CHRIST­MAS IN APRIL

Na­tion­als, play­off games gen­er­ate buzz for area’s sports fans

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY MATTHEW PARAS

Move over, Bos­ton, Philadel­phia and Chicago: For one long, sun-splashed week­end, Washington — yes, Washington — is ar­guably the na­tion’s hottest sports town.

With three games at Na­tion­als Park, two home play­off con­tests for the Cap­i­tals and the Wizards kick­ing off their re­turn to the NBA post­sea­son at home, the next few days are Christ­mas in April for District sports fans.

From talk ra­dio to sports bars to the crews flip­ping the floor from hockey to bas­ket­ball and back again this week­end, the buzz in Washington is Wizards, Cap­i­tals and Na­tion­als, for a change, not Repub­li­cans and Democrats (doesn’t hurt that Congress is out of town for a cou­ple of weeks).

The op­ti­mism is guarded — District sports fans have been here be­fore, af­ter all — but for a few days, any­thing is pos­si­ble.

“All I want is a cham­pi­onship pa­rade in Washington, D.C., from one of the four ma­jor sports teams,” said “Grant and Danny” show host Danny Rouhier, who makes his liv­ing talk­ing sports on 106.7 FM. “I don’t care who it is.”

His show’s phone lines have been lit all week with diehard lo­cals con­vinced this is Washington’s year. Still, Mr. Rouhier and part­ner Grant Paulsen ad­mit they’ve also heard from plenty of long­time Wizards and Cap­i­tals fans who are more skep­ti­cal about jump­ing aboard the band­wagon be­cause of the heart­break over the years.

“The com­ment you’ll hear is that there hasn’t been a D.C. team to win a cham­pi­onship since 1991 with the Red­skins,” Mr. Paulsen said. “Well, other than one Cup run for the Caps in 1997, no team has got to the con­fer­ence fi­nals since then.

“It’s not that we don’t win cham­pi­onships, which is true. As a city, we don’t get to the con­fer­ence fi­nal. We don’t win in the play­offs or have good and suc­cess­ful things hap­pen to any of our teams.”

But Mr. Rouhier said it’s hard to be neg­a­tive when the Na­tion­als are off to a strong start and the Wizards and Cap­i­tals en­ter the post­sea­son with le­git­i­mate cham­pi­onship dreams.

“The long term of sus­tained in­ter­est comes with win­ning,” Mr. Rouhier said. “I’ll trade six months of in­ter­est for one day of some­one be­ing an­gry be­cause some­one got fired.”

Deb­bie Horne says she can sense that uniquely District-based cock­tail of hope and angst in the emo­tions of the Cap­i­tals fans who have turned the Ir­ish Chan­nel, the bar she man­ages near the Ver­i­zon Cen­ter, into a home­town hockey hang­out.

“You get the cheers, the tears when they lose,” Mrs. Horne said of the at­mos­phere dur­ing games. “You can just feel the en­ergy.”

A New Eng­land na­tive, she said she be­came a fan of the Cap­i­tals in part be­cause of the fans who flock to her bar. Now she and her hus­band have sea­son tick­ets.

“I can see a lit­tle bit more hope in the folks just be­cause the way their sea­son has been go­ing,” Mrs. Horne said. “But I also think a lot of peo­ple are afraid be­cause they’ve got the Pres­i­dents’ [Tro­phy] and their ex­pec­ta­tions are set so high, they’re won­der­ing if it’s jinxed.”

It’s not just the guys on skates that have lo­cal sports nuts ex­cited.

Be­hind John Wall and Bradley Beal, the Wizards are back in the play­offs, seeded No. 4 in the East and feel­ing con­fi­dent about their abil­ity to take on any of the three teams seeded above them.

The two young stars popped up re­cently in a new de­sign, com­mis­sioned by the Wizards, for the iconic mu­ral wall out­side Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street.

The artist be­hind the work, 43-yearold Robert Generette III, has been a fan of D.C. teams for al­most 20 years. The south­ern Mary­land na­tive, a teacher and pho­tog­ra­pher, said he’s learned to move past hard losses. He de­signed the mu­ral on his iPad and then a vinyl ad­he­sive was pressed to the wall to make it seem like it was painted.

“I think it’s a good change and will be a lit­tle up­lift­ing … it’s a good boost for the team, the fans and the com­mu­nity,” Mr. Generette said. “It’s some­thing fresh and some­thing new.”

Ac­com­mo­dat­ing the Wizards and the Cap­i­tals in the same build­ing this week­end is old hat for the Ver­i­zon Cen­ter crew. It takes about five hours to switch the venue from hockey to bas­ket­ball.

Dave Touhey, the pres­i­dent of venues for Mon­u­men­tal Sports & En­ter­tain­ment, said that the process by now is so ef­fi­cient that it doesn’t mat­ter if it’s the play­offs or not. He said that play­offs ac­tu­ally slow down the sched­ule be­cause there are gen­er­ally more off days in be­tween.

But he said that ex­cite­ment sur­round­ing the play­offs has also made it down to the grounds crew.

“It fil­ters down to ev­ery­one in the or­ga­ni­za­tion, from Alex Ovechkin and John Wall to the house­keeper and every­body in be­tween,” Mr. Touhey said. “The dif­fer­ence be­tween the post­sea­son and the reg­u­lar sea­son is ex­cite­ment, right?”

The Cap­i­tals be­gin post­sea­son play Thurs­day at Ver­i­zon at 7 p.m. against the Toronto Maple Leafs, fol­lowed by Game 2 on Satur­day, also at 7 p.m., be­fore the se­ries shifts to Toronto on Mon­day and Wed­nes­day. The Wizards are ex­pected to host ei­ther Satur­day or Sun­day against the At­lanta Hawks. The Na­tion­als host the Philadel­phia Phillies Fri­day (4:05 p.m.), Satur­day (1:05 p.m.) and Sun­day (1:35 p.m.).

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS PHO­TOGRAPHS

SMOR­GAS­BORD: The Ver­i­zon Cen­ter and Na­tion­als Park will both be buzzing this week­end. The Ver­i­zon Cen­ter hosts play­off con­tests for John Wall and the Wizards as well as Alex Ovechkin and the Cap­i­tals. Bryce Harper and the Na­tion­als have a home­s­tand against Philadel­phia.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Be­hind Bradley Beal (3) and John Wall, the Washington Wizards are back in the play­offs this week­end as the No. 4 seed in the East against the At­lanta Hawks.

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