This is quite a strange column to write. It feels like we're entering the Twilight Zone. How do you write a column about the Wizards and not make fun of them? For most of the last 20 years this was Standard Operating Procedure: Type in the words "Bullets" or "Wizards" and start making jokes.
But they're no laughing matter now.
They're good now.
They're honestly good now.
(Somebody go wake up Olivia Newton-John. We're playing her song.)
The Wizards proved it last week when they beat Seattle and the Minnesota T-Wolves in successive games. Seattle came into Washington with the third-best record in the NBA, 23-7. The T-Wolves have been struggling lately, but they were in the Western Conference finals last season. Longtime Boulez watchers wrote these games off as two sure Ls. But if those games were to be a reality check for an overachieving team, what should we say now?
Cue Olivia again.
Earlier in the season Wilbon came up with some cockamamie formula — Wilbon's version of Tom Boswell's "total average," except Boz's numbers make perfect sense, and Wilbon's appear to come from the planet Goobus — in which the Wizards would make the playoffs if they beat all the teams they were supposed to beat in the Eastern Conference, and went 8-22 against the West. But not even Wilbon expected Seattle and Minnesota to be two of those eight. Let's be real here, probably not even Ernie Grunfeld expected Seattle and Minnesota to be two of those eight.
Now the Wizards are sitting at 19-13, third best in the East. This is after 32 games, a reasonable number on which to base projections. Last year at this time, they were 9-23, having blown through the 9-20 barrier, and it was reasonable to project that it was time to take the season-ticket package, put it on top of the stove and set it on fire! You know when the Wizards got their 19th win last year? March 1. They came into March like a lion. The Food Lion.
But with the Wizards at 19-13, I have found myself taking the Wizards seriously. For years all I've had to say about the Wizards was: "Take the Wizards. Please." But now I've started looking ahead to April and May, and planning for the Wizards to be in the playoffs. (Heaven help me, I'm starting to channel LaSooz! Hey, kids, how about "Second-Round Singles Night!") I've even heard myself saying, "I just can't see the Wizards beating Miami or Detroit to get to the finals. Miami already beat the Wizards four in a row; that's dominance. Detroit came in here, was down 20 or so at the half, and came back and won; that's a solid, veteran squad."
I've actually said that. And not as a joke. Not at, you know, a comedy club, to loosen up the crowd.
I've meant it as a cautionary statement, to temper any outsized expectations. But surely any earnest statement about how the Wizards match up with Miami (27-9, top record in the East) and Detroit (defending NBA champs) ought to be followed by a deep breath and a loud "Whoa!" Because it implies 1) the Wizards will make the playoffs, which they haven't done in years, and 2) they'll win at least one round, which they haven't done in epochs! Like since man stopped dragging his knuckles on the ground.
Yet a lot of people feel exactly that way, that the Wizards are blasting off in front of our incredulous eyes. And that feeling has sprung up overnight. Certainly no one felt that way last season, when the Wizards failed early and often -- and with much of the same personnel.
No, it's happened overnight, like those lavender crocuses that show up on your lawn one March morning, and you have no idea how they got there. It's happened because Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes are healthy this season, and they're scoring 50 to 60 points every night lately. It's happened because Antawn Jamison was traded here for Jerry Stackhouse and Christian Laettner, a trade that is so larcenous Grunfeld should have been wearing a ski mask when he made it; Jamison, Arenas and Hughes might have languished with Golden State, but they are flourishing here. And it's happened even though the Wizards don't have anything resembling a reliable power game yet; they haven't gotten squadoosh from Kwame Brown yet. Imagine if they do. Imagine if Jamison, Arenas and Hughes continue scoring in big bunches like this. Imagine if it turns out that Eddie Jordan was the Jordan we should have coveted all along.
So the good news is that with the Wizards being suddenly good, we can shut out all the bad news in our lives, like the tragic breakup of Brad Pitt's marriage to Jennifer Aniston, a marriage that looked like it would defy the Hollywood odds of two gorgeous, self-absorbed matinee idols getting past themselves long enough to acknowledge the existence of someone else, and last much longer than 4 1/2 years, maybe even four years and 10 months -- which I had in the pool -- and the possibility that Randy Moss will leave the NFL and join a traveling X-rated mime troupe where he can perfect the art of mooning a large crowd of cheeseheads, or whatever form of dairy products people are wearing on their heads these days. Speaking of which, I don't know what Mr. Moss is wearing on his own head these days, but if I had half of it, I'd get off cable like a rocket and go straight to network, baby. That hair is so good, Moss doesn't need a helmet. And I'm just wondering about the other Randy, Randy Johnson. Big Unit's bus from Phoenix had barely pulled into the Port Authority when he found himself being followed by a New York City cameraman. I'm just wondering if Unit's charming salutation -- "Don't get in my face and don't talk back to me or you'll see what I'm like." -- will mean that down the road any New Yorker who dares to make eye contact with him will be escorted from the ballpark and thrown on the subway's third rail. What else is in that fat new contract? Mooning rights?
The bad news is: Now that the Wizards are good, I can't make jokes about Les Boulez anymore. I can't use another losing season to regurgitate old lines about Rod Strickland eating hot dogs five minutes before game time, then rrralphing them into the trainer's kit at the first timeout. If the Wizards actually achieve something, what's the point of making references to all the disappointments of Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, of Gus Williams and Dan Roundfield, of Mitch Richmond and Ike Austin, of Kevin Duckworth and Hot Plate Williams, of Gar Heard and Leonard Hamilton? Who'll want to hear about Jerry Stackhouse's revolutionary eight-day summer rental? Well, okay, everybody will, because that's hilarious. But you get my point.
It's not funny when the Wizards are good. It's weird.
It's going to take some getting used to.