The sports culture that I found when I arrived in Washington, D.C. more than a decade ago couldn’t have been more different. The local NBA team–then known as the Washington Bullets–starred two former Michigan players, which was enough to make me a fan. But they mostly lost, and this, I figured, explained why I never seemed to run across any other Bullet fans around town.
These days, however, the newly-renamed Washington Wizards are one of the most exciting teams in the NBA, a perennial playoff contender. They are led by the charismatic guard Gilbert Arenas, whose quirks (he plays in low-top sneakers and spends halftimes immersed in online poker) and skills (he is the league’s fourth top scorer) should make him an appealing superstar. So where’s the excitement?
If you walked around downtown Washington this spring, you’d have found virtually no sign that the Wizards were in the playoffs–no Wizards pennants in store windows, no overheard conversations in coffee shops about last night’s winning three-pointer. When I talked to friends–most of them, like me, transplants from other cities–about the Wizards, the typical reaction was “Oh yeah, they’re in the playoffs, aren’t they?” They, not we.
At the games themselves, fans don’t even fill the arena. Indeed, an embarrassing number who do show up root quite openly for the other side. There’s not another city in the country where this kind of public display of disloyalty is so prevalent–and so tolerated.
Since sports fandom is at least partly about identity, about pride of place, what does it mean that so many people who live in Washington dismiss the home team? Certainly, the fact that a major portion of the local population was born elsewhere has something to do with it. “We’re immigrants, with loyalties to the old country,” explains Marshall Wittman of the Democratic Leadership Council, a former Texan and 26-year DC-area resident who still roots for the Cowboys.
But other cities absorb large numbers of outsiders and still manage to generate pride and unity among their residents. Part of becoming a New Yorker or Chicagoan is adapting to the local culture, adopting the Yankees or Cubs (or Mets or White Sox).
In Washington, however, the immigrants don’t assimilate. That’s a big reason why the city, despite its size and power, feels so artificial. It’s like one giant hotel where people stop off for a temporary stay, sometimes for the length of an administration, sometimes for decades, but almost always with some intention of leaving.
It didn’t always used to be this way. Forty years ago (so I’m told), Washington had its own unique and proud identity. The Kennedys made public service seem noble, and living in D.C. seem glamorous. But at a certain point–some mark 1994 as the pivotal year–it became uncool to identity oneself as a Washingtonian. In this anti-Washington age, childhood sports allegiances have become political statements: Professing an undying loyalty to the St. Louis Cardinals telegraphs that you are not an inside-the-Beltway elitist, but someone firmly rooted in heartland values. To admit that you are a Washington sports fan is a faux pas akin to confessing that you spend your evenings at Georgetown cocktail parties. A quarter of a century ago, Richard Nixon was happy to be known as a rabid Redskins fan. Today, George W. Bush, perhaps rightly, sees no political benefit in publicly rooting for Washington sports teams.
Many sports fans here deal with the conundrum by declaring Washington teams their “default” option. For the past ten years, for instance, I’ve rooted for the Wizards whenever they weren’t playing the Pistons. But that’s a half-hearted, anemic kind of fandom, and I’ve felt vaguely uneasy about it for a while. This spring, at a Pistons-Wizards game, the tension became too much.
The ostensibly hometown crowd inside the Verizon Center was a sea of Detroit jerseys and teenagers screaming “‘Sheed!” every time Detroit power forward Rasheed Wallace ran down the court. Somewhere around the fourth time the girl in front of me–a Georgetown student with long manicured nails and a Ben Wallace jersey on–jumped up to scream “You suck, Wizards!” I snapped. “Oh, shut up,” I muttered, maybe a little too loudly. By the time the Wizards handed an 18-point drubbing to the Pistons, my conflicted self was a fleeting memory. I was too busy high-fiving my neighbors as the Pistons fans slunk out of the arena.
I may be a Michigan girl, but I’m a Washingtonian now. It’s my political statement, abandoning my old identity and accepting the new. If we Washingtonians have any pride–in who we are and in what we do here–we’ll root for the home team. Especially when it’s winning.