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Arts and Entertainment

Play Dates
By Washington Post
Nov 4, 2005, 08:33

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By Eve Zibart
Friday, November 4, 2005; WE31

THERE IS nothing like a game. Nothing in the world.

In the age of big-screen TVs and HDTVs and streaming video and sports bars with so many monitors they're like TVplexes, going to see a game in person can be a hard sell. But no cute computer tricks or high-tech stats can replace the physical excitement, the tracking of strategies or the buildup to the big play. And where else can you see the mayor of the District of Columbia miming "Y.M.C.A."?

With MCI Center at its heart, the entire Penn Quarter neighborhood has become a sort of arena -- bright, bustling, a little loud and a little showy. Fans gather at their favorite watering holes before the game; fans and players head out for chow afterward. Celebrities drop in on games: Last season Brandy came to see then-fiance and Knicks star Quentin Richardson, then of the Phoenix Suns, when they played the Wizards, and Charlotte Bobcats part-owner Nelly came to see his friend and then-Wizard Larry Hughes. E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren, who wrote "Bullets Fever" for the team that won the 1978 NBA championship -- the same season that Bullets Coach Dick Motta turned the immortal sports prayer, "It ain't over till the fat lady sings," into a team rallying cry -- is still a regular attendee. Columnist George Will is a season-ticket holder. Former president Bill Clinton has been (President Bush has not). Former Redskin Charles Mann is a Mystics man; so is CNN's John King (and "Washington Week" host Gwen Ifill). Even upper-echelon military officials such as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Richard Myers have been known to take a break to the ball court now and then.

When you talk to them, you find that every player, fan and official has his or her own history with the game. It's not just a matter of the couple of hours before tip-off, it's the real pregame, their first sports experiences and the excitement it engendered that they've never forgotten. That shared nostalgia produces at least a temporary community: Call it Wizards World, Caps City, even Mystics Harbor. And there are the postgame rituals: a beer, a burger, second-guessing and scapegoating, player sightings and maybe an autograph or two.

Dave Johnson, WTOP Radio sports director and longtime Wizards radio network play-by-play announcer, has seen the difference MCI Center has made to the city.

"It still amazes me every time. A few years ago, I could do a pregame stand-up in the middle of Sixth Street because there was nothing going on. It was more like a movie set than a neighborhood. But a few weeks ago, we tried to go to the movies down by the arena before the game and couldn't get in to grab lunch because every place was packed. It's changed everybody's consciousness of the city.

"I think it was [the iconoclastic baseball team owner] Bill Veeck who said a ballpark should be a happy place. Well, MCI is a happy place. There's just so much buzz and energy that goes through the crowd. It's part of the dynamic of MCI; it starts on the subway, it's already like a party while they're streaming in the gates and comparing notes and competing to get on camera. And after a victory, the feeling on the streets is wild; people are screaming and yelling. After they clinched the playoffs last year, I mean, it was like Mardi Gras out there."

Besides, Johnson adds, "a game is a great date night -- no awkward silences. And because of all the stuff around MCI, if the date goes well you can still go out to dinner. If it's not going well, at least you got to see the game."

This weekend, the joint'll be jumping. Saturday marks the home opener for the Washington Wizards (against the Orlando Magic), and the Caps are at home Friday and Sunday vs. the Atlanta Thrashers and Toronto Maple Leafs, respectively.

Since Saturday's game is the Wizards' official housewarming party, so to speak, they're hosting a street fair on F Street NW between Sixth and Seventh streets from 5 to 7 with face painting, live music and dancers, clowns, balloon artists, stilt walkers and interactive games; player and cheerleader autographs on the concourse starting at 6; a red carpet entrance for local VIPs; dancers on the 400 level of the arena; and the unveiling of the season's new pregame video. Tickets are still available for all three basketball and hockey games, so come see for yourself: There really is nothing like a game.
The Pregame

Capitals captain Jeff Halpern goes back a long way with hockey: He started skating at 3, got his first stick at 4 and played on the Little Capitals, the Caps' elite-level traveling youth team. In his memory, he was usually racing to see the faceoff of the Capitals' games.

"It seems like I was always about five minutes late from hockey practice or soccer practice or something, and I'd be running through the concourse [at the Capital Centre] looking through the aisles and seeing the ice and the players. . . . I play center, and I was always watching the center man, seeing how they got open, how they interacted with other players."

