- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The game is out of hand. You can tell by the glazed looks, the lopsided score, the seated, satiated crowd.

Mostly, you can tell by listening to the broadcast crew.

How about Gilbert’s shoes, matching the orange jersey?

He’s always pretty much color-coordinated.

A recent night in Dallas. The Washington Wizards are trailing the hometown Mavericks, down 32 points with a minute left in the first half. There will be no theater, no captivating back-and-forth. Just two more quarters of lopsided basketball. Even Dallas assistant coach Avery Johnson looks ready to take a nap, his chin nesting in his right palm.

Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas toes the free throw line, shoes in sync with his creamsicle-colored throwback jersey.

“He makes a fashion statement,” Wizards play-by-play announcer Steve Buckhantz says. “There you go. Gotta like that.”

“Socks and everything,” color commentator Phil Chenier adds, marveling at Arenas’ pumpkin-striped socks. “Gotta look good, too.”

Arenas releases a shot.

“Sometimes it’s better to look good,” Buckhantz says. “You always looked so good.”

“Nah,” Chenier replies with a laugh. “It’s better to play good.”

Sure is. But let’s be realistic. Yogi Berra once said it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. He also said 90 percent of the game is half-mental, along with some other dumb stuff. The fact is it’s often over before it’s over, over before Al Michaels can make a veiled reference to the Monday night point spread, over — in the case of the Wizards against the San Antonio Spurs — shortly after the opening tip.

Ask the Maryland men’s basketball team: Blowouts happen.

But that ain’t half bad.

As the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles gear up for the Super Bowl, network executives and non-gambling football fans alike are hoping for a nail-biter, a taut contest decided by a goal-line tackle or last-second field goal. Not here. What’s better than a laugher? A beatdown? A one-sided pasting to rival Reagan-Mondale?

To put things another way: Where have you gone, 1989 Denver Broncos?

Anyone can appreciate an instant classic. What about instant duds? Contrary to popular belief, lousy games have a charm all their own, one Washington fans should learn to appreciate — unless you think the Nationals somehow can contend this season, in which case we would like to sell you a primo stadium location in upper Northwest.

Herein, the unsung joys of a whitewash:

Vive Le Blowout!

Liberty, equality, fraternity. Such were the daily talking points — granted, Robespierre probably didn’t call them that — of the French Revolution. Good enough to spawn both the Enlightenment and tasty, cooked-in-lard French fries? Good enough for everyone.

Yet close games offer nothing of the sort.

Tight games are greedy the way infants are greedy. They Hoover time, demand attention. Every possession counts, which means you actually have to watch every possession. Forget about washing the dishes. Forget about going to the bathroom. You’re essentially enslaved.

Ask yourself: Do you really want to make like Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange,” only strapped to your own couch and subject to an endless loop of “Numb3rs” promos?

Bad games are different. Liberating. They won’t tear down a statue of Saddam Hussein — or even free Grenada — but they will allow you to breathe. Go ahead, get a pretzel. Do the crossword puzzle. Change the channel. Blowouts beg for multitasking. It’s a Blackberry world. Most sportswriters can’t be bothered to watch a game in its entirety. Why on Earth should you?

Besides, close games are divisive, pitting fan against fan, brother against brother, tastes great against less filling. Laughers unite — everyone in the building would rather be somewhere else. And what is the wave if not a celebration of our common, uncommonly bored humanity?

Turn down the loud music. Take away the dancing girls. Look within. Lopsided games are a perfect opportunity to talk, to reconnect with each other, all without shouting shared profanities at Duke’s J.J. Redick.

Play your cards right and you may even find a date at a Wizards singles night — something that won’t take place if you’re banging ThunderStix during Antawn Jamison’s free throw routine. How’s that for fraternity?

Continuing education

A close game is the star of its own show. The announcer gives you down and distance; the color commentator uses the telestrator to point out that a nice pass was, in fact, a nice pass, perhaps by drawing a few squiggles around the ball.

Otherwise, there isn’t much time for schtick. Or even Tony Siragusa.

“The determining factor is what’s going on on the field,” Fox football producer Mike Burks says. “If it’s a tight game and every play is critical, it’s not the same as a one-sided game where you’re trying to retain viewers.”

Thank goodness. Whitewashes force broadcast crews to improvise, open Al Capone’s vault, release every last bottle of musty statistical whiskey. Anecdotes and trivia come tumbling forth, delightful non sequiturs in tow. You can learn a lot by listening — at least enough to win a bar bet — as the guys in the booth thumb through their media guides.

