As I make the case for Washington D.C. as a basketball town, I realize that I really couldn't be picking a worse time to make this argument. On average, the Wizards are only filling the Verizon Center to 73.4 percent capacity, despite having John Wall and JaVale McGee, who consistently deliver enough highlight value to cover the cost of tickets every night. To say there's a little bit of malaise, at least among the basketball ticket-buying sector, would be an understatement.
But once you tear away at that veneer, there's a lot of things going well for basketball as a whole in Washington D.C. Though it may not stir up the same level of passion that the Redskins do 16 times a year, the sport as a whole has a deeper connection with the city. No sport has given more to D.C. than basketball, and D.C. has given more to basketball than any other sport.
Cities create identities centered around their best exports. And when it comes to athletics, Washington's best export is basketball. Football may have basketball beat in the sheer number of players they've sent to the pros, but basketball has received the best of what this city has to offer. D.C. has provided the NBA with four Basketball Hall of Famers (Elgin Baylor, Dave Bing, Adrian Dantley and John Thompson), a future MVP in Kevin Durant and James White, who just might be the best dunker on the planet.
Washington also has a way of cultivating their best basketball talents for more than one use. Wes Unseld guided the Bullets as a coach and a General Manager after his playing days were over. After some good years with the Bullets in the eighties, Jeff Ruland is back in D.C. coaching the UDC Firebirds. D.C. native Eddie Jordan led the Wizards to four playoff appearances and the franchise's first playoff series victory in over twenty years during his tenure as Wizards' coach. And of course, there's John Thompson, who led the Hoyas for years after growing up in the city.
Even today's current crop of NBA players find ways to connect with the city beyond their professional contributions. Kevin Durant and Jeff Green have each made trips to play in the Goodman League and Kenner League during the offseason over the past few years. Gilbert Arenas and Andray Blatche have made guest appearances over the years as well. Once this city takes hold of a player, it doesn't let go easily.
Basketball has deep roots here that can only be grown and nurtured by a steady stream of hoops action all year long. On any given night, you can enjoy the Wizards, or any one of the seven D-1 schools within a long three-pointer of the beltway. If that's not amateur enough for you, high school hoops give you an opportunity to discover the next Durant before he hits the national stage. And even after basketball season is over, there's still plenty of basketball to enjoy during the summer months, thanks to the Kenner League and the Goodman League. There isn't another sport in this area that can match the quantity or quality of action you'll find in the nation's capital.
Of course, the center hub of all the basketball action in this city is the Verizon Center, and in its short history, it has provided some memorable moments that have developed Washington's basketball legacy. The BB&T Classic is entering its 16th year of existence, with a strong set of three games slated for this Sunday, including the headline matchup between the Maryland and Temple. The Phone Booth has also hosted several NCAA tournament games over the years, most notably George Mason's upset of Connecticut in the Elite Eight in 2006. In 2003, it hosted the Jordan Capital Classic and LeBron James' final game as an amateur. It's also one of the few arenas that can claim Michael Jordan played as a member of the home team. It's no Madison Square Garden, but it has certainly carved out a larger place in sports history than FedEx Field or Nationals Park.
The knock on this town has always been that it's a little more transient than most, making it harder to develop a fan base that sticks with its team from generation to generation, like you see in Cleveland, Pittsburgh or St. Louis, for example. But in basketball, a sport where devotion to a player over a team and liberated fandom is embraced more openly than any other, the transient nature of this town makes it easier to appreciate the sport as a whole.
Unlike other hoops-happy cities like Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago or New York, Washington has never fully embraced one team as their own above all others. Even when the Bullets won the NBA Championship in 1978, they never were able to captivate the city like the Celtics, Lakers, Bulls and Knicks have in their heydays. Instead, D.C. has become a place where fans of all devotion and affiliation can come together and talk about the players, teams and moments they've enjoyed as fans. In a town known for its bitter, partisan politics, Washington D.C. has emerged as a place where all basketball fans can enjoy a beautiful sport, unless you like LeBron James.
I'll be the first one to admit that the Redskins will always be the most important team in this city, win or lose. However, the strong, yet unique history Washington D.C. has developed is undeniable. Everything from Elgin Baylor's rise from the D.C. streets to a Hall of Famer, to the Bullets NBA Finals victory in 1978, to the Patrick Ewing era at Georgetown, to Len Bias' untimely death, to Kwame Brown, to George Mason's Final Four run, to Gun-Gate ant everything in between have molded Washington D.C. into a true basketball town. Success hasn't followed this team at every turn, nor have the fans, but this city will always hold a much more special spot in basketball lore than any other sport.