With the ups and DOWNS of the 2015-2016 season, I thought I’d look back on one of the last truly great memories of the team I have. Today we look back 8 months ago at the weekend of May 2-3rd. There was already a lot to live up to obviously.
- Mayweather v. Pacquiao in Las Vegas
- The Kentucky Derby
- Game 7 Spurs at Clippers
- NHL Playoffs
- NFL Draft Day 3
As exciting as all of that seemed beforehand, as a Wizards fan, my eyes were squarely looking ahead to Sunday, May 3rd, as Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals tipped off in Atlanta. Wizards vs. Hawks 1ET, Phillips Arena. May 2nd, started off exciting enough though, as I met up with a friend from college and headed to the French Quarter, before going to the New Orleans JazzFest to see Elton John, T.I. and the other acts put on a great show in prepping for a long day of day drinking under the 95 degree heat.
Quick rundown of events at Jazzfest:
- Waited in long lines for the port-o-potties
- Saw some dope Gospel group
- Left my group to find site co-founder Charlie Gibson
- Didn’t find Gibson
- Got lost in a sea of 2,000+ people watching Elton John for 40 minutes
- Left to watch TI across the park
- Concert ended, found Gibson, didn’t see my college buddy for almost 5 months
Now I had every intention of meeting up with him later in the night but extreme heat and day drinking = a tired Butterscotcht
Fast forward to about 10pm, I realize the chances of going out that night are pretty slim. People were exhausted and I’m content having a low-key kind of night and getting back into it Sunday afternoon. With boredom comes curiosity, so as we looked ahead to the exciting Sunday Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1 matchup between Washington and Atlanta, my roommate and I wondered openly; “How much are tickets to the game in Atlanta?” Being an NBA team in a large transplant city, the Hawks had received some grief during the season, as their games were routinely under attended, especially for a 60 win team. A simple search on StubHub led to us finding out that tickets were only $22! We dreamed of a crazy scenario where we bought the tickets, drove throughout the night and were in ATL by the 1pm ET tip. Soon enough the dream became a reality.
After discussing our findings with 3rd roommate Max Keenan, who was preparing for Grad School finals, we realized that this would actually be very doable. Fast forward to 2 am. We have 3 upper level tickets, about 3 pounds of crawfish, and some energy pumping music. Sitting shotgun for 4 hours in the middle of the night, eating all 3 pounds of crawfish from a Ziploc bag I realized just how deep our Wizards fandom went. We switched drivers around 6am at a rest stop in Alabama just as the sun began to rise. My hands were disgustingly wet and smelly, Max was almost done with a grad final paper he had been working on for the entire weekend (including the drive to ATL), and Charlie was ready to pass out. We were beat, and it was truly hard to imagine staying awake through a full NBA game, let alone loudly cheering on the team we drove to see. For those who don’t know the vast landscape of the southeastern United States, the drive from New Orleans to Atlanta is about seven hours, adding an additional hour for the time change from CT to ET.
When the drive was all said and done we were driving around downtown Atlanta at 10am hungry and looking for a place to crash for a little. Luckily we found a small diner, and although the food wasn’t great it was conveniently across the street from a Fedex Kinkos, which we needed to print our tickets. To kill the 90 minutes until we wanted to be at Philips Arena, we walked over to the Westin Hotel in Peachtree Plaza. Fabulous A+ facility. Had a Starbucks with free Wifi and lobby with TVs to keep us busy and allow Keenan to finish his paper. My only gripes were that there were no remotes for the TVs, so I had to watch MLB Network the whole time, and that the bar was closed. Living in New Orleans it’s easy to forget that other major U.S. cities do not revolve around alcohol. Come 12:15, we realized the moment was finally on the horizon. It was time to head to the game.
We made the 10 minute walk to the arena, and realized how unenthusiastic the city really was for the Hawks making the second round. People were asking us if there was a game that day, and if the Wizards were in town! Walking by the bars near the arena, they were packed, but mostly with Braves fans watching an afternoon game between the Braves and Reds, two teams that were 15% into the regular season. Once we approached the arena we began to see the sea of red flowing into Philips and realized just how out-of-place we were going to be. The arena staff taking tickets through a few minor verbal jabs our way but it was all in good taste and only helped to make me more excited than ever for the game. We walked around the main concourse for a little to get a feel for the arena. This was only the 4th NBA arena I’d been to so it was cool to see the architecture of it and everything that they don’t usually show on TV.
During our walk through the arena we ran into Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld. As all Wizards fans can attest to, his tenure here has been rocky, but in the moment all we could do was thank him for putting together a team that could go to the second round two straight years. We spent about 10 minutes talking like schoolgirls about how awesome it was to meet Ernie Grunfeld before we realized we had no idea where we were going and had about 15 minutes to find our seats. We were directed by arena staff to get in an elevator which would take us to the top-level. It instead took us directly to a bar/restaurant overlooking the floor. It was a cool scene, but not exactly what we were looking for.
