Whenever I tell friends that I’m a Washington Wizards fan, 100.0% of the time their eyes glaze over, as if I had just said the most uninteresting thing uttered by anyone, anywhere. It’s tough to care about something so unconditionally and not have the person to whom you’re speaking recognize all the years of heartbreak that you’ve had to endure as a fan of such an historically inept sports franchise. In any event, I’ve grown pretty accustomed to it, so don’t feel bad for me.
Why do I continue to support the Washington Wizards despite their many years of futility? First, I think there’s honor in supporting a team through thick and thin, no matter what. The Wizards are also a connection to my hometown as I’ve migrated from the Washington D.C. area to various cities along the East Coast. However, more than anything, I believe that it comes down to my childhood memories, when NBA players were my heroes.
I remember playing basketball in my backyard court as a young kid, two to fours hours a day, even when it was raining or snowing outside, and I had to wear gloves to prevent frostbite. Because of the irregular dimensions of the court, the sky-hook from the right corner was a popular shot of mine that I hit with regularity over my younger brother. I even mastered that shot to garner a place on the all-star team for the local Boys and Girls club. I had dreams of going pro, envisioning myself as the second coming of Hakeem Olajuwon. I along with Hakeem and Ralph Sampson would form the Triplet Towers. I failed to realize that genetics play a huge role in the height and size one eventually achieves as an adult.
I continued to believe in this dream of playing in the NBA with all my heart, inspired by the glory days of Magic and Larry and later the ascendance of Air Jordan. And yes, those pesky Washington Bullets (as they were known at the time), that I couldn’t seem to shake. I used to attend Bullets games at the old Capital Center through a promotion that the Bullets marketing folks sold to customers called “The 10 Pack.” Come see Magic. Larry. Jordan. Ewing. Robinson. Barkley. The list goes on and on. Never was a single Washington Bullets player mentioned in the promotion. I got the chance to see a lot of the all-time greats in person. Most people in the arena were there to root for the opposing team, but some, like myself, remained loyal to the Bullets. (I won’t deny, however, that I got extremely giddy whenever my idol Michael Jordan came to town.) I don’t think I can recall a specific instance in which the Bullets won any of these games. They were like the Washington Generals. The laughingstocks of the NBA.
Then, it all came crashing down for me. My pubescent growth spurt came to a stop. I tried hanging onto the chin-up bar I had attached to a door frame, stretching my body torturously like William Wallace at the end of Braveheart in an effort to grow taller. (I had seen Jordan talk about doing it in Come Fly With Me, which I had watched hundreds of times.) I was a 5 foot, 106 pound high school freshman trying out for the freshman basketball team at one of the most storied programs in America, DeMatha High School. A school that had won multiple national championships at the varsity level. I gave it my all during tryouts. But most of the time I found myself cowering under the basket, as these superathlete freshmen dunked all over me. Where had they come from? Why hadn’t I encountered them while I was tearing up the Boys and Girls Club league with my 10 foot baby hook?
Despite this experience, I still remained under the delusion that I could one day make it to the NBA, if only I just tried harder. The harsh words of my high school principal, whom I had met before freshman year, rang in my ears: “You’re not going to be the next Michael Jordan.” I was so naive at the time, that it was one of the most crushing moments of my life. But it served as motivation. Wasn’t Jordan propelled to future greatness because he was cut from his high school basketball team as a sophomore?
You can probably guess how the story ends. This isn’t Rudy, Part 2. I didn’t make it to the NBA. I didn’t even make my high school team. I continued to play basketball recreationally, but I ultimately had to get a real job just like anybody else. My love of the game of basketball, and the NBA in particular, however, remained and has only increased over time.
But before I end this post on a down note, I just want to let you all know that the story hasn’t really ended. The Washington Wizards, that underdog team of loveable losers and misfits, still hasn’t won a championship since 1978, two years after I was born. Thus, in many ways, I find that the Wizards’ historical struggles mirror my own underdog experience and the hopes and dreams I harbored as a child. I identify with the team and live through their ups and downs. Like a true underdog, no one ever expects them to amount to anything. I know, it all sounds kind of silly for a grown man to get so attached to the prospects of a sports franchise. But isn’t that what fandom is all about? Getting the chance to experience winning and losing through the our larger than life sports heroes, to experience that joy and agony, and above all inspiration, as if we were once again kids?
I continue to root for the Wizards. I don’t know whether the Wizards are bogged down in the Second Act of their story arc, or whether they are about to turn the corner into the Third Act. In real life, fairy tales don’t always come true. Imagine my thrill, however, if the Wizards are able finally to hoist that championship trophy, the one act that I had dreamed about doing myself for so many years as a child but will never be able to accomplish. It may not be the same thing, but for me, it’s close enough.
Are your eyes still glazing over?