This Is What It Feels Like To Win The Lottery

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The Washington Wizards have been mired in bad luck with bad management for decades, but even for the Wizards, the 2009-10 campaign was cartoonishly bad. But you know what comes after something horrible? Something good. And John Wall is really, really good.

Well, it worked. The food poisoning really worked.

As I mentioned on Tuesday afternoon, I spent the entire weekend in the hospital, chained to a bed by an IV, enduring all sorts of treatments and tests that I didn’t expect to face ‘till my late 50s. Just miserable in every sense of the word. When I first checked in, after doing some tests, they told me my intestines had collapsed and they’d need to do surgery. With that, they wheeled me away and told me they’d check back in the morning. How is someone supposed to sleep after that?

The next morning, the doctors realized they had misdiagnosed me, and that it was likely just a case of really bad food poisoning. From there, alternating between a doubled-over grimace and a morphine-induced glaze, I sat in the hospital another 36 hours, just waiting for the misery to subside. And even after getting out, it didn’t, really. The antibiotics were their own kind of nightmare, and it’s taken a week for me to get back to anything resembling "full strength."

But those things happen. Everyone gets food poisoning somewhere along the line.

I mentioned it Tuesday not to court sympathy, but as an explanation. After that, something good has to happen. It just does. It’s karma. And that’s why, going into Tuesday, I had a good feeling. My Washington Wizards were going to win the NBA Draft Lottery, draft John Wall and change the trajectory of one of the most downtrodden franchises in sports. It just had to happen.

AND IT F—KING HAPPENED!

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To understand exactly how much this means to the Washington Wizards, there are really three different factors that need to be explained, but we may as well start with the franchise itself. Skip this if you're familiar with what's happened, but the full narrative's not complete without some back story.

And for years, it's been the same story. The nickname "Clippers East" is a good indication of where the Wizards have been for the past few decades, but even that doesn't capture it completely.

The Clippers are bad because they've got terrible ownership and it trickles down to the court. The Wizards? We had one of the most respected owners in the NBA, and we still lost. In some cases, we lost because Abe Pollin was so great.

As I wrote at the time of his passing, Abe was a victim of his own virtue. If he trusted someone, he believed in them through thick and thin—and that meant sticking with Wes Unseld as a general manager for years after he proved incompetent. It meant keeping guys around who may not have been the best option for the team. And more recently, it meant giving Gilbert Arenas about $15 million more than anyone else was offering. Why? Because Gilbert was loyal, and he gave Abe’s franchise a heartbeat right after the greatest player in NBA history had driven a stake through its chest.

If that reads like an indictment, it's not. Wizards fans wouldn't have wanted anyone else running the team but Abe. And as a Wizards fan, I couldn't have been prouder to have Irene Pollin as the one to represent the team last night. But even so, the Pollin loyalty hurt us to some degree. Most years, the Wizards were just irrelevant.

But to the few who paid attention? Well, let's see. A incomplete list of Washington's more crushing disappointments, in no particular order...

  • Acquired Bernard King about three years too late.
  • Traded for star point guard Mark Price, only to have injuries ruin his one.
  • Missed drafting Reggie Miller by one spot. Drafted Muggsy Bogues instead.
  • Traded Rasheed Wallace and Chris Webber too early.
  • Signed Juwan Howard to a franchise-crippling $105 million contract, and he immediately faded to mediocrity, while Webber and Wallace shined for Sacramento and Portland, respectively. 
  • Unearthed Ben Wallace from the basketball netherworld ... and then traded him for Ike Austin, and watched him anchor Detroit's defense for the better part of a decade.

And that's before the failure began to really get biblical. That began to take shape when Michael Jordan arrived to save us from ourselves. In theory, at least, he lent a sense of nobility to a franchise that had been a running joke for my entire life. Problem is, Jordan's nobility became its own kind of curse. His petulant, gargantuan ego engulfed the whole franchise. So when, the media was teeming with loving Jordan tributes back in September for his Hall of Fame induction, I had to recount his tenure on the Wizards. Read the whole thing if you want to watch me call the Greatest Player of All Time a jerk, but his last NBA game really epitmoized the whole experience:

The Wizards showed a 5 minute highlight reel that was 90 percent Michael Jordan on the Bulls. No lurching post-up game, dominating the ball for 10 seconds, before he'd invariably settle for an 18-foot fall away on the baseline; this was the Michael Jordan. The stadium lights were dim, and when they came back on, I was crying a little bit. It was that special.

