Half a week after the NBA shuffled into a new, potentially super team-less era, the Washington Wizards struck out in free agency. And without a fan base to keep them honest, the 2019–20 season is looking like a lost cause.
In April 2018, I surprised my mom by getting playoff tickets to see the Washington Wizards. She isn’t a Wizards fan by any stretch of the imagination — her team is the Philadelphia 76ers (Julius!) — but she’s fond enough of John Wall and Bradley Beal that it seemed like a nice thing to do.
A self-proclaimed history buff, seeing a game in D.C. checked all her boxes. The idea was that we could take in the historic sights and smells of the U.S. capital before hopefully watching the Wizards even up their first-versus-eighth series matchup with the Toronto Raptors. Remember, these were the pre-Kawhi Leonard Raptors. It was fun to watch them fail.
We waded through the ticket gate and found our seats (behind the basket on the visitors’ side. (I never said they were good seats). Folded across the blue-backed chairs were white Wizards t-shirts. The day instantly got better. It’d been ages since my mom went to a playoff game, and when she did, they weren’t giving out shirts. Free merch!
All was well until the arena hosts, Rodney Rikai and Gia PEPPERS (I swear Rodney managed to say her last name in all caps) took the floor. After exchanging pleasantries, the duo enlisted the help of some craftily located cameramen to begin their version of the Salem Witch Hunt.
Soon after, the jumbotron was adorned with the faces of those who chose not to don their new threads. The pair clamored “Put ya t-shirt on!” Direct shaming usually works in public venues. 20,000-seat NBA arenas are the perfect forums to invoke the power of peer pressure. “We’re all in this together,” Rikai and Peppers pleaded. “Put ya T-shirt on!”
But they didn’t. The cameramen darted around the arena, but the shaming didn’t work. Some people chuckled at the suggestion of rocking their new white tee. Most flat out ignored it. If 10 people were asked to put on the shirt, which was graciously provided by Custom Ink as the hosts reminded, all 10 refused and instead favored wearing their nondescript bomber jackets or deep v-neck tees instead. You would think that someone might have taken offense to being asked to sport the shirt. Maybe smirk at the jumbotron or flip off the camera. But no one did. It was total apathy.
Even though the Wizards won that game and evened the series 2–2, the series was long lost. Toronto ran back Games 5 and 6, walling out the Wizards by a combined margin of 20 points. Despite their rally at home, the Wizards never really stood a chance. They knew it. My mom knew it. But most importantly, the fans knew it.
The Washington Wizards have fostered an apathetic culture. Though Monumental Sports and Entertainment bought up all the D.C. area athletics properties to house them under a consistent brand in 2010, the efforts to create a uniformed fandom failed.
When the Wizard’s 2018 playoff loss happened, local fandom was at an all time low. The NHL’s Washington Capitals had been iced out of the playoffs year after year, usually coinciding with the Wizard’s disappearance from the post season. The Washington Nationals were equally as disheartening, dropping the National League Division Series four times in the last six seasons.
“It’s more than just the Caps,” fan Sean Forman told the Washington Post. “Seeing it here with the Nationals and the Wizards, they just can’t get over the hump.”
The hump is fitting imagery. Like the politicians who reach stalemates almost daily on Capitol Hill, Washington’s sports teams endure roadblocks of their own.
So, when the Wizards announced that they acquired Isaiah Thomas as their marquee 2019 Free Agency signing, fans were well within their right to let the apathetic times roll on.
Isaiah Thomas isn’t bad. That he was picked dead last in the 2011 NBA Draft and is still signing contracts is indicative of as much. At his best, he’s a low-cost stimulus package, playing alongside Bradley Beal in what would be one of the NBA’s most offensively potent backcourts. Anything less than 2016s-he’s-not-an-MVP-but-he’s-in-the-conversation Thomas is a positive role model on a team with a shortage of them. The NBA-verse has decided its narrative about John Wall. The media scrutiny of his will power, spurred by a portly and seemingly sleep deprived Wall on picture day, is more than enough fodder to ruin his image. Thomas doesn’t draw any of that. He’s the consummate professional.
But professionalism doesn’t go very far in D.C. It doesn’t on Pennsylvania Avenue and it certainly doesn’t with the Wizards. Washington hasn’t been within spitting distance of a title in years. Even the Eastern Conference Finals were a far cry away behind the Wall-Beal tandem. The team endured infighting and bureaucratic mismanagement under former general manager Ernie Grunfeld. And, even after Grunfeld’s dismissal, the fire he started in the Capital One Arena continues to burn.
Washington only had five players under contract when Free Agency opened on June 30 — Wall, Beal, Ian Mahinmi, Dwight Howard and Troy Brown — though the team is lapping up a collective $92 million of a $109 million salary cap. Wall and Mahinmi are the lion’s share of the bill, but one the team won’t let play without a doctor’s note (Wall), and the other it wishes had one (Mahinmi). The pair are untradable and are the Wizards’ de facto core.
What can the Wizards do? Never in the running for a stand-out free agent, the summer has effectively passed them by. The East is getting stronger. Even teams like the Atlanta Hawks, and Indiana Pacers are spotting the conference’s heavy lifters — the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics, Sixers — but the Wizards are forced to watch from afar, slowly mopping up the rest of the conferences spills while leaving a trail of their own. The fans can’t cheer the team on without a goal. So instead they lie in wait, hoping for something that will help them care again.
In 2001 it was Michael Jordan. Mr. Basketball. The Chicago Tribune professed that he single-handedly turned the nation’s capital into a basketball city. His presence renovated the downtown D.C. area. “You can see the excitement in the people who come here,” said Lara Papi, then of Washington’s ESPN Zone restaurant. “You see a lot of 23 jerseys running around.”
Jordan’s influence was an empty promise. To borrow from our law makers, his signing with the Wizards was pork barrel legislation. It served a purpose — to funnel funds back into a local cause — but failed at creating an institutional change. Wizard game goers weren’t Wizards fans. They were Jordan fans.
Now, without a Jordan-like presence in sight (somebody thought DeShawn Stevenson was close), the Wizards are at a total loss. Beal won’t admit to wanting a trade, but given the right situation anything is possible. Wall, Howard and the newly signed Thomas all faced substantial injury setbacks. There’s no light at the end of this tunnel.
What’s the answer for a team without an future? Are the Wizards bad enough to secure a high draft pick in 2020, on which they could bet their future like the New Orleans Pelicans did with Zion Williamson? Maybe, but that’s a dangerous game to play, especially with an uninterested fanbase. Gone are the interesting role players like Otto Porter Jr. and Kelly Oubre. The Instagram highlights will be few and far between. They can’t boast a die-hard and illogical fanbase like the New York Knicks. The Wizards simply exist. And that’s the worst way to be in the NBA.