- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 1, 2005

Kwame Brown bounded through the Washington Wizards locker room with the pogo stick brio of a grade-schooler on Halloween, stopping to grab a sports drink before skipping around a corner.

“I’m getting hyped,” the Wizards forward said with a smile. “Getting hyped.”

Brown wasn’t the only one.

With the Wizards back in the National Basketball Association playoffs for the first time in eight years and facing the Chicago Bulls, the atmosphere at the sold-out MCI Center yesterday afternoon was akin to that of a high school prom: nervous and giddy, tense and ecstatic.

Not to mention hyped, especially after the Wizards earned their first playoff victory since 1988 by defeating the Bulls 117-99 behind 20 points and nine rebounds from reserve center Etan Thomas and a game-high 32 points from All-Star guard Gilbert Arenas.

“Unbelievable, isn’t it?” said Washington majority owner Abe Pollin, 81, who is primarily responsible for building the downtown arena where the District’s first NBA playoff game since 1950 took place. “Fantastic. I’m so proud of my guys. And the fans were great. They helped us win, no question.”

All-Star forward Antawn Jamison and guard Larry Hughes added 21 points each for Washington, which trails Chicago 2-1 in the best-of-7 first-round Eastern Conference playoff series. Game 4 is tomorrow night at MCI.

“You can tell these fans were into it,” Jamison said. “They’ve been wanting an opportunity like this.”

Have they ever.

For so long, rooting for the Wizards entailed equal parts suffering and frustration. Lackluster play, lousy trades and losing karma afflicted a franchise that previously, from 1969 to 1980, reached 12 straight postseasons and won the 1978 NBA championship.

No longer. Washington had a 45-37 record in the regular season — the team’s best mark since 1978-79, when its nickname was Bullets — and yesterday played with a spirited intensity to match that of the crowd.

“I’m loving it,” said Walter Wiggings, 52, a Bowie resident and fan for more than three decades, who pumped his fist after every Washington basket. “I haven’t been this happy in a long time. I’ve been hooting and howling, trying to get this crowd up.”

No need. Standing and banging Thunderstix, spectators waved towels and then broke into the Wave. They cheered when Hughes whipped a pass to Thomas for a dunk and booed Bulls forward Andres Nocioni every time he touched the ball.

One fan in a black T-shirt swung his empty right hand in a circle, so caught up in the moment that he forgot to hold his towel. When Arenas scored on a dribble drive just before halftime, picking up a foul en route, another fan in an Arenas jersey pumped his fist.

The fist-pumper in question was Arenas’ father, Gilbert Sr., sitting in the front row with his father,Hipotito.

When Arenas signed with the Wizards in the summer of 2003, he promised a trip to the playoffs, then missed much of last season with an abdominal injury as Washington finished with a losing record.

“We were talking about that the other day,” Arenas’ father said. “He came here on a mission from Day One. This is what he’s been wanting to play for — the big stage.”

The big stage meant pregame player introductions that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Las Vegas stage: fireworks, colored spotlights, the bombastic strains of “Fortuna” from Carmina Burana and flags reading W-I-Z-A-R-D-S circling the court.

As the game began, smoke hung in the building.

“It’s a different feeling than a regular-season game,” said political consultant and commentator James Carville, sitting in the second row. “A new experience.”

NBA Commissioner David Stern attended, as did Steve Francis, Sam Cassell and Michael Sweetney — three NBA players with local ties.

Sweetney, a former Georgetown University standout now with the New York Knicks, said it was bittersweet to be in the stands at a playoff game. The Knicks did not qualify for the postseason.

“It’s good to see [the Wizards] back in it,” he said. “But it’s real hard when you sit down and get that feeling that you should be out there.”

Out there, Jamison tumbled into the first row while chasing a loose ball. Hughes nearly decapitated Nocioni — presumably unintentionally — during a midcourt collision. During a timeout, cheerleaders dressed up in Tina Turner wigs and shimmied to “Proud Mary.”

Nader Saliba, 35, of Arlington, held a Spanish matador poster with a homemade addition reading “Matador Gilbert Arenas, No Fear.”

Mr. Saliba, who grew up in the area and went to Bullets games with his father, got his first autographs from legendary players Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, members of the franchise’s championship squad.

“That makes an impression on you,” said Mr. Saliba, clad in an old Baltimore Bullets cap. “It’s been a long time. You go through all the suffering. This is the reward for sticking with them.”

For Barry Muffley, 32, the spoils of victory were more tangible. The Bowie resident sat behind the Washington bench and held a sign reading, “Gilbert, I Need Your Jersey For My Son.”

When the game was over — after more fireworks and a standing ovation for the Wizards — Arenas stripped off his sweat-soaked jersey and tossed it to Mr. Muffley, continuing his season-long tradition of giving a jersey to a fan after every game.

“It’s great,” said Mr. Muffley, whose 9-year-old son is named Christopher. “The first playoff win since 1988 is awesome. Hopefully, we can pull out another one on Monday night.”

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