clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

How the 1997 playoffs and a father-son relationship made me a fan for life

How my Wizards fandom blossomed with the 1997 Washington Bullets, my late father and a dramatic playoff game.

This piece was originally published in 2009. We're resurfacing it as part of SB Nation's "Why We Are Fans" series.

Why do we root for the professional teams we root for? How do we become fans of a specific team?

These are questions that fascinate me. I've had many friends who prefer college sports to professional sports ask me how I can root for a professional franchise when I have no direct affiliation with the club. They argue that they can root for their college team because they attend or attended the school and feels a connection to the university, but they can't root for a professional club because they don't feel that same connection. It doesn't always make sense to them that I feel some sort of connection when they don't.

I always tell them that sports fandom is funny. People become fans of specific teams for reasons that are entirely based on their own experience. Maybe some of them are former athletes themselves who weren't good enough to make it to a next level and still wanted to experience the camaraderie they experienced when they played. Maybe some of them just feel a very big connection to athletics in their city. Maybe a friend turned them on to the team, or maybe they just like the feeling of being a part of a social circle that shares their interest.

Personally, I'm a fan of the Washington basketball franchise because their games were the source of my fondest bonding experiences with my late father. He grew up a big Boston Celtics fan, but once our family moved to DC, he elected to quench his basketball thirst by joining in on a Bullets season ticket plan with four of his co-workers. They split two seats about 10 rows up in a 100 section, each getting 10 games. My dad's co-workers took their wives, their friends and occasionally their kids. My dad always took me and only me. Never a friend, and rarely my mom or my brother. It was pretty much just me and him.

He did that every year from 1994 to 2001. Game 3 of the 1997 first-round series against Michael Jordan and the Bulls was the climax of that experience.

It was a game we weren't even supposed to attend. My dad didn't have priority for playoff tickets, so one of his other co-workers scooped up the seats. I was ten years old at the time and no team tickled my sensibilities more than the 1996/97 squad. Rod Strickland had just come over in a trade and I immediately loved his up-tempo hot-dogging (literally) style. Calbert Cheaney was a mainstay at shooting guard, a guy who I thought was about 100 times better than he actually was. Juwan Howard and Chris Webber need no introduction; this was back when they were actually fan favorites. Gheorghe Muresan was easily my favorite player on the team -- one could say he was my Brendan Haywood before Brendan Haywood was a pro. Tracy Murray, Chris Whitney, Jaren Jackson, Lorenzo Williams were all fine by me. About the only guy I didn't really like was Harvey Grant, for reasons that make no sense to me now.

So when the Bullets beat Cleveland on the last day of the season to clinch a playoff berth, I was excited to attend my first ever playoff game. I expected it. Imagine the disappointment of a 10-year old fan when I was told we didn't have tickets to that game.

My dad must have sensed my disappointment. He was always the type of person who didn't want recognition for his actions. It just gave him joy to see the people he loved enjoy the good deeds he did. So, in retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised when he told me that he got us seats somewhere else in the building for the playoff game, only to find upon arriving that those seats were literally five rows up from the court in the corner of the stadium. To this day, I don't know how he managed to secure those tickets for us. It's one of those things I prefer not to know.

No matter how it happened, I was going to a playoff game in Washington D.C. in a series that was actually quite competitive. The Bullets had already earned the Bulls' respect with a fast finish to the season and two very competitive performances in the first two games of the series. The Bullets were below .500 for much of the year until coach Jim Lynam was fired and replaced by Bernie Bickerstaff. Bickerstaff simplified the offense, giving Strickland more freedom to create off the dribble, and the Bullets flourished because of it. In the first two games of the series, the Bulls had trouble putting the Bullets away before finally winning. Even in Game 2, when Jordan exploded for 55 points, the Bullets were down just three points in the game's final minute. This is all a long-winded way of saying the Bullets actually had a legitimate shot to win Game 3.

