- - Thursday, October 27, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION

When the Washington Wizards announced their plans for a new $55 million practice facility and 5,000 seat arena on the site of the old St. Elizabeth’s mental hospital, owner Ted Leonsis envisioned a place filled with passionate fans.

“It’ll be an atmosphere that’s loud, that’s exciting, that’s collegiate, in a way, and it will help the players, because you play sometimes at Verizon and there’s 20,000 seats and there’s 4,000 people in the building, it feels like you’re not successful,” Leonsis told reporters.

He was talking about the WNBA franchise, the Mystics, but he could have easily been talking about his NBA team, the Wizards — who play in an atmosphere at the Verizon Center that is neither loud nor exciting nor collegiate in any way. And sometimes it feels like there are 4,000 people in the building.

The franchise has earned that atmosphere — and now that falls squarely on the shoulders of Leonsis.

This is year six of Leonsis‘ ownership of the basketball team, and, as they begin the 2016-2017 season, coming off a standard franchise record of 41-41, they never seemed more irrelevant or invisible.

They have a guard duo in Bradley Beal and John Wall (I listed them in order of who gets paid more — Beal signed a max contract this off season for $127 million, $40 million more than what Wall signed in 2013) who have inflated opinions of themselves (Wall didn’t get a single vote as the league’s best passer in a recent NBA.com anonymous poll of general managers). Both have health questions — Wall is coming off knee surgery and Beal has yet to play a full season since drafted in 2012 (just 55 games last season).

And they had to publicly declare they don’t hate each other.

“Whenever you have your two best players and they both want the game-winning shot and want those type of plays, you’re going to have disagreement on the court,” Wall told reporters at the team’s media day last month. “Other than that, we’re fine. We talked. We talked about it.”

“It”? What is “it”?

“Just at times, any team that has two great players that want to be great will have disagreements from time to time,” Wall said, reminding everyone that he and Beal are great players.

So Wall likes Beal. He’s just not crazy about Wizards fans.

He spent the off season insulting a fan base that has suffered Cleveland-like losing for nearly 40 years — like when he suggested before Kevin Durant signed with Golden State that he might not come to his hometown Washington team because of the fans.

“A lot of people will be devastated. But at the end of the day he never promised us anything,” Wall told CSNmidatlantic.com during the final day of his camp at Fairfax High School. “Every day, everybody said KD-to-D.C., coming to our games wearing all the Kevin Durant stuff. He didn’t like it at that time because you should cheer for the team that you got. That might sway him.”

Durant didn’t even give the Wizards — and Ted Leonsis — the time of day, despite two years of planning and preparing to recruit the NBA superstar. And it may be because of the fans?

This is a team that hasn’t made it past the second round of the NBA playoffs in nearly four decades. Over the last 38 seasons, they’ve had just 10 winning seasons. They haven’t won 50 games since 1979. But the fans may have been the problem.

Ladies and gentlemen, your franchise leader, John Wall.

Then he shows up at a Redskins home game against the Dallas Cowboys wearing a Cowboys jersey — an Emmitt Smith jersey — and walking the sidelines for all the fans at FedEx Field to see, angering those Washington fans who had already upset Durant because of the Verizon Center atmosphere when he came to town.

“I can see if I wore a Cowboys jersey with a Dez Bryant or Dak Prescott or Ezekiel Elliott, one of the current guys,” Wall told CSN Mid-Atlantic. “I wore a legendary guy, but it’s my team … when they’re not playing each other, I cheer for the Redskins because it’s a D.C. team.”

“I’m not from Washington, D.C.,” Wall said. “I’m from Raleigh, North Carolina, and the Cowboys have always been my team. I respect and love every team and cheer for every team and hope every team in Washington, D.C., do well, just like they do for us. You can say ‘Well, DeSean Jackson likes this L.A. team, the Lakers.’ Well, he’s from L.A. He’s not from Washington, D.C.; he just plays for the Redskins. So it was no disrespect; it’s just my favorite team, and everybody understands and know that.”

If John Wall truly doesn’t understand the implications of wearing a Cowboys jersey while parading up and down the sidelines before a Redskins home game —after six years in this town — it reveals an alarming level of cluelessness. If he does understand, then he simply doesn’t care what Washington fans think.

Wizards fans can certainly relate to that emotion.

They would care, though, if there was any reason to. Nothing on this Wizards roster starting the season has given them any reason to.

Besides the non-bickering, great guard tandem, it’s a roster of guys who know how to put on an NBA jersey. Kelly Oubre has shown flashes of talent, but Otto Porter has failed to take the step forward that you would expect from a player selected in the 2013 NBA draft. Markieff Morris, when he can make it through airport security, knows how to put on his jersey. Their big free agent signing, Ian Mahinmi, a backup center who got a four-year, $64 million deal, is recovering from knee surgery and may not be on the court until December.

Leading this roster of jersey wearers will be a new coach — Scott Brooks —Durant’s former coach in Oklahoma City (whose presence apparently wasn’t enough to overcome Durant’s anger over Wizards fans). A coach described as a bit “militaristic” by Morris, who was traded from Phoenix last February because he was such a head case they didn’t even want him on their bench.

This ought to be fun.

All of this — all of it — is the work of the general manager who seems incapable of losing his job, Ernie Grunfeld. His record after 13 years running this basketball team is 444-606. Leonsis will give him at least another season to add to that remarkable record.

“I only look at since I’ve owned the team,” Leonsis said this off season when asked why he continues to keep Grunfeld as the general manager — ignoring the pain and suffering of fans who supported team for 32 years before Leonsis took over in 2010. “I’m only focused on since I’ve bought the team.”

Okay, let’s do that — two winning seasons over six years under the ownership of Leonsis, empty seats in a tomb-like arena and snubbed by the hometown star.

Nothing blurry about that.

Thom Loverro hosts his weekly podcast “Cigars & Curveballs” Wednesdays available on iTunes and Google Play.

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