The most striking aspect of Ted Leonsis’ early reign as owner of all things winter sports here is his professed surprise at so many Washingtonians expressing their dissatisfaction with the name of the basketball team. It is, the owner admits, agenda item no. 1 in their email urgings. Leonsis has expressed a startling tone deafness in this matter.
He wonders why folks aren’t more concerned with the team’s general competitiveness. They are, but identities matter, and when your community is the capital home of the nation — the most important and powerful community in the world — identity especially matters. The legacy of team names here largely reflects this.
Additionally, the Pollin family authored a spectacular fail with their politically inspired name changing. Folks about town — market-tested now for going on two decades with the eyebrow-raising appellation — simply don’t want to move about with a ballcap with ‘Wiz’ emblazoned on it. I can’t say I blame them.
‘Wizards’ might pass (meagerly) as a team name in other communities (though conspicuously few seem to be leaping upon it), but the legacy of team names here is elevated well beyond it, dating back generations. Once upon a time we had a professional soccer team here named the Diplomats. They were known as ‘the Dips.’ It’s interesting to reflect on that insomuch as the baseball and hockey teams (and football for that matter) bear a strikingly similar shorthand. We’re a region that just reflexively foists a shorthand upon our teams’ names (O’s), and the reflex when it is applied to the basketball team evokes urinals.
More seriously, there is something of a national pride evoked for teams named Nationals, Capitals, Senators, or Diplomats. And a distinctive sense of elevation: by virtue of who we are as a community we do not do Cougars, Clipper Ships, or Storm with our team names. The Redskins, meanwhile, have a legacy so entrenched and noble (until Dan Snyder assumed omnipotent control over its management) that it has risen above pedestrian political correctness; only the hyper-egregiously politically correct can awaken each day and cower in offended sensibility by the name. Regardless, it’s not going anywhere.
It’s incongruous. It bears not even a tangential relationship to anything about this region. It’s inexplicable — which incidentally is precisely what the Washington Post said about it at the time of its selection. It needs to die a death quicker than what I imagined when I first wrote about this a few weeks ago. More on that in a moment.
For no small number of over-30 Washingtonians the name ‘Wizards’ is patently insulting, their having grown up supporting a pro basketball team here with an infinitely superior name. This undercurrent of dissatisfaction is something Leonsis would do well to focus group if he wants to gain a heightened understanding for Washington’s long-held disdain for the replacement name. Dozens of OFB readers over the years have shared with me their refusal to patronize the hoops team merely by virtue of its name. It remains for many a sorry and sour transition. Again, identity matters.
The identity of our basketball team is a laughing matter.
If your basketball team wins 52 games but is named the Diaper Lickers folks won’t flock to its souvenir stands. Wizards isn’t Diaper Lickers in infamy, but it’s only marginally better.
Leonsis doesn’t need a lecture from me on the fiscal implications of effective branding for a sports team. That branding begins with a team’s identity. This isn’t a pleading necessarily to bring back the name ‘Bullets,’ but the mounting marketing success associated with the well-named teams here ought to be a compelling cause for Leonsis to right this ridiculous wrong. The owner has rightly earned a deep reservoir of good will for his remarkable remake of the hockey team, and so he can take some time in finessing this matter so as to appease the perceived sensibilities of the perps. But Leonsis should no longer wonder why this issue remains no. 1 on the minds of the region’s sports’ fans.
And on that front . . . I’m of the belief that there’s an additional impetus driving local sports’ fans animated interest in this matter. Whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, Leonsis represents a savior’s role for a beleaguered town when it comes to sports, and now he’s expected to resurrect the basketball franchise. Laud Pollin for building the buildings the teams have played in, but a full reckoning requires acknowledgment that from ’80 on the hardwood product he built was, frankly, abysmal. I think folks in town want a fresh and clean break with that so so sorry, so elongated past, and the Wizards of course represent the worst of it.
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A caravan of Washington hockey bloggers today is carrying a special cargo up to Hershey for game 6 of the Calder Cup finals: the game’s national anthem singer. Tara Wheeler believes that tonight will offer her the largest crowd she’s ever sung the anthem before, and what a backdrop she’ll have for it. The last time she sang the anthem before a hockey game, at Verizon Center during the preseason, her head was shaved bald as part of her ongoing participation in support of the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. I remember well the reception Wheeler earned for her rendition that night. As a Penn State grad she ought to be received warmly in Giant Center as well. It’s nice to have a special Washingtonian playing a minor role in what may be the most memorable night of hockey for this hockeytown to the North in just about all its rich history.