The Wizards and Pistons played on Monday and people actually

The Wizards and Pistons played on Monday… and people actually came to watch – The Athletic

WASHINGTON – Monday brought snow showers across the county. At 3 p.m. it was 29 degrees and the wind was blowing outside. Normally, in the afternoon, car traffic and pedestrian traffic in downtown DC are almost at a standstill. However, since it was a holiday, the streets were clear. There were two NFL playoff games on the schedule – this time on TV channels most people have a subscription to.

However, I was at work. Danger in the workplace. I'm involved in sports professionally, especially the NBA. So I was here to watch the Martin Luther King Jr. Day matchup between the 7-31 Washington Wizards and the 3-36 Detroit Pistons. It was an NBA game in the sense that these franchises are still in the NBA and relegation is not an option for the league. (However, if Adam Silver wants to emulate European soccer, then go for it. That would be incredibly fun.)

But these teams aren't just bad for garden diversity. The Pistons are historically terrible, threatening the Philadelphia 76ers' 9-73 mark in the 1972-73 season. (My friend Fred Carter, who led the 76ers in scoring this season with 20 points per game, has learned to stick with his self-described label: “The best player on the worst team in NBA history.”) The Wizards have a poor goal this season after finally starting a long overdue overhaul, but miserable is miserable. Adding in last year's final 20 games, when Washington finished a weak tank, the Wiz entered Monday having lost 46 of their last 58 regular-season games. After beating the Atlanta Hawks on the road on Saturday, the Wizards had a chance for a rare consecutive win, something they hadn't done since winning back-to-back games on Feb. 28 and March 2.

Can you imagine not winning two games in a row for almost eleven months? In the NBA??

But I was paid to be here. The question I had as I walked through Capital One Arena before the game, aimed primarily at amused fans, was:

Why are you here?

“So I actually collect bobbleheads,” said Nolan Costigan of Falls Church, Virginia, sitting in Section 405 with his father, Thomas. About an hour before takeoff, they had, um, plenty of room to stretch out.

Nolan Costigan came to the Wizards game for bobblehead Virginia Ali. (David Aldrige/The Athletic)

“Did you know they're giving these out today?” Nolan asked.

He pointed to his Virginia Ali bobblehead, which was given to the first 5,000 fans on Monday. Ali is the doyenne of Ben's Chili Bowl, the DC landmark on U Street where the semi-smoke is…heavenly. Nolan and Thomas attended a Pittsburgh Penguins-Buffalo Sabers game in Pittsburgh last week to grab a Sidney Crosby bobblehead. “So we just made a weekend of it,” Nolan said. “Put it right next to my (Alex) Ovechkin bobblehead. And the tickets (Monday) were cheap. I was able to get them for about $15.”

The Costigans have season tickets to DC United and share Washington Capitals season tickets with friends. They like all sports, but basketball is probably the sport Nolan watches the least. They will take part in a handful of games this season.

“I came last year for the Wizards bobbleheads,” Nolan said. “It’s definitely more relaxed and relaxed (than Caps games). But I don't mind. Just enjoy the game, variety. I liked Kristaps Porziņģis, but they traded him away. I don't have a specific favorite player at the moment, but I'll take a look at it today and decide. Maybe Jordan Poole or Deni…Avid…”

“Avdija,” I offered.

A few sections down came Courtney Stovall from Herndon, Virginia, and Caleb Cecil from Arlington, Virginia. They were among 40 Amazon employees who received tickets to Monday's game through the company's Black Employee Network. “So this is more of a meeting for us,” Stovall said. “And it’s Martin Luther King Day. So it's a good way to communicate, socialize and meet other people across North America. That’s why we’re here.”

Courtney Stovall (left) and Caleb Cecil were at the game as part of an Amazon employee event. (David Aldridge/The Athletic)

Stovall had a question.

“Do you think if I went down there and asked the coach I could just get dressed?” he said. “I'm pretty sure I could. You need a capable body.”

Well, while both teams were a bit shorthanded, their four-player trade that sent Marvin Bagley and Isaiah Livers to the Wizards for Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala isn't quite official yet…maybe?

In the lower bowl sat Michael Schultz (“Zed,” Schultz said, spelling the last letter of his last name) and Michelle White, both from Wellington, New Zealand. It was Michelle's first NBA game.

“I grew up in northern Minnesota in the freezing cold,” Schultz said.

Schultz and White visited his family in Canada and a brother in New York. It took them 42 hours to get from Wellington to his family's home in Dryden, Ontario – they flew from Wellington to Vancouver, then from Vancouver to Winnipeg and then a four-hour drive from Winnipeg to Dryden, where Michael spent his teenage years and against others played Drydenite Chris Pronger, the future NHL star.

Michael Schultz and Michelle White came a long way to see the Wizards and Pistons. (David Aldridge/The Athletic)

“I just love hearing what’s happening on the field,” Schultz said. “Maybe I can get a little closer.”

When Schultz was growing up in Minnesota, his family once got tickets to the Minnesota Timberwolves' inaugural season at the Metrodome in 1989. “Pooh Richardson, Kelly Tripucka – that era,” he said. “I saw Hakeem – or Akeem – back then. I remember getting down there and he came up to me and I said, 'Oh God, he's a big guy.' That's the only time I saw a game. But I watch every day. League pass. I'm a huge fan.”

And that's what's still amazing, even after all these years.

Everyone was happy to be there.

It's easy to be cynical on days like Monday, when two terrible teams are playing. And yet people do this every season, year after year, whether they're watching the defending champion Denver Nuggets and the best player in the world, Nikola Jokić, or… those teams. They come out of their own pockets and from their warm homes (if they're lucky) and are happy to spend two and a half hours watching someone like Detroit's Alec Burks – who isn't a superstar for charity reasons – play one of the best games of his life and score 34 points for the Pistons, who played without Cade Cunningham and Bojan Bogdanović.

By the end of the day, there were 15,156 people in Capital One, which was remarkably three-quarters full. And this number seemed real. The stands were pretty full. The home fans didn't seem particularly upset that Detroit won its fourth game of the season and beat Washington here for the first time since 2014. There were almost no boos as Jalen Duren dominated the tiny Wizards inside with 20 points and 19 rebounds (Washington center Daniel Gafford left the game early after being hit in the head in the third quarter), or that Jaden Ivey scored 24 in 32 minutes points, or that Kyle Kuzma was sent off late in the game, or that the Wizards were actually denied those setbacks. Back-to-back wins and losses against one of the worst teams in the recent history of this league.

You could watch an NBA game — even if it was just a title game — and forget about the blowing wind and snow for a while.

(Top photo by Kyle Kuzma: Tommy Gilligan / USA Today)