Some random facts from the Wizards-Mavericks game:

• Alan Henderson was the NBA’s most improved player in 1998.

• Laron Profit is the only player in ACC history to rank in the league’s top four in steals for four seasons.

• Chenier, a former Bullet, wore No. 31 in college. He thinks.

Beyond numbers you don’t know, bad games provide a stage for players you don’t see — the huddled, bench-riding masses, yearning to be free of their warmups. Garbage time can be funny, such as when Darko Milicic doinks another dunk. It also can be telling: Before he was the NBA’s defensive player of the year, Ben Wallace was a raw but rebound-happy Wizards sub. Anyone who saw him play knew he had a future.

Speaking of which: Wallace was traded for Ike Austin, a doughy malcontent who promptly ate himself out of Washington. Did then-personnel czar Wes Unseld bother to watch his own crummy team? Or was he busy trying to remember Chenier’s college number?

Less hassle

With four and a half minutes remaining in the Wizards-Mavericks game, the seats behind both teams’ benches emptied out. Fair-weather fans, afraid of a chance encounter with Mark Cuban? Uh-uh. More like savvy commuters, getting out while the getting was good.

On a practical level, one-sided contests reduce hassle. Bolt in the third quarter and you will beat traffic; stay until the bitter end and it’s 45 minutes of gridlock. And that’s just within the FedEx Field parking lot.

Then there’s the matter of sleep. Bush-Kerry? Up all night, eyes on Ohio. Clinton-Dole? In bed by 11, television off. Do the math: Watching a bad “Monday Night Football” game at home is like living on the start time-friendly West Coast, only without California’s surfeit of culture and intellectual stimulation.

(Sorry, Golden Staters, but the Golden Globes don’t count.)

Scoreboard doesn’t lie

Close games can be dishonest. They mask deficiencies, give teams an inflated sense of self-worth. Five years ago, the Redskins botched a last-minute field goal and lost a playoff game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Looking to take the next step, Washington signed an “I Love the 1990s” fantasy trio of Bruce Smith, Jeff George and Deion Sanders.

The end product? Three games of Terry Robiskie. And a truckload of unsold “Sack King” T-shirts.

Bad games make everything plain. Delusions and illusions melt away. The strip-mined Toronto Raptors are years behind the Wizards. The Wizards aren’t close to challenging the Spurs. Fans and front-office personnel alike can plan accordingly — no dealing for overpriced team cancers who will “put us over the top,” no plunking down playoff deposits for clubs about to grow old and/or self-destruct.

Conversely, blowouts throw the superior team into sharp relief. Following USC’s demolition of Oklahoma, Auburn’s feeble claim to a share of college football’s national title rang hollow. The Trojans were No. 1. This was fact; it was not in dispute, any more than Matt Leinart being the luckiest man on Earth not in charge of his own sultanate.

Again, consider politics. The hotly contested 2000 presidential election touched off a grating bicker-thon over stolen votes and hanging chads, judicial authority and the tuck rule. On the other hand, November’s contest yielded cool, clear resolution — even if the subsequent Black Tie N’ Boots inaugural ball was almost as annoying as a near-Constitutional crisis.

(Dear Texas Republicans: Some of us live next door to the Wardman Park Marriott. We also have jobs that require us to get up in the morning. Y’all turn the music down now, y’hear?)

Still, it’s hardly surprising the 2000 election would unleash a torrent of partisan bitterness. (Al Gore’s tragically misguided facial hair? Different story). Wizards coach Eddie Jordan jokes that tight contests nearly give him heart attacks. He’s talking about wins. Last-second losses are bitter pills, the sort of thing that stays with you.

“I couldn’t sleep after we lost to Detroit,” says Arenas, recalling the Wizards’ 107-105 buzzer-beating loss to the Pistons on Dec. 29. “You start thinking about plays, a call here or there.”

Blowout defeats are easier to swallow. Nagging what-ifs? Gut-gnawing reversals of fortune? Not here. After the Wizards fell to the Mavericks, Jamison stood at midcourt, sharing a laugh with his former Dallas teammates. Arenas horsed around with ex-backcourt mate Jerry Stackhouse. Letting go is mostly painless, so long as there’s nothing left to salvage.

“You can’t get mad,” Arenas says. “When you get blown out, you have to just forget it. It’s going to happen.”

True enough. So why not try to enjoy it? Let the Super Bowl bomb. There’s always the halftime show. If nothing else, someone is bound to wear funny shoes.

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