A Nod of Support to the Wizards for Wednesday Night’s Funeral Service

Screenshot — Washington Wizards’ Twitter Feed

The Wizards’ conscious and public decision to wear all black “funeral” attire to their matchup with the Celtics on Wednesday night made less than zero sense. Received as demonstrative of immaturity, irrationality, and deficient professionalism, mostly it was laughable. It’s not an elimination game. It could never be a funeral! Dad, you’re human! You could never be a dinosaur!

Despite all of that, I absolutely love the move. I’m over the moon about it. The Wizards created a rare scenario in which two teams unlikely to win a championship would meet in mid-January, and the loser (both players and fans) would go home absolutely seething. They created real stakes, avoiding the oh-so-professional company line: “we’re just treating it like any other game, and we’re focused on getting the win”. The Wizards said screw that, this game means something more to us, we want to win it badly, and we’re going to wear a metaphor that makes no sense to prove it!

Comical though it may have been, and it was truly comical (see Otto Porter’s backstage WWE strut below, complete with Men in Black shades), the motivation was legitimate. You can’t concoct a very public spectacle, dress in all black, and lose. On the flip side, you can’t call the stunt “cute” and then roll over and let these clowns lay you to rest, even if it’s just for one night. Pride was restored to the NBA regular season.

“Iiiiiiiiiii, I’m hooked on a feelin’! I’m high on believin’….”

I don’t mean to suggest that NBA players aren’t going full tilt every night. The cases where they don’t do so are rare, undoubtedly, but we also aren’t frequently privy to matchups of vociferous competitive fire. It’s partially a product of the Lebron/DWade/Carmelo/CP3 Banana Boat Era that’s presided over the NBA for the past few years. Players want to win, but they don’t seem to be interested in eviscerating opponents — not frequently enough for my liking at least — because hey, you never know when you might want to wave the white flag and sign for your chief competitors because you couldn’t beat them.

Speaking of Kevin Durant, there’s a reason why we clear our schedules when the Thunder and Warriors are set to cross paths. Russell Westbrook always plays like he wants to tear the rim off of the backboard and knee his opponent in the chest while he does it, but because we know he’s motivated by and makes no apologies for his bitter quest for revenge against the Warriors, it’s can’t miss TV. Make no mistake, had the Wizards voiced their intent earlier, there’s little question that last night’s game would have found its way to national television.

For a sports fan, there’s no more invigorating spectacle than a contest played with raw emotion. When players are demonstrably invested on an emotional level, fans automatically up their level of investment in parallel, feeding off of the energy and giving multiples of it back to those on the court. We typically wait with patience for April and May to experience that thrill, but on select occasions, there are teams and players who will deliver it early. The Wizards initiated that delivery, and the Celtics gladly obliged. Regardless of how it was created, there was legitimate nationwide interest in a late January Wizards/Celtics game, and that’s different, strange, and awesome all at once.

And oh did the Wizards show up. Playing with the weight of self-created pressure squarely on their shoulders, Washington came out red hot, shooting the lights out as if there was something on the line. The Washington crowd, though more sparse than you’d hope given the occasion, made up for attendance with intensity, serenading Jae Crowder with an inspired chorus of boos with each touch of the ball.

The Celtics fell down by double digits on numerous occasions. On another night, each successive Wizards’ effort to shut the door might have been met with less resistance. Instead, the Celtics persisted (at least offensively) in spite of their own putrid defense, dusting themselves off and mounting unsuccessful siege after unsuccessful siege to the lead, led by Isaiah Thomas’ 25 points. King of the Fourth’s efforts would not be enough on this particular night, as the Wizards rode an unrelenting wave of emotion throughout, which became particularly insurmountable in the closing stages. With a little luck, we’ve just witnessed the precursor to what would surely be a very testy 3 vs 6 matchup this spring.

Whatever this episode was, we need more of it and not just from these two teams. This NBA season is not without an abundance of truly compelling storylines, from stars reaching new levels to the emergence of new phenoms, but nothing beats raw, emotional rivalry. There’s no need for every single NBA player to take the nonexistent (and frankly, transparently phony) high road every single time they have the opportunity. There’s no need to be hastily dismissive of a budding rivalry, for fear that it might legitimize your opponent. Whether your opponent is 1st in the conference or 15th, the expectation is that the NBA should be a fiery and competitive league.

Don’t make a face when Marcus Smart tries to get under your skin, Lebron. Nobody’s going to assume that you consider him your peer and a worthy adversary if you make it your mission to dunk on his head for the rest of the game or disallow him the ball until the buzzer sounds. I understand why that’s Lebron’s response to almost anyone that has ever stepped to him, but speaking in terms of the broader NBA culture, since when is it considered uncool to make it known that an opponent makes your blood boil and heightens your competitive intensity?

Kudos to the Wizards for having the guts to do it. Kudos to the typically mild-mannered Otto Porter for going allllllll the way in on the idea — hopefully well aware that he might end up a punchline. Bonus for Otto (a game-high +16 in a quiet effort last night) because good things come to those with guts: the abundant memes sure to follow just might garner him enough attention going forward, whether positive or negative, for the casual observer to notice that he’s among the NBA’s most improved players.

Ironically, the Wizards somewhat inorganic creation of competitive urgency harkens back to the tendencies of Celtic great and certified on-court lunatic, Kevin Garnett, whose internal struggle to summon the anger within and manufacture reasons to hate his opponent was always plainly visible. The Wizards would’ve been well-served to consult old KG postgame interviews in search of a better metaphor to express their motivations. Throw your hard hat on, it’s time to work! Bar fight!! Bar fight! Bar fight! You been in a bar fight?! Ask Charles, he’s been in a bar fight!

KG’s NBA era ended long before he officially hung up his hard hat this past offseason. The league-wide competitive fire (not to be confused with quality of play) has dimmed in recent years, and no amount of postseason Draymond Green groin assaults can fully compensate for it. We know the Wizards will be chided, mocked, and questioned by peers, prognosticators, and fans, and it will be partially deserved. I hope, though, that they’re ridiculed only for the perplexing choice of metaphorical apparel, not for boldly and unapologetically declaring an otherwise pedestrian mid-winter NBA game more meaningful than most and backing up that talk with spirited effort.

I guess what I’m saying is, don’t lose your dinosaur, Wizards. Yeah, that’s it.