To say that USAir Arena was loud that night would be an understatement. There were so many games my dad and I attended where the stadium was so dead that the only voice you could hear was former superfan Robin Ficker's as he heckled the opposing teams' bench. I actually attended a Bulls game during the 1995/96 season when all our players were injured, and there were more Bulls fans in the stadium than Bullets fans. But in this game, the place was packed with Bullets fans screaming at the top of their lungs. It was like being at a Warriors playoff game in 2007, except the noise meter was about ten times as loud. My dad was never the type of fan who got rowdy and I could tell the loud crowd made him a bit uncomfortable, but he still put on a happy face because he knew I was enjoying the atmosphere.

You all probably know about the game itself (if you don't, just watch the video). The Bullets raced ahead to a huge lead early, hitting their first six shots, and the place went absolutely crazy (my dad definitely should have invested in earmuffs). The Bulls craftily climbed back into the game, slowly, but surely, like champions. They eventually took the lead in the second quarter because the Bullets' bench was awful that year and extended their lead in the third quarter. The Bullets fought back late in the third, sparked by Murray, and eventually had a nine point lead midway through the fourth before Jordan and Pippen hit some incredible shots to bring the Bulls back into the game.

The Bullets eventually took a one-point lead with 22.1 seconds left. The Bulls had the ball and a chance to take the lead. Now, the biggest problem with the Bullets all year was that smart teams would expose Muresan's lack of mobility and pick and roll him to death. Bernie naturally overreacted and would sit Muresan for too long and bring in Harvey Grant, and the Bullets would promptly be unable to rebound or score effectively because Grant was a complete zero at that point of his career. This time, worried about the screen and roll, Bickerstaff left Muresan on the bench and put Grant in. Naturally, Grant forgot to cut off the baseline when Scottie Pippen caught Jordan's errant shot, eventually fouling Pippen right at the basket for the three-point play. Did I mention that Grant was my least favorite player on the team?

There was still a chance after Pippen missed his free throw. Strickland pushed the ball up quickly looking to make a play, and Cheaney sprung open on the left wing. Strickland's pass was way off the mark though, and Cheaney was very out of rhythm when he caught it. I contend to this day that if Strickland delivered a better pass, Cheaney would have knocked down the shot. As it stood, the game ended and the Bullets lost.

That was as good as it gets for my early sports fandom. Eventually, the Wizards moved into the Verizon Center and our seats got worse. We still went to the games, but with worse seats, a less intimate setting and a worse team, the games weren't quite as fun as they were before. By the 1999/00 season, more of my dad's co-workers were in our group, so we were going to less games than ever before. Oh, I still had a great time and my dad and I continued to bond, but we never had a moment that came close to that 1997 playoff game that concluded with the entire stadium giving that club a standing ovation.

In the summer of 2002, my dad passed away in a single car accident. The story goes that he was working so hard at work that he wasn't sleeping much and dozed off at the wheel that morning. I still find that hard to believe and I wonder whether he might have suffered a heart attack or a stroke of some kind while at the wheel. It took me a couple years until I could really become the same superfan of the Wizards as I once was. Occasionally, I would go to a game with my mom and my brother, but it really wasn't the same. I became a Wizards fan because of my dad, and it didn't seem right to root for them so vigorously without him.

It wasn't until early in the 2005/06 season when it really felt right to get back to the level of fan I once was. The only problem was that I was in Boston surrounded by non-Wizards fans, so I started blogging in hopes of connecting to other Wizards fans. I know for sure that, if a site like this existed back in 1997, my dad would have been a prominent user.

Shortly after he passed away, we took a trip to his office to collect his things. My mom had just bought him a digital camera for Father's Day and he had already been using it extensively. When we opened the bottom drawer of his desk, we found a brand-new digital camera. I can only assume that he bought it just before he received the gift for Father's Day and did everything he could to hide it from my mom so she'd never know he already had a digital camera. He was willing to sacrifice the one he picked out so he could make his wife happy by using the one she bought him.

It was that kind of selflessness that caused him to give up his Celtics fandom to become a Bullets fan so his kid could walk his own sports fandom path. It was that kind of selflessness that caused him to go out of his way to get tickets to Game 3 of the 1997 playoffs even though he didn't like really loud crowds. It was that kind of selflessness that made me a Wizards fan.