WASHINGTON - It was about 5:30 p.m. in D.C. when things were just getting started.
There was a street band at the top of the escalator at the Gallery Place Metro station, which is a normal occurrence at Wizards games. They played music ranging from Go-Go, Washington, D.C.’s own percussion based flavor, to smooth jazz to soulful music.
The city was bumping a bit more than usual. There was traffic still siphoning down 7th Street — many of them just transient commoners from nearby areas just trying to make it home after a long day of work.
But after a while, just before traffic began to slow by 6:15, you notice people getting out of their cars to take a load off. The corner of 7th and F Street was just beginning to swell with masses of people who were all there for one thing: To watch the basketball.
Now, that doesn’t normally happen in D.C. Normally, people are too obsessed with the quarterback of the football team to care about who is playing at the “MCI Center” as many locals still call Capitol One Arena. If they’re not doing football, they’re not really into sports. And if they are, they’ll opt for local college basketball teams over the professional one right in the heart of the city.
But on this brisk fall evening, it was basketball’s night in Washington. And, for the city in particular, it was the Wizards’ chance to show they belong.
For the first time in what feels like a few centuries, the Wizards were opening their season at home and on a national stage. ESPN is in town for this one. Two seasons ago, the mere thought of this exact moment was laughable.
But here they were. It’s about 6:30, and the seats are starting to fill in the building. The cameras are setting up, pregame interviews are just about finished and the players are finally beginning to warm up. It’s time. The season is here. Wizards basketball is back and its time to rejoice. Yet, my only thought in the moment was “I wonder if they’ll screw this up.”
The Wizards have a long history of just screwing things up. From the Chris Webber to the years wasted on Michael Jordan to the Gilbert Arenas extension to #KD2DC, the team has always been two steps behind. But on this night they were supposed to be here. This was their opportunity to seize the moment they’d so badly been waiting for throughout the last three seasons.
They still don’t feel like they’re getting their proper respect. On Tuesday morning, the NBA posted an “NBA is Back” poster on their Twitter account with the league’s biggest stars on it. Who was missing? John Wall, of course. His response says it all.
“I’m still a guy that’s looked at under the radar,” Wall said after practice on Tuesday. The mentality of any given team, most times, comes directly from its best players. In this case, many of Wall’s teammates feel the same way he does about this team — they’re underrated and overlooked.
But they’ve got to prove that and have still yet to do that. They had a chance last year, but flamed out in a game seven behind a crazy night from Kelly Olynyk. They had a chance two years before that but fell victim to an injury that kept Wall on the sidelines against the Hawks.
On Wednesday night they had a chance to prove they belonged. They were given the opportunity to make they most of it early on in October instead of having to wait until April. And this time, they came through.
Yes, it’s only one game. But it was one hell of a game. The Philadelphia 76ers are the league’s new darling team behind the charm of Joel Embiid and the sheer skill of Ben Simmons. Their fanbase travels and represented well enough for “Trust the Process” chants to erupt in Capital One Arena throughout the night.
The 76ers gained as much as a seven point lead in the third quarter with Philadelphia fans beginning to drown out Wizards fans in a packed house. The game had a chance to unravel for the Wizards, but it didn’t.
They made kept their composure and went back to what they knew. They made play after play after play despite Philadelphia’s push and an unreal night from Robert Covington with seven made three-pointers.
But there were so many moments where the Wizards just impressed and they seemed to have fun doing it. This incredible dunk on Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot was the first one.
And then, there’s the “black-out” putback dunk from Kelly Oubre that he doesn’t even recall doing.
And how about this lob from Bradley Beal to Wall?
“That’s probably the best lob I’ve ever thrown in my life,” Beal said.
As great as those plays were, none of them would have mattered had the Wizards lost the game. But they didn’t. And that’s the biggest difference between the Wizards now and the Wizards from two seasons ago.
Two seasons ago, they would’ve found a way to lose this game. They’d have left their homecourt in front of millions of viewers with a sparse crowd filled with 76ers fans after taking an L to a rookie and a guy who has only played 31 games in three seasons.
But that wasn’t going to happen here and we all knew it wasn’t going to happen here. Sure, they’ve got some things to clean up. The team only shot 22 total three point attempts, which “isn’t enough,” according to Scott Brooks. John Wall missed 18 shots despite finishing with 28 points, too. Otto Porter and Bradley Beal only combined to make one three point attempt all game.
But they had all of that go wrong and still put up 120 points. This isn’t just a team that has a chance to be good — it’s one that can be great. For the first time in a long time, they belong in the national conversation. And, I have to say, that feels good.