And then Wizards owner Abe Pollin and Michael Jordan met at center court, where Pollin presented a large charitable donation on Michael's behalf. Pollin took the microphone and spoke to the crowd, thanking Michael for all his contributions to the team, and his hard work in building the franchise. Then, we figured, Michael would take the microphone and thank us, too, for supporting him with sold out games and undying affection. Instead, he waved to the crowd, bowed his head, and left the court without saying a word.

And that's what Michael Jordan will always mean to me: a player that was so good he could literally make you cry, but up close and in the flesh, a pretty cold-hearted guy.

Michael Jordan may have been the greatest player of all time, but as a Wizards fan, I'll take Gilbert Arenas any day.

... Which brings us closer to present day. Nine months ago, that Gilbert Arenas line didn't seem quite so ridiculous. Since then, Wizards fans have watched their one true superstar—after years of getting superstars too late, or giving them up too early, the one guy that truly belonged to this city—suffer one of the more spectacular falls from grace for a superstar in recent sports history.

After emerging as a savior in a vacuum of disappointment, one day, it all stopped. He got injured, then he became angry and insecure. Then he was injured again, and we signed him to a $100 million contract. Then he was injured again, and this year, he got himself suspended for the entire NBA season. Yeah, that whole bringing-guns-to-the-locker-room thing. Put it this way, over the course of a few years, the facade was crumbling on Gilbert's reputation.

But when Gil turned the Wizards into a legitimate laughingstock throughout sports and beyond, the myth of "Gilbert Arenas, Superstar" came crashing down like a 1,000 bricks.

Seemingly overnight, the whole franchise had turned to rubble. Our owner had passed away, our superstar was facing jail time, and when we traded Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison, the "Clippers East" label really became unfair. To the Clippers.

In the span of a decade, the Wizards had been trampled over by the greatest player ever, picked themselves up, lucked into a superstar, built a team around that superstar, and then watched the whole thing come crashing down in spectacular, embarrassing fashion. Where do you go from there?

Nba_g_draft_lottery_580_medium_medium_medium

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

(hold on... let me try that one more time.)

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

That's where you go from there.

It's tough to overstate just how important luck is when building an NBA team. That's the second aspect that needs to be explained in all this. To win in the NBA, you need a superstar. To win a championship, you usually need two superstars, but to enter the conversation, you need at least one.

And for the worst teams in the NBA—real, honest-to-God, losers-in-life like the Wizards have been over the past 25 years—it takes the force of a bona fide superstar to change their fortunes. With someone good enough to dominate on a nightly basis, it lifts everyone. Look no further than Arenas for proof. When Gil was good, he made flawed players like Larry Hughes and Jamison look like all-stars, the Wizards played to sold-out crowds, and the whole league took the Wizards seriously.

With a superstar around, everyone has a little extra confidence, and the effects are tangible. In the players, in the fans, even the owners, who suddenly become a little more willing to spend money.

Imagine putting Kevin Durant or Derrick Rose on any of the other 28 teams in the NBA. No matter how bad the roster, how dire the financial situation, and how apathetic the fans, put one of those guys there, and suddenly, everyone looks better. Imagine Derrick Rose on the Timberwolves, for instance. Overnight, Al Jefferson goes from a flawed franchise player to a perfect second option. Ryan Gomes becomes a nice spot-up forward for Rose on the drive-and-kick, and Kevin Love's impeccable rebounding and outlet passes suddenly mean something.

Or take Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City and put him in Memphis. With OKC, the Thunder are left with Russell Westbrook as their best player, a point guard that can't shoot and can't really play the point. That, and Jeff Green becomes the most inconsistent, flawed second option in the history of second options. Even with some of the other great prospects in Oklahoma City, there's no way that team wins 35 games next year. Over in Memphis, though, Durant immediately makes O.J. Mayo his Russell Westbrook, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph become a deadly low-post combo as teams pressure Durant on the perimeter, and Rudy Gay becomes one of the better second options in the league. With Durant on board, Memphis becomes a legit contender in the West.

Simply by showing up, a great player can transform a roster from incomplete to intriguing.

But it doesn't just happen to teams. It takes a lot of luck to unearth the kind of player that can transcend years and years of bad karma simply by suiting up. That's why Arenas was such a windfall for Washington, and why his subsequent disgrace left fans so crestfallen. We had one... And then we had to watch him destroy his career, step-by-step.

But now?

