WASHINGTON – Snow fell in the area Monday. It was 29 degrees at 3pm, and the wind was blowing outside. Downtown D.C. usually comes to a near standstill with car and foot traffic in the afternoon. Because it was a holiday, the streets were clear. There were two NFL playoff games available — this time, on the TV networks to which most people have subscriptions.
I was at work, though. Job risk. I cover sports, primarily the NBA, for a living. So I was here to watch the Martin Luther King Jr. Day game between the 7-31 Washington Wizards and the 3-36 Detroit Pistons. It was an NBA game in the sense that for these franchises, still, in the NBA, relegation is not an option in the league. (Though, if Adam Silver wants to emulate European football, go for it Which. That would be incredibly fun.)
But these teams aren't just bad garden variety. The Pistons are a historically bad team, having threatened the Philadelphia 76ers by going 9-73 in the 1972-73 season. (My friend Fred Carter, who led the 76ers in scoring this season with 20 points per game, has learned to rely on his self-described nickname: “Best player on the worst team in NBA history.”) The Wizards are bad at this goal tackle. The season, having finally begun a long-awaited overhaul, is miserable, but miserable. If you add the last 20 games from last year, when Washington was on the verge of being a soft tank, the Wiz entered Monday having lost 46 of their last 58 regular-season games. After beating the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday, the Wizards had the opportunity to pull off a rare two-game winning streak, something they haven't done since winning back-to-back games on February 28 and March 2.
Can you imagine going nearly 11 months without winning two games in a row? In the NBA??
But I was getting paid to be here. The question I asked as I walked around Capital One Arena before the game, to the mostly confused fans:
Why You here?
“So, I'm actually collecting heads,” said Nolan Costigan of Falls Church, Va., sitting in Section 405 with his father, Thomas. An hour or so before tipoff, they had plenty of room to stretch out.
“Did you know they were giving these away today?” Nolan asked.
He pointed to the head of Virginia Ali that was presented to the first 5,000 fans on Monday. Ali is the dean of Ben's Chili Bowl, the iconic DC restaurant on U Street, where half smoke is…heaven. Nolan and Thomas went to the Pittsburgh Penguins-Buffalo Sabers game in Pittsburgh last week to snap up Sidney Crosby's head. “We just had a weekend getaway,” Nolan said. “Put it next to (Alex) Ovechkin's head. The tickets (Monday) were cheap. I was able to get them for about $15.”
The Costigans own DC United season tickets and share Washington Capitals season tickets with friends. They love all sports, but basketball is probably the sport Nolan watches the least. They will be coming to a few games this season.
“I came last year for the Wizards,” Nolan said. “It's definitely more relaxed and calm (than international matches). But I don't mind. Just enjoying the game, a change of pace. I liked Kristaps Porziņģis, but they traded him. I don't have a specific favorite player at the moment, but I'll watch him today and decide. Maybe Jordan Ball or Religious… thirsty…”
“Avdiya,” I offered.
A few sections away, Courtney Stovall of Herndon, Virginia, and Caleb Cecil of Arlington, Virginia, were entering. They were among 40 Amazon employees who obtained tickets to Monday's game through the company's Black Employee Network. “So this is like a reunion for us,” Stovall said. “And this is Martin Luther King Day. So, it's a good way to reach out and connect and see other people all over North America. That's why we're here.”
Stovall had a question.
“Do you think if I walked over there and asked Coach, 'Can I get dressed?' He said. “I'm sure I can. They need a capable body.”
Well, even though both teams were playing a little short, their four-player trade that flipped Marvin Bagley and Isaiah Livers to the Wizards for Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala isn't official yet… maybe?
In the lower bowl sat Michael Schultz (Schultz said “Zed,” spelling the last letter of his surname) and Michelle White, both from Wellington, New Zealand. This was Michel's first game in the NBA.
“I grew up in northern Minnesota in the extreme cold,” Schultz said.
Schultz and White were visiting his family in Canada and his brother in New York. It took 42 hours to get from Wellington to his family's home in Dryden, Ontario – they traveled from Wellington to Vancouver, then Vancouver to Winnipeg, then a four-hour drive from Winnipeg to Dryden, where Michael spent his teenage years playing against his teammates. Drydenite Chris Pronger, future NHL star.
“I love hearing what's going on on the field,” Schultz said. “Maybe I can get a little closer.”
When Schultz was growing up in Minnesota, his family got a ticket to the Minnesota Timberwolves' inaugural season at the Metrodome in 1989. “Puh Richardson, Kelly Tripucka — that era,” he said. “I saw Hakeem – or Akeem, at that time. I remember going down there, and he came up to me, and I said, 'Oh my God, he's a tall guy.' This is the only time I've ever seen a game. But I watch every day. League corridor. I'm a huge fan.”
That's what's always amazing, even after all these years.
They were all happy to be there.
It's easy to be cynical about days like Monday when two terrible teams are playing. And yet, people do, every season, year after year, whether they're watching the defending champion Denver Nuggets and the reigning MVP, Nikola Jokic, or…these teams. They're out of their pockets and out of the warmth of their homes (if they're lucky) and are happy to spend two and a half hours watching someone like Detroit's Alec Burks — who's not a star, have one of the best games. In his career, he scored 34 points for the Pistons, who were playing without Cade Cunningham and Bojan Bogdanovic.
By the end of the day, there were 15,156 people in Capital One, which was remarkably three-quarters full. This number seemed legitimate. The stands were fairly full. The home fans didn't seem too bothered as Detroit won its fourth game of the season, beating Washington here for the first time since 2014. There were almost no boos as Jalen Duren dominated the young Wizards inside, scoring 20 points and 19 steals. rebounds (Washington center Daniel Gafford left early after taking a head butt in the third quarter), or that Jaden Ivey scored 24 points in 32 minutes, or that Kyle Kuzma was ejected late in the game, or that the Wizards were actually denied that comeback. Consecutive victories and a loss to one of the worst teams in the modern history of this league.
They were able to watch an NBA game — even if it was only in name — and forget about the howling winds and snow for a while.
(Top photo by Kyle Kuzma: Tommy Gilligan/USA Today)
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