Page 2 columnist
WASHINGTON -- Here's a topic for your next Sports Bar Argument Du Jour: Other than the L.A. Clippers, which sports franchise has been the unequivocal Perennial Loser of the past 20 years?
|Who should follow the Clippers on the Perennial Loser list of the past two decades? I narrowed my list of candidates down to 10: The Cleveland Cavaliers, Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay Bucs, Montreal Expos, Washington Capitals, Sacramento Kings, Hartford Whalers/Carolina Hurricanes, St. Louis-Arizona Cardinals; Detroit Lions; and New Jersey Nets. Given that their franchise has been devoid of star power and anything remotely approaching an extended playoff run over the years, I'm pencilling the Cardinals in behind the Clips at No. 2 (figuratively and literally), with the Nets right on their heels at No. 3. At least the Nets had that fun season when Micheal Ray Richardson stayed off the smack and helped them beat the defending champion Sixers in '84; they're also lighting it up so far this season. I can't remember a high-caliber Cardinals season that didn't involve Rod Tidwell. When you're referring to the Good Old Days, and Jim Hart and Terry Metcalf are prominently involved, that's practically a cry for help. Here's the rest of my list: 4) Whalers-Hurricanes; 5) Expos; 6) Seahawks; 7) Caps; 8) Kings; 9) Bucs; 10) Cavs.|
And it's not like D.C. fans were treated to a cavalcade of Hall of Famers over the past 30 years. Excluding the Unseld-Hayes tandem, here were your top winter stars in D.C. since the late-'70s, in no particular order: Scott Stevens, Jason Allison and Chris Webber (left town before they realized their potential); Bobby Carpenter and John "Hot Plate" Williams (never reached their potential); Jeff Ruland; Moses Malone, Bernard King, Spencer Haywood, Michael Jordan and Jaromir Jagr (achieved their glory somewhere else); Peter Bondra, Rod Langway, Adam Oates, Dale Hunter and Olie Kolzig (no "Sports Century and Beyond" potential in that group).To recap: Not one D.C. winter athlete has played at a Hall of Fame level for an extended period since Unseld and Hayes in the late-'70s (and remember, they were two of the least exciting superstars in the history of the league). That defies the parameters of bad luck, doesn't it? Would you believe me if I told you that the only retired numbers in the MCI Center belong to Hayes, Unseld, Gus Johnson, Dale Hunter, Yvon Labre and Rod Langway? Well, believe me. That's it. That's the list. What about memorable moments for the winter teams since that Bullets-Sonics double whammy in the late-'70s, you ask? As amazing as this sounds, when Les Boullez (what Tony Kornheiser derisively dubbed the Bullets, probably my favorite derisive version of a team nickname in sports history) dragged a terrific Celtics team to six games in the 1982 Eastern Conference semis, that was their most memorable playoff push of the past 20 years. They haven't even won a playoff game since 1983. Look it up. And the Caps have enjoyed just two extended playoff runs in their franchise history -- a loss to the Bruins in the 1990 Cup semis, and a thrashing from the Red Wings in the '98 Stanley Cup finals (their first and only time playing for the Cup). Wait, it gets worse: With only six retired numbers, one championship and two conference championships between the two winter teams in the past three decades, the MCI Center actually displays two "Southeast Division Champion" banners for the Caps (from 1999 and 2000) to fill space on the ceiling. Hey, Caps owner Ted Leonsis won his Roto hockey league back in 1997 ... can we put a banner up there for that one, too? And then the fans enter the equation. As we mentioned in Monday's column, D.C. revolves around the Redskins and college hoops; everything else places a distant third. So you have two crappy, charisma-less franchises competing against one another for fan interest, for an extended period of time, in a climate that conditions fans not to care about them in the first place.
