Disclaimer #1: This article is not completely about basketball, though that subject (and the Wizards in particular) does provide a central theme to this piece.
Disclaimer #2: While this is being posted on Thanksgiving, I promise I’m not a recluse who’s idea of a great holiday is to type away silently behind a computer. Half of my family is either asleep or increasingly disinterested with today’s football offerings.
Disclaimer #3: Between 82 games in the regular season, news tidbits that pop up on off days, and the analysis of Otto Porter’s suit collection, we sometimes don’t get enough of a chance to talk about everything that surrounds that 94 foot by 50 foot rectangle. Here’s my attempt at doing so:
Having spent 24 years (or the equivalent to approximately 96% of my life) as a resident of Greater Washington, D.C., I feel uniquely qualified to comment on the sports culture that defines this city as much as political bickering, traffic jams and the Cherry Blossoms (have you seen them yet?! They were gifts from JAPAN!!). For all those who are transplants from more successful sports cities, for those that are not totally interested in sports, and for others who pretend to be from Boston, this may not apply. But for the rest of us (approximately 9 people, by my count), we connect on a certain outlook that is humorous but infuriating, and captivating yet tiresome. This applies holistically regardless of sport or team, whether it relates to the Redskins, Capitals, Nationals, or Wizards. Needless to say, any fandom that includes a combination of the mentioned squads requires a multiplier. Which would do well to explain why I’m four times as unhappy as I probably could have been had I grown up and just liked astronomy or something.
This outlook (or attitude, or perspective or whatever you want to call it) has a few defining characteristics that make it distinctive from that of any other fan base. And as D.C. fans, we know what we’re doing, know we should act differently, yet will repeat Steps 1-4 at the brink of each season. The number one habit needed to perfect this art is overreaction. A season opening win in Washington leads to friends excitedly planning title game road trips while simultaneously haggling their bosses for the appropriate days off to watch the championship parades. A loss to start the year however and the fans themselves are putting up Monster.com ads to fill the future head coaching vacancy of the team in question. The emotional palette required to be a fan of Washington teams is something even I’ve struggled to grasp over the years. What’s the appropriate level of freak-out I should display when the team starts 2-2 instead of 3-1 like I had so carefully predicted? How early is too early to start scouting future playoff matchups when we have a 2 game lead in our division with 495 games to play?
The second major identifying feature of native Washingtonians is our ability to talk ourselves into any situation, without batting an eye. “The Redskins are down 24-0 with 11 minutes to go? Three touchdowns and subsequent two-point conversions and this game is ours – someone call up Papa John’s and let’s cash in on the 50% discount!” And even better than the in-game fallacies are the ones that require magic over the course of a week or two. “The Nationals are down 5 games in the standings with 6 to play? We know the Reds aren’t that good, let’s just cruise to victory in our games and let their impending demise take place!” While most fans probably exhibit behavior similar to this, the difference lies in our ability to increase in fervor and conviction when facing any type of disagreement or mockery. Especially given that this city probably has the most diverse collection of sports fans in the country (all statistics estimated), there are more than enough detractors for even the slightest amount of optimism. But as the saying goes: That what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
The final aspect of fandom in the District (and also technically the main point of the piece, nearly 700 words in) is probably the most frustrating. It is probably borne originally in our inferiority complex from lack of general historical success and definitely isn’t getting easier to rid ourselves of with some of our promising teams falling flat on their faces. But nevertheless, I hope that one day we can stop the pattern of tearing down a Washington star’s contemporary in an attempt to make our guy’s shine to appear a little brighter. Robert Griffin III’s struggles this year may not even be as painful to watch as the success of Russell Wilson, Andrew Luck, Cam Newton, and Colin Kaepernick. It’s the reason we make curious decisions like disliking Ron Jaworski (who rated Griffin the lowest of the young guns) and supporting Skip Bayless (who maintains that Griffin is the best of the bunch). Alex Ovechkin is a 3-time MVP and sure-fire Hall of Famer yet we can’t look at his career on its own without taking at least two shots at Sidney “The Crybaby” Crosby. Clayton Kershaw and Mike Trout don’t hold a candle to Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper, regardless of what the advanced stats, the regular stats, the eye test, or the guesswork say. And last but not least, we must let it be known that not only is John Wall having a great year, he’s having a specifically better one than the prodigal son, Kyrie Irving. Duality is a common theme in sports, whether it is Bird-Magic, Manning-Brady, or Sampras-Agassi. But here we take that motif to an unhealthy level. It eats at our souls to see pundits and analysts praising those who we swear are not quite as good as the guys who call Washington home.
When Wall recently ripped off three straight 30 point games and an Eastern Conference Player of the Week award to boot, Wizards fans combined that glee with a quiet snickering over Irving’s and the Cavaliers’ poor play. Because of course, it can’t be just about Wall maturing as a player and a leader and forming into a potential all-star. It has to be that this is taking place in conjunction with Cleveland’s young star throwing up a 5/17 virtuoso with 8 turnovers. I assume this happens most visibly with the Wizards because every other DC team has made the playoffs within the last calendar year and has something to show for years of ‘potential’. But with the Wizards just grasping to future hopes, fans need everything they can get to promote the case of this team (just imagine the mood when they started 0-3 while Michael Carter-Williams was lighting the world on fire). For the record, I’m not standing a soapbox proclaiming to be above all of this. I’m in the middle of most arguments using every Excel function known to man to prove Wall’s worth is misrepresented by the box score. When Coach K sang Irving’s praises from this summer’s Team USA Select Team tryouts like he was a cast member of ‘Pitch Perfect’, my blood pressure rose as I proclaimed Wall wasn’t in that conversation simply because he wasn’t being given a fair shot. Eventually, as the franchise develops and the W-L mark includes a higher number to the left, this habit may disappear. But until that happens, I’m cherishing every moment of this season. And if each Washington win is coupled with a Cleveland loss, then even better.
As you may understand now, I’m noticeably confused at the moment. The Wizards are 7-8, yet riding a 3 game win streak marked by Wall’s aforementioned strong play. I don’t know whether to campaign for the firing of Ernie Grunfeld/Randy Wittman, contemplate the possibility of finishing with 60 wins, or engage a debate with an unsuspecting basketball fan about whether John Wall is better than LeBron James. But at least in classic Washington sports fan fashion, expect my opinion to make a 180 degree turn by Saturday afternoon. If our teams aren’t consistent, why should I be?!