Defenseman Mike Green was about 10. "It was the Calgary Flames versus Colorado and was really different. I mean, my mom and dad had always watched it on TV, but it was so much faster and there were all these plays happening, hits the television doesn't show, and the noise was so much more intense. The other night when we got into a shootout with Tampa Bay, it felt like the fans were right on top of us. They were just so involved and excited."

Many retired Caps still show up for games, including Bryan "Bugsy" Watson, who goes to games even though he owns a sports bar in Alexandria. Watson, who grew up about two hours outside Toronto, remembers going with his Cub Scout troop to see the Maple Leafs play the Montreal Canadiens.

"Growing up in Canada, hockey was what it was all about. . . . It was every boy's dream to play in the NHL," Watson says.

"Back then there were only six teams, and you knew all the players. And we didn't wear helmets back then. That's one drawback about helmets: From a safety point of view, they're great, but from the TV view, all you can see are red or blue or white helmets, and you've got to look at the numbers. Back then we could tell from the tilt of the head or the haircut who it was."

Wizards head coach and Washington native Eddie Jordan, who played for several teams in the NBA before becoming a coach, vividly remembers the first time he saw a professional basketball game. "I was probably in 10th grade at [Archbishop] Carroll High School. Coach [George] Leftwich took us up to the Spectrum in Philadelphia to see a 76ers game. It was really smoky in those days, you know, and we sat in the dark in these great seats and the court looked just like a stage: The players were under these bright lights, and they were moving just like it was choreographed, cutting and passing and running back and forth. The interaction between the players was amazing."

Harvey Grant, the Wizards' director of player development, was a fan first, too. He saw his first game at the legendary Madison Square Garden when Bernard King, who would later play with Grant on the Bullets, was playing for the New York Knicks. "Watching him, and then later getting to play with him and learn from him, it was great." Although he could have his pick of sky suites, Grant still loves the lower-level seats: "It's almost like you're right there on the floor."

Even for non-players, those early games are ineradicable. CNN's Wolf Blitzer, a Wizards (and GW Colonials) regular, grew up in Buffalo, and he remembers going with his father to the Triple A baseball Bisons' Offerman Stadium, the sort of place where $1 got you parking on someone's lawn and the fans who lived out beyond right field could watch the game from their roofs. "I was about 10, and I remember I was so struck by how green the field was, it was just stunning. And it was only later I realized that it was because I'd only ever seen it on a black-and-white television."

One of the Wizards' other celebrity boosters is NBC's Tim Russert, another lifelong sports fan who is also from Buffalo. His first memory of going to a game is of the same team, the Bisons, and the same stadium, Offerman -- and also about going with his father. And he has passed the flame on to the next generation.

"My greatest pleasure is to go [to games] with my son Luke, who's now away at Boston College," Russert says. "He's really great; he picks up on all sorts of stuff, like, 'Look who didn't suit up' or 'Did you notice who's got an ice pack on his knee?' He checked out the Wizards schedule, and there are three great games during his Christmas vacation, so he's already sent me an e-mail. He's like, 'Better hold the tickets for those games, big guy.' "

"If you grow up going to games with your parents and your friends, it can trigger really good memories," WTOP's Johnson says. "Something magical happens to kids when they go to games. I love taking my 6-year-old, Pierce; I love seeing that sense of wonder he feels and watching his eyes get great big when he sees this larger-than-life stadium and lots of lights and all the loud noises and 20,000 adults acting like idiots -- I mean, it's not preschool anymore."

The Caps' Halpern and his father, Mel Halpern, actually started hockey together. When Jeff started lessons, Mel, a New Yorker who'd played street hockey but never ice-skated, began playing in a novice league that allowed the two to play together, "but he passed me quickly," Mel admits.

Ted Leonsis, the majority owner of the Caps and a minority partner in the Wizards and Mystics, saw his first pro contest, a Yankees game, at 6. "I remember that day -- I'm almost 50 now -- and I remember that like it was yesterday. I remember experiencing that bonding with my dad." He saw the New York Rangers play the Boston Bruins at the old Madison Square Garden when he was 9, his first basketball game at 11. Starting when he was 10, his annual Christmas gift from his father was season tickets to the New York Jets. "So that was a big thing, me and my dad going to games."

