If you are a Wizards fan, you probably don’t need to be reminded of the more than 40 years of failures that have made cheering for this NBA franchise such a long and often joyless slog.
Maybe you’re sitting in a sports bar watching these NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors — who, from 1994 to 2013, were essentially the Wizards — and the Boston Celtics, who have enjoyed the Larry Bird era, the Kevin Garnett era and now the Jayson Tatum era all while the Wizards have had one long era of mediocrity.
You are sitting there, watching the game with strangers, who, as is often the case in such atmospheres, bond together watching sports on television. Someone asks who your team is. Then you wish you were home, watching alone, where you didn’t have to share your embarrassment.
That alone is painful enough. But if you are a true Wizards fan, well-versed in the missteps that have kept this franchise from climbing out of its grave, it has to be doubly painful to watch Al Horford in a Celtics uniform.
It’s not anything you haven’t witnessed since he signed with Boston in 2016, but to see him in this championship series — his first, at the age of 36 — scoring 26 points on 9 of 12 from the field in Boston’s Game 1 120-108 win over Golden State has to come with a particular sting for Wizards fans.
Horford could have been the game-changer for Washington — the piece that could have propelled the franchise to, at the very least, an Eastern Conference finals, if not further.
It was missing on Horford, not Kevin Durant, that was the real failure of owner Ted Leonsis and general manager Ernie Grunfeld. Durant was a con game presented by the front office — even if they were conning themselves. He was never going to sign with this franchise, his hometown NBA team. He was one of the top two or three players in the league. Why would he sign with the Wizards?
Durant did as expected — he signed with the Warriors, who had won the 2015 NBA title, and went on to win two NBA championships in 2017 and 2018 with Golden State.
Horford, though, was not one of the top players in the league. He was a good player, a three-time NBA All-Star in his nine seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, a defensive standout who was just what the John Wall-Bradley Beal Wizards needed. And, unlike Durant, Horford was within the limited reach of this franchise.
Instead, he signed a four-year, $113 million deal with the Celtics, in some ways the worst possible outcome for the Wizards.
Not only would Horford be in their division, he would wind up facing the Wizards in this franchise’s best opportunity for postseason success since reaching the NBA Finals in 1979.
Washington won 49 games in 2017, their most since 1979. They defeated the Atlanta Hawks in six games in the first round, then extended Boston to seven games before losing Game 7 115-105.
Horford averaged 17 points and 6.6 rebounds in seven games against Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Washington’s answer after failing to sign Horford? Ian Mahinmi, inked to a four-year, $64 million contract. He averaged 2.8 points and 2.2 rebounds in that series.
Now there Horford is five years later, minus stopovers for a season each in Philadelphia and Oklahoma City, still a reminder of what could have been. Here’s what you might have forgotten — the Wizards blamed their fans for losing Horford.
It came out that Horford’s father Tito — who played in the league for three seasons — told reporters that his son was not pleased to see the lack of fan support in Washington and that was a factor in his choice of Boston.
“There wasn’t as much motivation for him when he saw all the empty seats when they were winning,” Tito said. “He said to me, ‘Dad, when we were playing Boston, they were down 15 points and they were cheering their team like they were winning the game. They’re so into the game.’ This is special for us, especially for him.”
An article on NBC Sports Washington picked up on John Wall’s criticism of the lack of fan support turning off free agents and basically put the blame at the feet of Wizards fans. “Players notice,” the article stated. “They talk about it to each other and it matters when players such as Horford make his decision.”
Who wrote this story? That’s not clear. Typically, there are bylines identifying writers on such articles. There was no byline on this one, no one who actually putting forth this ridiculous position. Leonsis owns at least one-third of NBC Sports Washington and has considerable influence over the network.
I contacted Brian Potter, senior director of communications for NBC Universal Local, who said he did not have anything “definitive in terms of the author. As to why there is no byline (or headline), my guess is because not everything transferred from archived material when the websites relaunched with new CMS a few years ago.”
So remember — when you are sitting all alone at home in the dark watching Horford in a Celtics uniform in the finals, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself.
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