It’s ALIVE: Reawakening Basketball Fandom in DC
Washington, D.C. has experienced something special over the last week – a reawakening of a fan base. The momentum had been building all season – in February, the Wizards pushed their record over the .500 mark for the first time in over four years. Take that in for a moment – the team couldn’t even manage to get lucky to move to 1-0 or 2-1 for a period of time greater than a presidential administration.
Of course, a winning record was hardly a prerequisite to qualify for the Eastern Conference Playoffs this season, but the winning record was a nice accomplishment for the Wizards. Just a week or ten days ago, some Wizards fans might have been happy to take that achievement and look to build on the record for next year, but a pathway is opening for Washington to make a significant run in the playoffs this season. With the Pacers season on the brink of collapse, a run to the Eastern Conference Finals is quickly becoming the expectation in the Nation’s Capital.
When the outcomes of the final day of the regular season pitted the Bulls against the Wizards in the first round, there was much rejoicing in the Windy City. Bulls fans thought that it would be their team contemplating a matchup with the Heat for the right to advance to the NBA Finals, but the first four games of this series have all but ruled out that possibility. Joakim Noah has looked like anything but the Defensive Player of the Year – whether the Wizards’ Nenê has been in the lineup or not. The true backcourt skill of Washington has completely outclassed the Bulls’ gritty defensive approach. On Sunday, the Wizards hit shot after open shot. The Bulls could hardly get such looks, much less make them.
On a whim, my wife (one of the aforementioned reawakened Wizards fans) and I decided to go to Sunday’s game. While the outcome (and the 14-0 start for that matter) put a damper on my ability to enjoy the experience, it was hard not to feel good for the fans in DC who finally had something to be excited about. (In the case of my own excitement, Grace remarked that with the Bulls down by 20 in the second half, I became much more pleasant once I started following the Blackhawks pregame news on Twitter.)
The Blackhawks renaissance of the last six to seven years is the closest thing that I have experienced to the current Wizards resurgence. The difference, however, is the speed of the reawakening on a broad scale. When the Blackhawks returned to top form after years of struggles on the ice and mismanagement off it, things had gone so far off the rails that even longtime hockey fans in Chicago had to be reminded that NHL hockey existed in the city. The AHL’s Wolves were putting more butts in the seats than the Blackhawks in the darkest of the dark years – at least, that’s what you’ll hear if you can find anyone who attended a Blackhawks game circa 2006.
The Wizards, in contrast, never really went away. While the Capitals have been the Verizon Center’s tougher ticket for most of the past decade, Wizards fans have clearly been ready and waiting. I was surprised by the amount of buzz that Friday night’s return of playoff basketball to D.C. generated at work last week. In a town that often sees its rooting interests fragmented, the team that no one was talking about at the beginning of the year might just be the one that makes the most noise when the last games are played.