It was passing the tradition that got Leonsis into the owner's box. When America Online Inc. bought his company and he became vice chairman, he got Caps' season tickets behind the visitors' bench, and he and son Zachary, then about 6 or 7, began going to the games.

"One day they were playing the Bruins, and after the game one of the players caught Zach's eye and gave him a puck and a stick," Leonsis says. "He showed it to everybody in the neighborhood and we had it framed. And he became a real hockey fan and he started playing hockey. So we'd go to games together, and the year the Caps went to the Stanley Cup finals [1998], after they'd won the Eastern Conference, they had a ceremony to hoist the championship flag. [Caps owner] Abe Pollin and [president] Dick Patrick were on the ice, and Zachary and I were in the stands, and as the flag went up I just said out of the blue, 'Wouldn't it be great to own a professional sports team?' And a few months later, after seeing a story about the things I wanted to do before I died, Dick Pa t rick called and asked if I wanted to buy in!"

Even better, Leonsis says, he later found a photograph of that ceremony in the Caps' locker room, and when he looked closely at the fans in the background, he found himself and his son in the crowd, looking up at the flag.
The Main Event

There is no way, fans say, to understand the energy of a live game except to experience it.

"Remember that great old Broadway show 'The Roar of the Greasepaint -- The Smell of the Crowd'?" Russert says. "It's like that. Basketball is the one sport where the energy and the raw noise can really influence the game. I've seen it time and time again: The crowd gathers momentum, and all of a sudden the players are doing things they didn't even know they were capable of. It's wonderful to find yourself leaping out of your seat and giving a high five to the guy next to you. It's such a great outlet, such a release for me.

"And you're surrounded by people who are real fans. I don't know the people around me -- I mean I know their first names, I don't know their last names -- and I don't really need to know. We have a sense of community. I grew up in Buffalo, where everybody knew everybody else. We had a party line, my aunts and uncles would pick up the phone, you know. We have a much more remote lifestyle in the 21st century, but you go to the game and it is like a community. It's white collar and blue collar, black and white, Virginia and D.C. and Maryland, and people are holding up 'Kiss me!' signs and going crazy. It's just fun. It's fun to have fun."

"The players are just marvelous athletes," says James Carville, the Louisiana-born former Clinton adviser and famously feisty political commentator. "And you know, the refs are really good, too. They're really well trained, but they're personable, too. They might give you a wink or something, and maybe if there's something you don't like and you let them know it, they might come over and kinda say, 'No, you don't understand the rules,' and you're like, 'Oh, sorry, ref.' "

"Washington is, or at least is perceived as, a stuffed-shirt town," says Wizards announcer Johnson, "but when you see people like Tim Russert up there going nuts, standing up, waving his arms with his face all red and shouting, it's hard to believe.

"Being at the event just brings out the kid in everybody. People just get younger when they go to the game. I see it every night, when I take off my headphones and I look around at the people up on the Jumbotron and even the most reserved person is suddenly silly. I looked up at Mayor [Anthony A.] Williams during the playoffs last year, and he was dancing to 'Y.M.C.A.' Suddenly everybody's singing to bad songs from the '70s, and the shy people are dancing. And a little funny and a little silly goes a long way."

Blitzer agrees. "People here work all day, and they want to escape; they need a break. I have a lot of pals that I see at the games, and it's just great. Especially when they're winning."

The energy goes both ways. "Having the fans behind you gives you more jump on your stuff," says Capitals center Brian Sutherby. "When you're at a real game, you're closer to the players, you're closer to the action; you can comprehend how fast the game is, how physical it is and how complicated it is."

"When I'm playing," Halpern says, "I'm pretty focused and I don't so much notice the fans, but before the game when you're sitting on the bench and the arena's full, it's a great feeling."

This season, National Hockey League officials have instituted new rules designed to boost the game's "entertainment, skill and competition," in that order. The ice's offensive zones are larger and longer passes are allowed; a shootout has been added after five minutes' OT; and there is "zero tolerance on interference, hooking, and holding/obstruction," which is likely to result in more penalties and more power plays (when one team has a manpower advantage because the other team has players in the penalty box).

Former Cap Watson believes that "from the spectator's point of view, all the rule changes and the increase in penalties could be very exciting, because with all the power plays you'll be seeing the best players many more times in a period. It used to be you might only get to watch the best players like Wayne Gretzky five or six times in a period; now they may play half the period."

