[Editor's Note: dedicated Wizards fan, TAI reader, and current Atlanta resident (but from Maryland), Conor Dirks, attended Wednesday's heart-breaking loss to the Hawks at the Philips Arena. Below is Conor's account from the experience. Follow him on Twitter: @ConorDDirks.
The process that I undertake in order to watch each Washington Wizards game here in Atlanta is a complicated one, and often mirrored in its tedium and futility by the game itself. But when the team comes to town, streaming the game on my television through a laptop propped upside down to keep it from overheating and having to get up every fifteen minutes in order to keep the screen saver from interrupting the crushing defeat just isn’t enough. So on Wednesday night, I ventured to Philips Arena to see my hometown team play a better team in a town I’ve lived in for the past three years.
But not before listening to some pre-game music: “Unhappy” by Atlanta’s own Outkast.
Appropriately nihilistic, I thought, due to the absurdity of my enduring fandom. The hook gleefully notes: “Might as well have fun ‘cause your happiness is done and your goose is cooked.” A bird reference on the night before Thanksgiving. This imperfect connection to a man in his late twenties going to see the Wizards likely lose their 10th game in a row to start the season called for a gigantic pre-game beer. And/or something stronger.
I saw exactly one other Washington fan at the game tonight. Definitely dispels the myth that Wizards fans travel to see their team play. That wasn’t a myth? It didn’t need to be dispelled? Still, the Bradley Beal jersey was a welcome sight. Jordan Crawford was out on the court around an hour before gametime, shooting (and draining) three-pointers and displaying some impressive high-sock steez, with his socks pulled up over his warm-up pants. A few Hawks coaches seemed to clown him and try to tug the pants free, but he would have none of it. As I walked back towards the drink, I got the first good news of the night. Pre-game internet rumblings proved to be true, and Nene was dressed in a Wizards uniform, not in an ill-fitted Men’s Wearhouse suit.
Over the last few years, I’ve been to several Hawks regular season games, a few playoff games, and one preseason game. The preseason game has the distinction of being the only time I’ve ever arrived to find my seat unoccupied. My favorite seat-squatter was “Cool Dad Jason” from the Oklahoma City game last season, who brought his young kids to the Hawks game, got blasted, asked my friend and I over and over again whether we had kids, and always followed up our answer with: “Usually I don’t either, they stay with their mom.” High fives all around. Luckily, Philips Arena has one thing in common with Verizon Center: lackluster attendance. So while there was definitely a guy in my seat tonight, there were zero human beings in the next three. When I sat down, the guy next to me apologized if he was in my seat, and then alerted me to the tater tots he had stopped eating and placed underneath the seat I’d just settled into in lieu of my own.
While I was trying to guess which member of the Hawks would join Al Jefferson and Roy Hibbert and be the guy in post-game interviews to mention how darn hard the Wizards had played for their coach in the loss (Kyle Korver? Al Horford?), the Wizards starting lineup was announced. Some weird science on this night: Shaun Livingston, Jordan Crawford, Bradley Beal, Jan Vesely, and Kevin Seraphin. Someone has to say it: was this an elaborate plot to excuse Beal’s mediocre shooting by imposing the same conditions (playing him out of position) that were used to excuse his mediocre shooting at Florida?
The Hawks fans in front of me were incredulous: “Ariza needs to start, he ain’t no scrub.” Other notable quotables from the same guy included “They got Okafor? He’s just coming in the game? Why are they so bad?” and “We never should have traded Jordan Crawford.” Some things look just the same on television as they do in person: Jan Vesely can’t catch a basketball if he is doing anything at all other than concentrating completely on catching a basketball.
Growing up in Maryland, and later when I lived in D.C., I took the red line to Gallery Place fairly often to sit in the cheap seats. Uphill both ways, in case you were wondering. While Wizards games are often plagued by uninterested interns who won the raffle at their non-profit and felt obligated to go because “the seats were really good” and late-arriving professionals who shamelessly root for the other team, Atlanta attendees are nearly unanimous in their support for whomever the announcers sound excited about. The Highlight Factory is an Atlanta date institution. I once spotted Ludacris and Ne-Yo at a Hawks game with two lovely young ladies between them. Of course the Kiss Cam tried to exploit the situation, with mixed results (Ne-Yo planted a soulful smooch on the woman next to him, Ludacris reluctantly allowed his date to brush her lips against his cheek). It’s also a haven for incredibly kinetic children. All of which amounts to a generally oblivious fanbase that is more interested in the timeout entertainment and requires the piercingly realistic shriek of a hawk as a post-score soundbite to remind them to cheer. Oh, and anytime anyone says “Lou Williams,” get ready to be surprised. No one missed the memo: he is from Atlanta.