Now that is depressing.Fortunately for D.C. fans and local-area scalpers, things seem to be on the upswing. MJ might not have hooked the Wiz up to the Juvenation Machine -- after all, they were never juvenated in the first place -- but he revived interest in the franchise and turned them into a bona fide marquee team (at least until his 39-year-old body finally stopped cooperating). As long as there's a hint of MJ in the air, the Wizards remain legitimate; the greatest NBA player of all-time, and he's playing in D.C.. Who cares if his body gave out after just 50 games? Getting Jordan involved with the franchise, then back on the basketball court has to be the most underrated coup by a sports franchise in recent memory. And the franchise is finally headed in the right direction, with a genuine offensive threat in Rip Hamilton, a tantalizing young big man (Kwame Brown), some capable role players (Chris Whitney, Tyronn Lue, Christian Laettner, Courtney Alexander), tons of cap space after the 2003 season, and the outrageously inept Unseld (for my money, the worst front office exec of the past 20 years) relegated to answering phones for MJ. At least 10 other NBA teams have a murkier future. When's the last time you could say that about Les Boullez? As for the Capitals, four years removed from their startling Cup appearance (did that even happen?), they can throw Bondra, Sergei Gonchar, Kolzig, Brendan Witt, Oates, Jagr and a bunch of no-names out on the ice every night. Isn't that better than half the teams in the NHL? Um ... I'm asking you ... honestly, I have no idea. The NHL died for me about six years ago. But for the purposes of this column, we'll say that, yes, they're in OK shape. (Actually, my buddy/D.C. tour guide Joe House claims the Caps have an above-average array of talent, and since he was buying drinks during Sunday's Caps-Oilers game, I'll believe him. During that same game, Bondra netted an electrifying hat trick, Olie the Goalie shut Edmonton down in the final two periods, and I drank two Bloody Marys. It doesn't get much better than that.)
Take it from someone who attended back-to-back Caps/Wiz games on Sunday and Monday night: D.C.'s winter sports fans aren't bad. They had every reason to pack it in years ago, but they keep plugging away and supporting these two teams. Glancing around during Sunday's meaningless tilt against the no-name Oilers, I noticed the place was covered with fans wearing Caps jerseys, and the 400 level of the stadium (the cheap seats) were packed to the gills.The crowd maintained a solid level of energy throughout -- clapping like crazy for every goal, making up derisive chants about opposing goalie Tommy Salo, paying homage to Olie the Goalie at every turn, cheering lustily during the obligatory fight, even tossing their hats onto the ice after Bondra's hat trick. Just a fun game with a good group of fans. Honestly, I was impressed. Monday's Celts-Wiz game wasn't quite as impressive, mainly because of the same problem that plagues every NBA team: Too many pricey seats, too many businessmen and snobby upper-class people hogging the good seats, too many die-hards crammed in the nosebleeds, too many annoying subplots during timeouts, too much Jumbotron, too many wildly overpriced food/drink items, too many, too much, too many, too much. Nobody loves the NBA more than me, but there are roughly 934 reasons why it isn't FANNNNNN-tastic. It's the league of excess, on just about every level. Still, it was an above-average NBA crowd for the Wizards game; enough die-hards were scattered around the good sections that the game remained lively throughout. And thanks to my ESPN expense account, House and I scalped $100 seats (facing the Wizards bench, even with the foul line, six rows up) for face value. Why, thank you, Disney! It was like paying for the tickets with Monopoly money. I almost offered the scalper $200, the B & O Railroad and two immunities.
And if that wasn't enough, my beloved Celts pulled it out in the end, thanks to 37 for Paul "The Truth" Pierce (including a 25-foot dagger in the final minute). As House and I were leaving the game, we quickly agreed that both games -- Caps-Oilers and Celts-Wiz, two forgettable games in the middle of March -- exceeded anyone's expectations.Truth be told, it was a surprisingly enjoyable two-day stretch of sporting events at the MCI Center, courtesy of the most dreadful winter professional sports tandem of the past 25 years: The Caps and Les Boullez.
|***** ***** *****|
They definitely kept everyone's attention. I can't remember attending another game in which fewer fans left their seats during the break. That led me and House to decide that Vince McMahon needs to launch an XBA basketball league -- minor-league hoops crossed with an actual strip joint. The luxury boxes could be converted into VIP Rooms. Cheerleaders could walk around the loge section and hand out lap dances. And we could have five minute spurts of hoops action, followed by the P.A. announcer saying, "Coming up next on our center stage at midcourt ... Dominique!" I really think this could work. By the way, I'm drunk again.
- LET'S BLOW AFGHANISTAN BACK TO THE STONE AGE! GO CELTS!
-- Don Rumsfeld