It’s hard not to watch the Wizards’ playoff run.
They’re young. They’re exciting. They’re from Washington.
This is Baltimore. Just down Interstate-95, about 35-minutes south, is Washington. Baltimore isn’t Washington–and the Wizards aren’t the hometown team.
For a decade, the Civic Center–Baltimore Areana/First Mariner Arena–housed the red-white-and-blue uniforms that represented the city’s NBA franchise. And then, after the 1973 season, they whisked away to the greener pastures of the Washington DC suburbs of Landover.
And, like that, the Bullets were no longer property of Baltimore.
Though the franchise made an effort to travel to Charm City for several home-games each year, it was never quite right; almost like having dinner with an ex-girlfriend who says she’s confused and needs space, but you know she’s been sleeping with some other guy for quite some time.
On a personal level, a kid like me never knew any better. Born in 1983, I knew nothing other than vivid memories of Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, told to me by my basketball-crazed father.
Sure, as a kid we watched the Bullets on Home-Team-Sports (big-time throwback), and we went to any games that the team played in Baltimore–even though it was routinely against bottom-feeders like the Barkley-less-Sixers, the Laettner-led Timberwolves, or the JV team that used to be the New Jersey Nets.
Rex Chapman bombing threes over Hersey Hawkins, or Pervis Ellison going body-to-body with Dwayne Schintzius, wasn’t exactly a premier brand of basketball–but it was all Baltimore had.
As a kid, it was perfectly acceptable to run around the Bear Creek and West Inverness playgrounds with a handmade Tom Gugliotta jersey while bellowing out “Guuuuuuuugs.”
Ah, but ignorance is bliss. As time went on, it became more and more apparent that the Bullets couldn’t really care less about Baltimore.
Even though mainstays like Wes Unseld and Phil Chenier claimed love for Baltimore and its fans who created a college-type of atmosphere, the organization decided that in 1997, it was the end of the yearly trips to Baltimore–officially closing the door on memory lane.
By 1998, the re-branded Wizards took to the court at the newly constructed MCI Center in the heart of one of the worst crime-laden neighborhoods in our Nation’s Capital. And, even though Baltimore has been the backdrop of drug-infested war-stories like HBO’s The Wire, try and convince a Dundalkian, Overlean, or Parkvillian to venture into DC.
You’d have a better chance of convincing a Fallston girl to leave a Fed Hill bar and go to a keg-party in a Dundalk basement.
And that’s just it. It’s not that Baltimore and its fans lost interest in the Bullets-turned-Wizards. It’s that the franchise lost interest in its roots.
The official statements that the organization made and would continue to make if anyone still asked the question, would be that they aren’t going to keep piling into a dilapidated arena when they have a newer facility less-than-an-hour away.
But there’s more to the story than that; perhaps most importantly, it’s not the arena that the Bullets-Wizards franchise shunned, it’s the fans.
The fans of Baltimore who had memories of Gus Johnson and Elvin Hayes. The fans who clamored to get tickets to watch a couple of games per year from obstructed view seats. The fans who still think that the Wizards are part of Baltimore.
And that’s what it’s become. A fallacy of what once was.
These days, as a kids who never really knew the Bullets like my dad did, I watch the Wizards and appreciate their youthful enthusiasm and the growing chemistry of budding superstars like Bradley Beal and John Wall.
But I look at them as I look at Oklahoma City’s franchise; or Indiana’s, or Brooklyn’s.
This is Baltimore. And while it’s certainly understandable to like the Wizards and enjoy their run in the playoffs, it’s important to remember, they’re Washington’s team–not Baltimore’s.
Baltimore is watching–albeit from a distance.