwagon Jumpers and/or out-of-staters who keep rooting for their old teams (D.C. probably ranks second behind Atlanta and right ahead of San Fran and Denver in that category). And since those same fans eventually settle down in the suburbs in Virginia or Maryland, D.C. finds itself replenishing its fan base again and again with new transplants. Not good for continuity.
Over the past 20 years, the Capitals and Bullets-Wizards have been two of the least interesting, least dynamic franchises in all of sports. For a variety of reasons, they just haven't been able to bring any superstars into town until this season (Michael Jordan and Jaromir Jagr). Luck of the draw.
Out of all the professional sports, baseball provides more wrinkles, twists and turns than anything else ... and D.C. hasn't fielded a baseball team for three decades. The Orioles play 40 miles northeast of the city, but they belong to Baltimore and Maryland more than anything. This isn't like the Patriots playing in Foxboro or the Giants and Jets playing in the Meadowlands -- a surprising number of people around here refuse to support the O's, and some of the fans who did support them abandoned ship during the disarmingly unappealing Peter Angelos era.
|Until Michael Jordan floated in town, the Wizards were one of the most nondescript teams in the NBA.|
So that's D.C. -- a little bland in the sports department for a major city, but with good reason. And "Redskins ... college sports ... everything else" will remain the pecking order here unless one of three things happens:
- They lure a baseball team to Northern Virginia.
- Either the Caps or Wizards turn things around.
- Dan Snyder runs the Redskins into the ground, through the ground and straight to hell.
And from the way people talk around here, Option No. 3 has the best chance of happening. But that's another story for another time.
Some other quick thoughts after two days in DC ...
On Saturday night, my buddy Joe House -- Maryland native, current D.C. resident and our tour guide-head posse member this week -- took me to Maryland's Division 4A State Championship Game (high school boys' hoops), which was taking place at the Cole Field House (no relation to Joe) at the University of Maryland. Why is this relevant? It was the last major sporting event at Cole; Maryland opens the 18,000 seat Comcast Center on campus next fall. That means the D.C. area will have two state-of-the-art sports arenas within 30 minutes of one another (with the MCI Center being the other). Los Angeles is the only other city that can say the same.
Cole brought back fond memories of the old days of college gyms, when the temperature in the arena shattered the 100-degree mark by halftime, when the wooden seats made your butt cheeks turn numb, when there was that inexplicable 50 feet of unused space on all sides between the basketball court and the seats, when the only player's stats they showed on the scoreboard was "FOULS," when your neck was aching by halftime because every seat faced straight ahead (even the ones parallel to the baskets). Ahhhhhh
... the good old days.
|Little has changed inside Cole Field House since opening in 1955.|
I didn't realize until this weekend that the D.C. area could have been the Hoops Mecca if the Wizards-Bullets had held up their end of the bargain over the past 20 years. Other than New York, they probably have the best high school hoops scene. And other than L.A., no other major city has such a distinguished college hoops tradition (Georgetown and Maryland, with UVA only two hours away). But the NBA franchise dropped the ball.
One more note on Cole: All the Maryland retired numbers were up there: Len Elmore, Tom McMillen, Albert King, Buck Williams, Lenny Bias (ouch), Walt
Williams and six or seven other players, including ... Steve Francis. Steve Francis?!?!?!?! He played there one year! What an outrage.
Speaking of inexplicable things, during the Caps-Oilers game I attended Sunday, a guy proposed to his girlfriend (both of them were wearing Caps jerseys) during a TV timeout in the first period, on the Jumbotron ... and it happened two rows in front of me. So he proposed, and she said yes, and the crowd cheered, and they did the whole hugging thing, and then the game started again. And they never got up. I mean, wouldn't you want to call someone? Like a sibling, or a parent? Not only did they stick around for the whole game, the new bride came back during the second period with a big box of Cracker Jacks and a large soda. Ten hours have passed, and I still can't
figure this out. It's dumbfounding.
Speaking of inexplicable things, part two: I just wrote the sentence, "During the Caps-Oilers game I attended Sunday ..."
Just for the record, I'd consider moving to the D.C. area some day if the average temperature from June to August wasn't 125 degrees fahrenheit. Just a
lively, quirky place. There's something for everyone here. Plus, you can't put a price on driving around town and suddenly saying to yourself, "Good,
God, that's the Washington Monument!" or "Whoa, that's the Capitol!" It never gets old.
One more D.C. note: After much deliberation, I decided that D.C. doesn't pass my "Movie Test." In other words, when you're walking around a city, does it make you feel like you're in a movie? Vegas, New Orleans, Manhattan ... you feel like you're inadvertently starring in a movie. D.C. more resembles the greatest ongoing high school field trip of all-time. But it doesn't quite give me that movie vibe.
I'm still waiting for an explanation for why the D.C. area doesn't have its own baseball team. Everyone around here wants their own team. You couldn't draw up a better demographic of young professionals, college students, wealthy bigwigs and middle-class suburbanites for a baseball team. With the right revenue-generating stadium, a D.C. team could probably compete in the "Haves" division of baseball. If they stuck it in the right area of Northern Virginia, near the Potomac River, they could rejuvenate an entire area (much like San Fran did with Pac Bell).
And if that's not enough, six or eight franchises can't field a competitive Major League Baseball team right now. So what's the holdup? Imagine Vlad Guerrero playing in D.C.? Wouldn't he own this town? Why didn't baseball push for this instead of keeping the Expos in Montreal and running that team itself? So the Virginia Expos would have played in RFK Stadium for a year ... big deal. I just don't get it.
|Even if you lump in Baltimore's Cal Ripken Jr., the D.C. area doesn't boast a ton of great athletes.|
Finally, during Sunday's Caps game, I noticed they had retired three numbers in franchise history: Rod Langway, Dale Hunter and some guy named Yvon Labre, who was apparently the team chef back in 1978. Those were the three greatest Caps of all-time? So then I started thinking about the Bullets -- Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes were both great players, but neither of them were transcendent or anything. In football, those great Redskins teams from the '80s and early-'90s were paced by Joe Theismann, John Riggins, Art Monk, Darrell Green and the Hogs ... but Riggins was the only true superstar on those teams, and he peaked for just one season (that Super Bowl season in 1982). The Orioles can't count because they belong to Baltimore. And the two recent additions to the D.C. sports scene -- MJ is obviously past his prime, and Jagr is nearing the twilight of his career.
How strange is that? Over the past three decades, Boston had Orr, Bird, Clemens, Pedro and Havlicek. Philly had Iverson, Schmidt, Moses, Barkley and Doctor J. Chicago had MJ and Payton. L.A. had Magic, Kareem, Hershiser, Bo and Gretzky. Detroit had Sanders, Yzerman and Isiah. Denver had Elway. Houston had Hakeem. San Fran had Montana, Rice, Barry and Bonds. New York had LT, Messier, Reggie and Seaver (among many others). When you compare the previous paragraph of D.C. guys, it isn't even close. You have to bring in Baltimore's Cal Ripken just to pad DC's total.
Where am I going with this? Maybe I'm crazy, but doesn't this mean that the greatest D.C. athlete of the past three decades was Patrick Ewing (back in his Georgetown days, when he was playing like The Next Bill Russell and dominating games on the defensive end)? It has to be Ewing, right? Just bizarre.
Coming tomorrow: The Wiz and the Caps.
Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2. He'll be filing columns all week from D.C.
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