Washington’s True Dysfunction: Basketball’s Woeful Wizards

While lawmakers prepare for the looming fiscal cliff, the team’s pro basketball team has gone over the edge. Lloyd Grove on the capital’s most painful dysfunction.

Rob Carr / Getty Images

There’s perfection—the ideal of flawless precision and beauty, like an exquisitely cut diamond—and then there’s the perfection of the Washington Wizards, the professional basketball team of the nation’s capital.

“Yeah, they’re perfectly dreadful,” says ESPN sports broadcaster Tony Kornheiser. “They’re terrible. They’re really terrible.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong, except the chemistry isn’t right,” laments District of Columbia Councilman Marion Barry, the city’s flamboyant former mayor. “This has been a downhill spiral ever since 1984,” when the team was called the Bullets, Barry adds.

On Wednesday night, when the Wizards face the Portland Trail Blazers on Washington’s home court at the Verizon Center, there is every likelihood that they will amplify their perfect record of failure, humiliation, and defeat with a 13th straight loss and zero wins this season. At this rate, when they play the New Orleans Hornets Dec. 11 in an away game, they could match the New Jersey Nets’ infamous 0-18 record at the start of the 2009-10 season. [On Wednesday night, surprisingly enough, the Wizards ended their losing streak by beating the Trail Blazers 84-82. Whether their razor-thin reversal of fortune can be sustained is a different question, however.]

At which point the Wizards might even surpass Congress and the White House as the gold (well, maybe the fool’s gold) standard of Washington dysfunction.

“I don’t know that when people look at the Wizards, gridlock is the first thing that comes to mind,” Kornheiser says. “I don’t think the Wizards are looking at a fiscal cliff. They are looking at an actual cliff that they could go over.”

Diehard Wizards fan and season-ticket-holder Luke Russert, son of the late Meet the Press moderator Tim Russert, sees Washington dysfunction every day as a Capitol Hill correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC.

“Right now, I have more hope for Congress than I do for the Wizards,” says Russert, who loyally (masochistically?) attends almost every home game.

Yet many fans are simply not showing up, leaving plenty of empty space these days in the 20,000-seat Verizon Center. “At one point tickets were selling on StubHub for as low as 35 cents,” Russert says. “For a dollar, you could bring a date and still have enough money left over for bubblegum.”

“It’s just too painful,” says a wealthy fan who, with an associate, spends over $100,000 a year for four seats on the floor and sometimes has trouble filling them. He spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to antagonize former AOL mogul Ted Leonsis, the Wizards’ current owner. “It seems at this point that dysfunction and defeatism are institutionally baked into the culture of the team.”

It’s difficult to pinpoint when—and especially why—things began to turn completely sour. In the Wizards’ incarnation as the Bullets (a name that was changed in 1997, during the second Barry administration, out of then-owner Abe Pollin’s wish to dissociate the team from D.C.’s rampant gun violence), they actually won the championship in 1978. Yet it’s hard to remember the halcyon days of Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, much less the excitement of the early 2000s when Pollin lured Chicago Bulls deity Michael Jordan out of retirement to be the Wizards player–president–minority owner; before Pollin fired him after two seasons, Jordan led the team to the sort of respectable won-loss record it can only dream about today.

Coaches and players have come and gone; the Wizards changed their uniforms (from red-white-and-blue to teal-and-gold and back again) and their taglines (from the chest-thumping “Ready to Rule” to the appropriately humble “Character, Commitment, Connection”), and Marion Barry is not alone in marveling at the miraculous survival skills of president of basketball operations Ernie Grunfeld, who assumed Jordan’s duties in June 2003 and remains to this day.

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“Too long,” Barry says with a mirthless chuckle. “In this game, your general managers and coaches don’t stay long if they’re not winning.”

The situation turned especially dire during the 2009-10 season, when all-star guard Gilbert Arenas—he of the six-year, $111 million contract—brought four unloaded handguns into the Verizon Center locker room amid a long-running trash-talking dispute with Wizards teammate Javaris Crittenton. In an insane display of oneupmanship, Crittenton allegedly produced his own gun and chambered a round. The NBA commissioner suspended Arenas indefinitely a month later after he jokingly formed his hands into pistols and pretended to be shooting his teammates during a game against the 76ers in Philadelphia. (Arenas apologized and pledged “to do better in the future.”)

Leonsis and Grunfeld promptly traded him to Orlando, and today he’s playing basketball in China; according to the Washington Post’s Michael Lee, the Wizards, nearly three years later, remain “haunted” by the incident, which Barry ruefully characterizes as “people pulling guns and all that kind of crazy stuff.”

Kornheiser says: “Since the Gilbert Arenas incident the franchise has just been crushed, and they get worse all the time ... I don’t know what’s going on with them.”

Leonsis, meanwhile, has tried to create a fan-friendly atmosphere of open communication since he increased his ownership stake from minority to majority in June 2010. He even established an email address to interact personally with kibitzers.

But this past June, as the Wizards pursued their race to the bottom, Leonsis announced he was discontinuing the back and forth. “At this point,” he wrote on his blog, Ted’s Take, “I am receiving fewer and fewer productive emails that offer constructive criticism.”

No doubt.

After Monday’s 118-92 loss to the San Antonio Spurs—a game that seemed competitive until, as Kornheiser puts it, “the Wizards descended into their Wizardness”—Leonsis sounded dispirited and depressed.

“It is getting tough to write loss after loss,” he wrote. “I know it is getting old for our fans too. But there is nothing for us to do right now but to heal and bond as a team to get our first win of the season. I understand the anxiety and pressure that is out there. It is all on us, and we must find a way to navigate through it all.”