A Eulogy for the Washington Wizards
A casual fan's guide to understand the NFL and NBA lockouts, how Washington played a part, and what it means for the Washington Wizards.
On October 4, 1987 the Washington Redskins took the field against the visiting St. Louis Cardinals at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Northeast DC in front of 55,000 fans. Televised by CBS, the game started at 1 p.m.
In the first quarter, the Redskins got off to a good start when Ed Rubbert completed a 34-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Allen. The two would eventually connect on touchdown passes of 88 and 48 yards to put the game away and bring the Redskins' record to 2-1 on the season.
The Redskins would later go on to win Superbowl XXII against John Elway’s Denver Broncos. But both Ed Rubbert and Anthony Allen, who were making their NFL debuts against the Cardinals that day in October, weren’t part of the Superbowl roster. In fact, no one on the field for the Redskins that day played in the Superbowl. They were replacement players or “scabs,” brought in by the Redskins management during weeks 4-6 of the 1987 NFL regular season.
The Redskins have the distinction of being the only NFL team during the 1987 lockout without a single veteran crossing the picket line. Karma, it would seem, smiled on the 1987 Redskins. The scabs went 3-0, the team went on to win their second championship of the 1980s, and Ed Rubbert became the inspiration for Keanu Reeves’ character in The Replacements.
On July 13, 2008, after sitting out much of the 2007-2008 NBA season with a serious knee injury, the Washington Wizards signed starting point guard Gilbert Arenas to a six-year contract worth 111 million dollars. His contract is know, as a “max contract.” This means that under the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) of the National Basketball Association, $111 million over six years was the maximum amount of money Abe Pollin (the Wizards’ owner) and Ernie Grunfeld (the Wizards’ General Manager) could offer Arenas.
Arenas went on to play very little of the 2008-2009 season. He got in shape for the 2009-2010 and played inconsistently until a handgun incident on December 24, 2009 lead to Arenas being suspended for the remainder of the season. On December 18, 2010, the Washington Wizards traded Arenas to the Orlando Magic.
Lockouts are what happens when sports teams can’t find common ground on things like max contracts, free agency, or how millions of dollars in revenue gets divided between ownership and players. All these issues get included in the CBA and signed by franchise owners like Dan Synder and Ted Leonsis and the unions representing players. This summer both the NFL and NBA needed to renegotiate their CBAs. Both failed.
For the NFL, a league without a revenue problem, there were things to reconsider like the length of the season, rookie salary scales, and health insurance for former players. The big question, however, was who gets what percentage of the revenue pie. Once that got figured out, the lockout ended and play will resume for the Redskins this Friday with their first preseason game.
The NBA, on the other hand, has a revenue problem. The magnitude of the problem may be up for argument, but the problem itself is not. The league lost $300 million last season. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the popularity of basketball in the United States isn’t one of them. In fact, last season was a fantastic regular season followed by an engrossing post-season.
So what’s the problem? Gilbert Arenas made $17.1 million last season as a backup point guard on the Washington Wizards and then the Orlando Magic. What everyone seems to understand but refuses to admit is that middle-of-the-road teams like the Wizards pay superstar money to all-star type players. They pay all-star money to decent players who start games, but don’t get fans excited. The economics don’t work. We have no basketball, and we may not until next year.
I attended my first Washington Bullets game on November 4, 1986 with my father. For me, a lost 2011-12 season would be devastating for a couple of reasons. Here’s the biggest one:
John Wall loses a year in his prime. My favorite sports writer, Bill Simmons, wrote a while back about Dwayne Wade’s season prior to winning the NBA championship in 2006. He may not have won in 2005, but he got valuable experience that contributed to Miami’s 2006 season.
John Wall and the Wizards may not win the NBA championship next year, but John Wall could start to become a superstar, not just the great rookie he was last year.
Lastly, as someone who’s followed the franchise for the last two decades, and understands why the name was changed in 1997 from Bullets to Wizards, I’d love to see the name changed back.
Even before the lockout, I assumed owner Ted Leonsis would change the name after next season. After Ted Leonsis bought the Wizards last year from Abe Pollin’s family, there was a lot of discussion about whether he’d change the Wizard’s name back to the Bullets.
The name change hasn’t happened yet, but this did. Here’s hoping I’m wrong about John Wall and the lost season, and right about the Bullets.