Winters of discontent in D.C.
By Bill Simmons
Page 2 columnist
WASHINGTON -- Here's a topic for your next Sports Bar Argument Du Jour: Other than the L.A. Clippers, which sports franchise has been the unequivocal Perennial Loser of the past 20 years?
As a longtime fan of the New England Patriots -- who thankfully shed Perennial Loser status with their SUPER BOWL CHAMPIONSHIP VICTORY last month -- I'm overqualified to judge Perennial Losers. Lack of star power, fan disinterest, lack of championships, lack of competent ownership, an abundance of front office screw-ups and miscues, an abundance of bad luck, an abundance of unintentional comedy and general chaos, a consistent track record of failure, a total absence of charisma ... basically, you need to examine the past three decades and say to yourself, "Man, it couldn't have been any fun rooting for that team."
Enter Washington's winter teams. The Capitals are a legitimate Top 5 candidate for the Perennial Loser Pantheon, going titleless since their inception in 1974. And you could argue that the Bullets-Wizards were even more inept since capturing their last title 24 years ago (a laundry list of dumb moves, coupled with no major playoff appearances and a total lack of star power). Toss these teams together in the same city, and it practically sends a chill down your spine. Can you imagine being a D.C. sports fan and dealing with those two teams for the past quarter-century? How do you keep the faith?
Here's one weird quirk: The only D.C. championship by a winter team happened in '78, when the Bullets outlasted the Sonics in seven games, then lost the rematch in the finals the following season. Maybe you remember that two-year stretch as "The Era When The NBA Nearly Died." And let me tell you, it wasn't a coincidence. The league nearly went into the tank because of rampant drug use, star players going through the motions, franchises losing fistfuls of money, on-court fistfights, TV audiences recoiling at the dearth of likable superstars, and the fact Washington and Seattle played in the Finals for two straight years. How did CBS market that one? Yikes.
(Hey, I loved Gus Williams as much as anyone, but you have to admit, there's a slight difference between "Gus, DJ, Sikma, Elvin and Wes" and "Doctor J, Kareem, Toney and Magic." In fact, when Magic and Bird arrived during the '79-80 season, they were widely credited with saving the league from disaster. So D.C.'s one winter championship coincided with the single most cataclysmic stretch in the history of the NBA. Not good times.)
To recap: Not one D.C. winter athlete has played at a Hall of Fame level for an extended period since Unseld and Hayes in the late-'70s (and remember, they were two of the least exciting superstars in the history of the league). That defies the parameters of bad luck, doesn't it? Would you believe me if I told you that the only retired numbers in the MCI Center belong to Hayes, Unseld, Gus Johnson, Dale Hunter, Yvon Labre and Rod Langway? Well, believe me. That's it. That's the list.
What about memorable moments for the winter teams since that Bullets-Sonics double whammy in the late-'70s, you ask? As amazing as this sounds, when Les Boullez (what Tony Kornheiser derisively dubbed the Bullets, probably my favorite derisive version of a team nickname in sports history) dragged a terrific Celtics team to six games in the 1982 Eastern Conference semis, that was their most memorable playoff push of the past 20 years. They haven't even won a playoff game since 1983. Look it up.
And the Caps have enjoyed just two extended playoff runs in their franchise history -- a loss to the Bruins in the 1990 Cup semis, and a thrashing from the Red Wings in the '98 Stanley Cup finals (their first and only time playing for the Cup).
Wait, it gets worse: With only six retired numbers, one championship and two conference championships between the two winter teams in the past three decades, the MCI Center actually displays two "Southeast Division Champion" banners for the Caps (from 1999 and 2000) to fill space on the ceiling. Hey, Caps owner Ted Leonsis won his Roto hockey league back in 1997 ... can we put a banner up there for that one, too?
And then the fans enter the equation. As we mentioned in Monday's column, D.C. revolves around the Redskins and college hoops; everything else places a distant third. So you have two crappy, charisma-less franchises competing against one another for fan interest, for an extended period of time, in a climate that conditions fans not to care about them in the first place.