So, at halftime it was a close game! Fears about gigantic runs by the other team at the beginning of each half and after Wizards timeouts aside, I was grateful that “the guys played hard for ol’ Coach Witt and Team President Forever and Uncle Ted because they are professionals and they have pride and you can’t take them lightly and…” Can I stop now? The Wizards are winless and it is becoming increasingly difficult to watch them discover new ways to mangle the final five minutes of a game. The team hanging around against a better team is probably just as unsatisfying for me as it is for Ted Leonsis, as he tries to find a way to name-drop John Wall injuries in every blog post on Ted’s Take. A horrifying thought: perhaps the reason that Coach Randy Wittman can’t find a consistent starting lineup is because of the marginal difference in talent between the starting and bench units, making for weak starters and above-average bench players no matter how you arrange the pieces.
The Atlanta cheerleaders (they don’t call them “dancers” here; you can blame Club Onyx and the Clermont Lounge) really outdid themselves tonight. Shedding the ‘80s neon garb they used for their Madonna “Material Girl” number (why?!), they came out next with perplexingly engineered bikini tops. I believe Kyle already attached the image to a post, but this child is priceless, so here’s the video:
Another big difference in crowd culture between D.C. and Atlanta is that an Atlanta crowd, despite its meager size, lives for “De-fense” chants, mid-play hand clapping and prompts to scream. No need for the decibel meter here, y’all. As a Wizards fan, it is great to see Kevin Seraphin silence those gimmicks. It’s also great to see him go through the motions, look in control, and take what are becoming his two shots again and again: the jump hook and the free throw jumper. My friends here rarely want to know about Wizards role players, so it’s great to see lesser-known guys like Seraphin in person and validate the belief that he would build on how he ended last season without being reminded of how great he is becoming by Steve Buckhantz and Phil Chenier. The last time the Wizards played in Atlanta, Seraphin was nowhere near this skilled. It shows, independent of the commentary.
As the fourth quarter wound down and the Wizards were increasingly “in” the game, I couldn’t help it. Despite better judgment, I started to imagine the Washington Post sports page headlines involving a Washington win and Thanksgiving. 0-10 just doesn’t sound like it could happen. Washington was getting stops, forcing turnovers, and then, unfortunately, letting Trevor “the Professional” Ariza LOL around and compile one of the most misleading stat totals in recent memory.
The offensive rebounds by Atlanta after multiple sets of missed free throws in overtime, the go- ahead make by Seraphin, the big shot by perennial Wizard-killer Kyle Korver, the barely too-late tip in after the buzzer… they all add to a narrative that is becoming far too
predictable. Unfortunately the positives are probably enough for Ted Leonsis to allow Mr. Grunfeld to continue to pleasantly surprise the general managers of opposing teams. The team’s best outcome of the season, a last-second loss in overtime on the road, coincided with Nene’s first action of the season. Grunfeld draft pick gem Kevin Seraphin played exceedingly well. Trevor Ariza’s self-rebounding mania fueled a respectable stat line, and no one was obviously outmatched tonight other than Jan Vesely. Other teams seem content to play along, watching Washington court victory before slamming the door shut, as Atlanta did tonight. For the record, the Atlanta Hawks TV host beat all Hawks players to the “they play hard” punch, making mention of Washington’s chippiness in the first question she posed to Al Horford.
As for me, I zipped up my otherwise unnecessary jacket to cover up the 2011-12 John Wall tee, headed for the MARTA and tried again to just start liking the Hawks already. Wouldn’t it be nice? They have a winning record the year after trading away their All-Star guard. They make the playoffs annually. Their GM, Danny Ferry, engineered a brilliant salary dump within days of being hired. Most importantly, their arena is around one mile from where I live. Alas, it never works. Blame Gilly Arenas, or the WizzNutzz, or what Michael Jordan said to Kwame… I just can’t quit this train wreck.