WASHINGTON -- It's become almost a joke around these parts. A middling-at-best D.C. sports team would host a popular team or player and a home game would look and sound like an away game. With the Wizards hosting the Heat, with arguably the most popular athlete on the planet and an enormous following among the NBA's casual fans, more of the same wasn't just expected, it was practically guaranteed.
Forward Trevor Booker certainly felt it.
"At times it did (feel like a road game)," he said. "At one time I think the crowd was chanting 'Let's go Heat!' I mean, we're at home but it goes like that sometimes."
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If you took a survey before the game, maybe half of the fans who showed up would have said they were there to see LeBron James and the Heat. The jersey count certainly reflected this. This disparity becomes even more startling when you consider that the overwhelming majority of season ticket holders, of which there are a few thousand, are dyed in the wool Wizards fans. If you only looked at the StubHub and Ticketmaster folks, you probably wouldn't have even though this game was taking place in the District.
The conflict between those bandwagoners and the actual Wizards fans continued throughout the game. Good news: The Heat came out unannounced to shoot around 20 minutes before tip off to a smattering of boos. OK news: The Wizards followed shortly thereafter to light applause. Not so-good news: Then came James, to a very mixed reaction. The arena erupted in a way that rarely occurs even during basketball games, much less before them.
The national anthem and introductions followed. Despite the PA speaking with his quiet time voice, mumbling something about St. Vincent-St. Mary's High, James was booed heavily, accompanied by light applause from the Miami faithful.
The Wizards events team had a nice feature in which they singled out people in Heat jerseys. Again and again the jumbotron would show fans in Heat jerseys with BANDWAGON FAN and some kind of silly sub-header (apparently it's not cool to like the theme from the Golden Girls). They went back to the well multiple times and somehow it never got old.
Wizards doing a good bit here. pic.twitter.com/EeTZXDrzt8— Hoop District (@HoopDistrictDC) January 16, 2014
Washington came out firing early, playing some of their most energetic basketball of the season and running off of turnovers time and time again. With each dunk, steal or improbable three pointer, the crowd became nuttier and nuttier until the first half of a regular season game in January felt like the fourth quarter of a playoff game in May. Hopefully, every kid who attended their first game became a fan for life. Fifteen years from now, someone's going to write a post for Bullets Forever about how this game made them a Wizards fan.
Nene's block on a James layup attempt at the start of the game got the entire arena hyped. Randy Wittman was impressed.
"It set the tone. Not only for us, for the crowd. That was the first time the crowd really got into it," Wittman said.
Miami started to make their inevitable comeback in the second quarter, and the third was all Heat. Each James dunk was cheered with the same intensity as each big play by the Wizards. Washington fans became more and more muted as stuff like this happened. The Wizards have blown countless winnable games against good opponents and Miami always seems to get lucky in the clutch. Everyone had seen this movie and the ending was almost a given.
For a while it seemed like this would happen. Miami was down nine at the start of the fourth quarter and James is notoriously difficult to guard when he sets his mind on going to the basket. Washington turnovers and spotty defense only made things worse. "He got 26, how you leaving him open!?" a exasperated fan standing behind me shouted as Bosh drained a three.
Chris Singleton hit the last shot for the Wizards and time expired as Norris Cole dribbled the ball around half court. The standing ovation that followed a thing of beauty. Almost everyone came to this game to see Miami. Realistic Washington fans would have been happy with anything short of a blow out. Winning by double digits, though? Now that was unexpected.
After the music stopped and all but a few stragglers had left the stands, Wall spoke about the mixed reaction of the crowd and how they turned around over the course of the game.
"They were excited to see both teams, but those last two or three minutes when it's a game that we can win, that we can make winnable, the crowd gets into it very much." Wall said. "Like I said the other day, we hadn't been giving them what they deserved. Winning games at home and doing better on the road. So we came out and played a great team today and came away with a tough win."
D.C. sports fans have been burned again and again, to the point where it's understandable that the support for the local teams isn't as intense as somewhere like New York or Boston. Things are looking up for the Wizards now, but taken as a whole, the franchise has been grossly incompetent for the last 30 years. The Redskins have had flashes, but every year has been hyped up as the one where they'll make a run for the Super Bowl and yet they haven't won more than 10 games since 1991, two years before Bradley Beal and Otto Porter were even born. If the fans seem like they're dispassionate or fairweather, well, there's a very good reason for that. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me ... you can't get fooled again.
This was just one game, one in which the Wizards got very lucky early on and caught a great team napping. Still, this could be a taste of things to come. If the Wizards can get on track and be consistently good for a year or two, fan reactions like we saw tonight might become par for the course.
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