It's like the Basketball Gods have given Washington a much-needed mulligan. A chance to start from scratch with someone legitimately worthy of the throne.

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Now, if you think I'm about to dial back the hyperbole on John Wall, then you clearly haven't been reading me for very long. And honestly? I'm okay with it. All the hype, all the expectations, all the pressure. Wall can handle it. Some people are just built to win, and with Wall, it's obvious. That's why I'm assuming the Wizards take Wall over Evan Turner or anyone else. Players like Wall just don't come along very often.

Before he'd even played a college game, I wrote a column just gushing with hyperbole over what he'd do this season in college basketball, and beyond. As I wrote way back in November:

...it's incredibly rare for a point guard to leave fans shaking their head in disbelief. More common are the Steve Nash, Jason Kidd-types, who methodically dissect the opposition with a series of pinpoint passes and efficient offense. And that's pretty great, and the sort of stuff that any true basketball fan can appreciate.

But John Wall plays a style that's liable to make heads explode. Whether you're a novice or an expert, John Wall does things that'll amaze you. The moments in sports that prompt fans to audibly gasp are rare; football has a few, occasionally a walk off home run will do it, and let's throw in the odd hockey goal just for fun.

On the whole, though, those "gasp-worthy" moments are what makes basketball attractive to average sports fans. ... A true hoops addict will watch just about anything--but the majority of basketball fans are there because they want to see something that takes their breath away. Something to leave us just plain dumbfounded. Whether it's a buzzer beater, a jaw-dropping dunk, or an ankle-breaking crossover on a fast break, in no other sport will you hear crowds audibly gasp as often as you do in basketball.

And John Wall will take your breath away more than most.

That article published on the afternoon of Nov. 16. That night, Wall hit the game-winning shot in his first game at Kentucky. You can say the hype's overblown, but  Wall has exceeded his considerable billing every step of the way.

In December, I went to Kentucky and experienced this firsthand. Afterward I wrote, "He's not so much a freshman as an NBA player playing college basketball. Carolina's Larry Drew vs. John Wall was like pitting a golden retriever against a cheetah. It's not the dog's fault when that fight turns into a slaughter. It's just... nature. Do you ever wonder what it would have looked like had Lebron gone to college? This is it."

His play leveled off as the season went on, mainly because the college rules made it easier for teams to guard him, he still can't hit a jumper consistently, and on a nightly basis, teams geared their defense around stopping him. But that's the thing that has me most excited about all this: the NBA's completely different. Where college rules may have constrained him toward the end, the NBA will unleash him like never before.

It's a point guard's league these days. The rules in recent years—a crackdown on hand-checking, relaxed rules on moving screens—have made it even easier than ever for players like Derrick Rose and Deron Williams to bully their way into the lane, and suddenly, calling point guard the "most important position on the floor" is no longer a tired cliche from CYO ball. Deron Williams, Chris Paul, Steve Nash, Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo ... These are some of the best players in the entire NBA. And John Wall's got a chance to be as good as any of them. Or better.

He may not make the Wizards into immediate contenders, but to even the most stone-faced NBA scouts, there's really no debate that the ingredients are there for Wall to be really, really special.

And suddenly, the rest of the Wizards roster—once reduced to rubble—now looks kind of intriguing. They've got eons of cap space for either this summer or next, they've got a few talented young players like Andray Blatche that they can either keep or get rid of, and even Gilbert Arenas suddenly looks like an asset again. Not in the superstar mold we'd once cast for him, but maybe as the Larry Hughes to John Wall's Gilbert.

Simply by showing up, Wall transforms the Wizards from one of the league's truly hopeless destinations into a real-live NBA team. We may actually sign a free agent this summer!

Star-divide

And it's perfect, really. Because after something bad happens—the Wizards' 2009 season or my food poisoning, whichever you prefer—something good has to happen. That's not always the way the world works, but that's the way it should work. And Tuesday night, it worked. 

The Wizards won the chance to draft the best pro prospect in America, and one of the better prospects to emerge over the last decade. It won't make us winners automatically, but 24 hours ago, "winning" seemed a long, long ways off. Now? Not so much. After careening off the rails and over a cliff this past season, the Wizards are suddenly on a track that a lot of NBA teams would envy.

Who knows whether John Wall will turn out to be the superstar Washington expects, or, even if he does, whether that'll translate to a winning team in D.C. Those are questions that can't be answered for years. What do I know now?

Food poisoning was totally worth it, and being a Wizards fan just became a million times more fun.

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