Back when the Bullets fell off the NBA map in the 1980s, they tried to sell tickets to their games at the Capital Centre by promoting the opponents as in: come see Magic Johnson and the Lakers; come see Larry Bird and the Celtics; come see Michael Jordan and the Bulls; and so on.
Three decades later, the Bullets have switched names (Wizards) and arenas (Verizon Center), but with a 5-21 record, they’re facing the same problem. Trouble is that other than the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant, fellow Los Angeles superstar Blake Griffin of the Clippers, and homegrown hero Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who each visit Washington no more than once a year, none of today’s opposing players generate the same excitement that Magic, Bird and Jordan did back in the day.
Actually, there is one other NBA player who elicits strong reactions. However, it’s hard to imagine Wizards owner Ted Leonsis and his fellow marketing mavens promoting the appearance of one of Washington’s most despised athletes.
That’s right, folks, LeBron James makes his first visit to Verizon Center tonight along with the rest of the defending Eastern Conference champion Miami Heat.
I’m sure that the 27-year-old James is good to his mother and that he has his chauffeur help little old ladies cross streets, but in the nation’s capital, he’s sports enemy No. 1 (at least with Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins sidelined with the long-lingering effects of a concussion). Redskins fans hate the Dallas Cowboys and Nats fans have come to detest the Philadelphia Phillies, but two-time NBA MVP James has a special place among Washington’s tormentors.
Not since Mario Lemieux was skating for the Penguins more than a decade ago, has one athlete dealt one of our teams so many devastating defeats as James, who led the Cleveland Cavaliers past the Wizards in the playoffs in 2006, 2007 and 2008. Those were three of Washington’s five trips to postseason since the Reagan Administration which ended in January 1989.
Surprisingly, the Wizards actually used to fare well against five-time All-NBA first-team pick James and the Cavs, winning seven of the 11 regular season meetings before that first playoff showdown.
However, since then, not only did James and Co. go 12-4 against the Wizards in those trio of first-round playoff matchups, they went 8-6 against Washington during the 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 regular seasons.
Wizards guard John Wall, who followed James as the top overall pick in the NBA draft by seven years, was participating in his first rookie minicamp in July 2010 on the night of the much-hyped ESPN show “The Decision” and postponed media interviews until “King” James announced he was leaving his native northern Ohio for South Beach.
That kind of deference to James is all too commonplace for the Wizards, who went 0-4 against the Heat last year and trail LeBron, Dwayne Wade et al by a whopping 14 games just seven weeks into this season.
If you want to see one of the greatest players in NBA history in person, come to Verizon Center tonight. Just make sure that — unlike the 1980s when Magic, Bird and Jordan, were cheered — you boo the man who ruined the Wizards’ best shots at the franchise’s first championship since 1978.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.