- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

Bryan Green surveyed the mad house inside a sporting goods store at MCI Center last night before Game 6 of the Washington Wizards’ playoff series against the Chicago Bulls. Gilbert Arenas jerseys were flying off the wall in less time than it took for the All-Star to sink the game-winning shot two days earlier.

Green has been a regular at Bullets/Wizards game since he moved to the area in 1988. The 36-year-old from Fort Washington has one word to describe most of his time as a fan of the franchise.

“Painful,” said Green, who attended the game with his 19-year-old daughter, Ashli. “Really painful. I remember coming here and having the majority of the crowd cheering for the visiting team. That’s just kind of demeaning. There was a couple Boston games where there was just a sea of green.”

That has changed dramatically in one dynamic season. MCI is now a feared home court with ravenous fans packed in an ocean of blue and white. The Wizards not only made the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons and won their first playoff game since 1988, but they have now won their first playoff series in 23 seasons.

Another sellout crowd was on hand as the Wizards further distanced themselves from the franchise’s long-suffering past.

“It’s almost like a circus outside now,” Green said as thousands of fans waited to get in before the gates opened. “Everybody is talking about the Wizards in a good light now. They haven’t played this far into the spring in a really long time. Now, when you talk to your friends from different parts of the country, when they are talking about their teams, like the Lakers, they are kind of quiet and the Wizards fans are still talking.”

Washington has often been mocked for the club’s misfortunes and consistent losing. Michael Jordan was brought into to bring the Wizards out of their doldrums, but that experiment blew up. That only seemed to solidify the franchise’s pathetic image, which was the subject of jokes around the NBA such as being the “Clippers East.”

“It hasn’t been a team that fans could really rally behind,” said Wizards center Brendan Haywood, in his fourth season. “The fact that we changed things around is very special for us, very special for [owner] Abe Pollin and very special for the community.”

Among the throng inside MCI was political commentator George Will. The author of the best-selling baseball book “Men at Work” has been a staple at Washington Nationals games, and last night he got a taste of the Wizards’ renaissance.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “Part of the fun of going to the Nationals is going on the subway, because everyone is in red. It is the same as coming here tonight, everyone is ready for the Wizards. This is great for Abe Pollin. If anyone has earned it, he has. He is the senior owner in the NBA. He built [MCI Center, which opened for the 1997-98 season] when he could’ve had it given to him in Baltimore. He kept the team here. He invested in downtown. Every once in a while, nice things happen to nice people.”

Nice things happened after Jordan’s ugly departure and the arrival of a new management team after the 2002-03 season. General manager Ernie Grunfeld and coach Eddie Jordan were brought in, and Grunfeld’s first priority was signing Arenas to a contract.

Grunfeld added Antawn Jamison via trade, and the team had its “Big Three” with Arenas, Jamison and Larry Hughes.

“We didn’t put a timeframe on what could happen in a given year,” Grunfeld said. “We wanted to make positive strides. Going to the playoffs and the experience of making a playoff run is a learning experience. Games become more important and more significant. The intensity level is higher. The farther you go in the playoffs the more important games become. There is nothing like the playoffs.”

That was apparent last night at MCI, where a row of tellers couldn’t work fast enough for fans scooping up kids jerseys at about $50 a pop, adult jerseys for around $80 and authentic throwback jerseys at $150 each. Store manager Alexes Washington described the scene as “pandemonium” while using a stick to pull a shirt high off the wall for a customer.

“Everybody is excited,” she said. “They are buying Arenas, Dixon, Jamison and Hughes jerseys. Everything is selling well. Even [suspended Wizard] Kwame Brown jerseys were selling well — were . We re-ordered a big shipment and got them in to today. If they win the series, we will order more.”

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