Fortunately for D.C. fans and local-area scalpers, things seem to be on the upswing. MJ might not have hooked the Wiz up to the Juvenation Machine -- after all, they were never juvenated in the first place -- but he revived interest in the franchise and turned them into a bona fide marquee team (at least until his 39-year-old body finally stopped cooperating). As long as there's a hint of MJ in the air, the Wizards remain legitimate; the greatest NBA player of all-time, and he's playing in D.C.. Who cares if his body gave out after just 50 games? Getting Jordan involved with the franchise, then back on the basketball court has to be the most underrated coup by a sports franchise in recent memory.
And the franchise is finally headed in the right direction, with a genuine offensive threat in Rip Hamilton, a tantalizing young big man (Kwame Brown), some capable role players (Chris Whitney, Tyronn Lue, Christian Laettner, Courtney Alexander), tons of cap space after the 2003 season, and the outrageously inept Unseld (for my money, the worst front office exec of the past 20 years) relegated to answering phones for MJ. At least 10 other NBA teams have a murkier future. When's the last time you could say that about Les Boullez?
As for the Capitals, four years removed from their startling Cup appearance (did that even happen?), they can throw Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Kolzig, Brendan Witt, Oates, Jagr and a bunch of no-names out on the ice every night. Isn't that better than half the teams in the NHL? Um ... I'm asking you ... honestly, I have no idea. The NHL died for me about six years ago. But for the purposes of this column, we'll say that, yes, they're in OK shape.
(Actually, my buddy/D.C. tour guide Joe House claims the Caps have an above-average array of talent, and since he was buying drinks during Sunday's Caps-Oilers game, I'll believe him. During that same game, Bondra netted an electrifying hat trick, Olie the Goalie shut Edmonton down in the final two periods, and I drank two Bloody Marys. It doesn't get much better than that.)
The crowd maintained a solid level of energy throughout -- clapping like crazy for every goal, making up derisive chants about opposing goalie Tommy Salo, paying homage to Olie the Goalie at every turn, cheering lustily during the obligatory fight, even tossing their hats onto the ice after Bondra's hat trick. Just a fun game with a good group of fans. Honestly, I was impressed.
Monday's Celts-Wiz game wasn't quite as impressive, mainly because of the same problem that plagues every NBA team: Too many pricey seats, too many businessmen and snobby upper-class people hogging the good seats, too many die-hards crammed in the nosebleeds, too many annoying subplots during timeouts, too much Jumbotron, too many wildly overpriced food/drink items, too many, too much, too many, too much. Nobody loves the NBA more than me, but there are roughly 934 reasons why it isn't FANNNNNN-tastic. It's the league of excess, on just about every level.
Still, it was an above-average NBA crowd for the Wizards game; enough die-hards were scattered around the good sections that the game remained lively throughout. And thanks to my ESPN expense account, House and I scalped $100 seats (facing the Wizards bench, even with the foul line, six rows up) for face value. Why, thank you, Disney! It was like paying for the tickets with Monopoly money. I almost offered the scalper $200, the B & O Railroad and two immunities.
Truth be told, it was a surprisingly enjoyable two-day stretch of sporting events at the MCI Center, courtesy of the most dreadful winter professional sports tandem of the past 25 years: The Caps and Les Boullez.
Some other leftover thoughts from the past two days:
The Caps game made you say things like, "That's nice to see a Dad with his kids"; the Wiz game made you say things like, "Do you think that guy is renting his date by the hour?" The Caps game featured women wearing hockey jerseys and looking a little rough around the edges; the Wiz game featured women dressed like they were ready to break into "Lady Marmalade." The Caps game featured the Zamboni; the Wiz game featured real-live cheerleaders.
(Wait, they deserve their own section.)
(Of course, House was chanting for the Wiz-ettes to make another appearance and trying to break a $20 for 20 ones.)
"Don, will you sign it ...
-- Don Rumsfeld
... for me please?"
Alas, Rumsfeld and the important-looking Russian guy stayed about 3.2 seconds into the first period, then they left. Of course, during Celtics games, Donnie Wahlberg passes as a celebrity sighting. Wizards games have drop-ins from the secretary of defense.
Let's face it: There aren't 30 minutes that pass in Washington where you don't say at least once, "Hey, I'm in Washington!" Cool place.
Coming Tomorrow: Sports Guy at the White House.
Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2. He'll be writing from Washington, D.C., all this week.