One ride on the elevator down and a ride on an escalator up, and we finally found our section.
Before even reaching our seats we began to hear the hecklers. I have to give it to the Hawks fans. While you could tell the ones closer to the court were probably fairweather fans, the fans directly around us, in the very last row, were pretty raucous. And by raucous, I mean acting like drunk idiots. Between being hungover, sleep deprived, and just generally dirty, the weak taunts directed at us were just another annoyance we were expecting for the day long trip. During the almost three hour game all the taunts centered around the fact that one Gilbert Arenas once (6 years ago) brought guns into the locker room. It didn’t help that two of us were wearing Arenas jerseys, but Wizards fans still appreciate and love the excitement he brought to the city in the mid to late 2000s. It was refreshing however to see some other Wizards fans in our section and discuss the absurdity of us leaving our house at 2am to come to this game. Before we knew it though the game was starting. I won’t even try to recall the entire game, but you can view the ESPN recap here. Here’s some notes though:
- Paul Pierce had our first 7 points. Shoutout to the Truth.
- I was in a very dark place after the 1st quarter when ATL was up 37-26, and they had hit five of eight 3 pointers in the quarter.
- When the Hawks were rolling it was like we were in a mosh pit. If you’ve never sat in the upper level, it’s an entirely different crowd than anywhere else in the arena, especially during an exciting playoff game. For the most part, it was 20-35 year old fans who wanted to spend their money on alcohol rather than a closer view. As such there were some especially over the top fans. Part of the game though. Luckily we kept our composure as to not cause a scene like this woman in the Sugar Bowl last year.
- It was a VERY scary moment in the second quarter when John Wall fell to the ground after being undercut by Jeff Teague while going to the rim for a layup. When he stayed down for over 2 minutes all types of thoughts were racing through my head. If John Wall couldn’t play we were certainly going to lose that game, let alone the series. We didn’t know till the next day that he had five non-displaced fractures in his left hand and wrist, but it’s absolutely remarkable that Wall stayed in the game in the 2nd half and helped lead the team to victory. That’s why he’s the Great Wall of Chinatown.
- After being down 10 at halftime nothing seemed to be helping.
- The Hawks were tired in the 2nd half, shooting 25% and being outscored by 16.
- While we led almost the entire 4th quarter I couldn’t help but feel that in #SoWizards fashion we would let the lead slip. But we knew we were going to win when we looked around and saw the faces of all the fans who were heckling us only 1 hour earlier. Things had changed, and changed QUICK.
- I have a BIG gripe with a certain Philips Arena/NBA Policy. So similar to NFL stadiums, NBA arenas stop selling alcoholic beverages at the start of the 4th quarter. I, being an avid drinker/NBA fan, am very aware of this policy. To get ahead of this I left at the end of the 3rd quarter, got a $8 16 oz beer, used the restroom, and prepared to head back to my seat. I can hear the stadium MC getting the fans ready for the 4th quarter, and I’m thinking I’m going to waltz in there just in time and heckle some fans right back. NOPE. Apparently at Philips Arena, only place I’ve seen this happen, (apparently a thing though) you can’t even take an alcoholic drink out of the concourse after the third quarter ends. I can hear play starting, I can see it on the TV by the section entrance, and I’m being told by an usher that I can’t go to my seat until I finish this beer I just bought to drink for at least half the quarter. I go back and forth between arguing with the usher and drinking my beer, and end up not getting back to my seat until nine minutes left in the fourth and my team now up 4, after chugging it and throwing away the last 4 ounces or so. Counter to the NBA’s goals, this only leads to more excessive drinking. Anyway, you’re probably thinking I should have shotgunned the beer in the usher’s face, but unfortunately the cans were the impenetrable and rather gross Bud Light Aluminum pint bottles. I encourage you to reach out to the NBA league offices to complain about this glaring issue.
A perfect end to “The Greatest Sports Weekend in History” the Wizards managed a spectacular Game 1 win, overcame injuries, a steep road deficit, rapping sideline hecklers, and became the first team in NBA history to win four straight Game 1s on the road.
It was a day I’ll never forget and is absolutely reflective of our Wizards fandom. The trip back to New Orleans was infinitely worse than the way up, as I could only look back at the great game, meanwhile realizing that I hadn’t slept since Friday night, and by the time we would get back to NOLA it would be Sunday Night. Additionally, my roommates were both asleep, but our old friend Wale kept me going for the stretch run.
In total we were in the car for 14 hours and in Atlanta for under 6, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Finally, again shout out to John Wall for playing through the second half with a broken hand/wrist. That would have just been the icing on the cake for us watching the Hawks crush us in the first half, and then seeing John leave halfway through the game.
Hopefully we’ll be able to make a similar trip this season!