Defenseman Green says that even with the new penalty rules, fans will see plenty of action. "There's still going to be the big hits, the fights, the setups, the ways the players react on the bench, the way the crowd reacts."

MCI Center has become the catalyst for a huge restaurant boom and consequently a new residential constituency. Capitals teammates Sutherby and defenseman Steve Eminger, who spent the last two years rooming together in Annapolis, recently moved to within blocks of the arena -- joining a half-dozen Caps already in the neighborhood. "We practice more, we hang out together, we can be in a restaurant after the game within, like, five minutes. It's just a really great atmosphere."

Before coming to the Wizards, Jordan was on the coaching staff of the New Jersey Nets and living in Princeton, N.J., "in the middle of a lot of farmland, so just to be back in an urban setting was a thrill. I like the energy here. I'm here by about 6:30, and I stay all day until the game is over. In fact, when we first moved here we lived right downtown, just a couple of blocks from MCI Center, so we have a lot of favorite restaurants. My wife and I like to go for dinner at Oceanaire or maybe Ruth's Chris Steak House. The coaches go out for lunch together a lot, and we like McCormick & Schmick and Legal Sea Food, or sometimes we get pizza from Matchbox."

Russert is usually racing from the office -- "I'm compulsive about being on time; I really like to be in my seat for tip-off" -- but sometimes grabs dinner at Legal Sea Foods or Poste.

Blitzer, too, is usually coming straight from the office. "But on weekends, if the game is a little earlier, my wife and I sometimes get together with some friends and go out for dinner afterwards: the Capital Grille, Zola, Zaytinya. Jaleo, my wife really likes that. . . . But we don't rehash the game too much [at dinner]. I'm a great fan, but at the end of the game, you win or you lose, you talk about it a little, and you move on."

Blitzer may be in the minority there: The postgame buzz is pretty loud.

"The fans are the thing that makes a great stadium," says Ernie Grunfeld, longtime NBA player and Wizards president of basketball operations. "We have extremely knowledgeable fans who understand the finer points of the game and enjoy it. People come up to me all the time and ask me about a certain player or something that's happening with the team. I'm a fan of the game. I'll talk basketball anytime. Our players like to get out and rub elbows with the fans."

Leonsis talks game before and after. "Basically, I'm at the arena a half-hour before the game. So if it's hockey, I'm probably walking around talking to the fans, and maybe I'll go down to the locker room. If it's basketball, I'm probably standing in line trying to get a hot dog or something to drink. Then after the game, we'll go to Zola or Zaytinya, or the Caucus Room or Rosa Mexicano."

Carville's fuel of choice is Texas or Tex-Mex style: Rosa Mexicano, Chipotle and Capital Q barbecue. "There's almost too many restaurants down there," Carville says. Halpern mentions the Capital Grille and Drinx, the new restaurant adjoining MCI Center.

Wizards guard-forward Jarvis Hayes has developed a low-key pregame routine -- he takes about 200 shots and then goes to his locker and meditates for a while -- but he gears up after. "Some of us'll go out for dinner afterwards -- the Capital Grille, McCormick & Schmick, DC ChopHouse, Zola, Poste -- and we love it that there are fans all around us. The fans are great, and we appreciate it when they acknowledge us, you know. I don't mind when they ask for autographs, at least in an appropriate way."

Wizards rookie guard Donell Taylor, famous to followers of the NCAA tournament for the no-look, over-the-head pass he hauled in at the far end of the court from his twin brother, Ronell, when they were playing for the University of Alabama-Birmingham in 2004, is just learning his way around. Taylor has been living at the Hotel Monaco since signing in August and still has more collegiate dining tastes along the lines of Ruby Tuesday or Fuddruckers. But he has also been taking advantage of Penn Quarter's other riches, the museums.

"I really like it here," he says. "If we're not working, I just walk around."

Russert, as usual, gets the last word. "I remember seeing a California restaurant praised in a review as having good food, good atmosphere and good customers. That's exactly it: Going to a game at MCI is the perfect mix of great local restaurants, great players and great fans." And he'll be back next week.

Eve Zibart is from Nashville, home to the two-time EHL champion Dixie Flyers in the '60s and now home to the NHL Predators.

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