I have two kids, both boys, born twelve months apart and both born during Washington Wizards playoffs series.
The birth of my firstborn, Lorenzo, coincided with the start of the 2017 Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Boston Celtics – his mother went into labor shortly before tipoff of Game 1, and the game was playing in the background during the first hours of a long delivery. When Luca joined our family a year later in April 2018, the Wizards were in the midst of a first-round series with the Toronto Raptors.
In both cases, I hoped the introduction to the world of a new WizKid would bring with it a wave of fortune for the hometown basketball team. I fantasized of pointing to my boys as good luck charms, of sharing pictures of them in Wizards newborn onesies, and, above all, of them being welcomed into this life with a winning team to root for. In both cases, my dreams would not be realized, doomed in large part by the glaring deficiencies in how our long-time General Manager assembled the team roster.
I remember sitting in a Labor and Delivery room, trying to mute my yells of frustration so as to not to wake my resting wife and newborn son, as I watched a 5’8” guard carve our team up for 53 points because we didn’t have a competent rim protector. Then, a few days later in one of our son’s first nights at home, I looked on with equal anguish as the playoff campaign came to an end with our star backcourt succumbing to the exhaustion of a long season without serviceable backups. The next year from a hospital couch, I’d watch the season end in similarly depressing fashion, derailed this time by the GM’s inability to field a team that could seed high enough to avoid a matchup against the conference’s top team.
These were not the basketball memories that I wanted to associate with my first days of fatherhood.
Teaching my boys the peculiar ritual of rooting for the Wizards was supposed to be fun; using them as excuses to attend games, instructing them to admire – but not play with – my bobblehead collection, regaling them with tales of Agent Zero and Pierre McGee. Instead, Wizards basketball was becoming less and less of a fixture of our household, trending quickly downward in alignment with the team’s own continuous regression.
I thought to myself that perhaps there was no other way to be initiated as a Wizards fan than to be immersed in disappointment from the outset – such a start would certainly set expectations appropriately. I laughed (cried) that nothing could so perfectly capture the #SoWizards curse for me than seeing the heirs to my rabid fandom doomed to ultimately grow up rooting for another basketball team.
Then again, if the next forty years of professional basketball in the nation’s capital turned out anything like the previous forty, did I even want to saddle my offspring with the burden of believing that DC was rising? Maybe it was better to let them live happy, unfettered lives as Capitals or Manchester City fans. This is what the miserable, soul-crushing past two seasons of NBA basketball had brought me to: a dejection and hopelessness for the future that was so strong that I might’ve considered letting my bloodline of Wizards devotion die with me.
Then, on April 2, 2019, a date which will live in reverence, the heavens opened up, the earth stopped spinning, and Ernie Grunfeld was fired as President of Basketball Operation to restore the hope of Wizards fans everywhere.
It’s hard to explain how out-of-nowhere the Grunfeld firing came. Ernie was so secure in his institutionalized position of engineering incompetence, that fans were almost forced to accept the he’d be trading draft picks to get rid of bad contracts into perpetuity. As much as everybody related to the sentiment behind a good “Fire Ernie” chant, it eventually wasn’t worth wasting your breath.
It’s also hard to explain just how universal the jubilant reaction to Ernie’s dismissal was. As soon as the news broke, I received congratulatory messages and texts with prayer hands emojis from all corners – DC, Maryland, Virginia, California, Brazil, friends, enemies, people I hadn’t talked to in years – all ecstatic that even though no roster changes had occurred, at least the pervading shadow of the General Mismanager was gone!
What’s not hard to explain is why everyone was so happy. Ernie Grunfeld had a proven track record as one of the very worst GMs in the league. For reasons unknown, he also had a record as one of the longest tenured GMs in the league. Much can be and has been written about Grunfeld numerous blunders – there’s far too many to count – but you don’t need more than three examples to demonstrate just how far astray he led this franchise in the course of his 16 years:
- Grunfeld traded the #5 pick in the 2009 draft for Randy Foye and Mike Miller. Steph Curry was selected at #7 and went on to win two MVPs, six-plus All NBA nods, and at least three championships. The Wizards went on to win 26 games in the 2009-10 season and neither Miller nor Foye would be on the team the next year.
- In the 2011 draft, critical for building a solid foundation around new franchise cornerstone John Wall, Grunfeld selected Jan Vesely with the #6 pick, leaving Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kemba Walker, Jimmy Butler, Nikola Vucevic and others on the board. Vesely flamed out of the NBA within three seasons, averaging a mere 3.6 points and 15 minutes per game. Those other names and more went on to be All Stars with long careers.
- Leading up to the free agency summer of 2016, Grunfeld let valuable assets like Trevor Ariza leave in order to engineer enough cap space for a run at Kevin Durant. Durant never agreed to even meet with the Wizards. Grunfeld instead used the cap space to give over $100M to Ian Mahinmi, Andrew Nicholson, and Jason Smith.
It’s abundantly clear, then, that the removal of Ernie Grunfeld is addition by subtraction, or even multiplication by subtraction. Bradley Beal knew as much at the beginning of the season, when he looked over at Ernie after a volatile practice and said about the ongoing fiascos that “it starts at the top.” Indeed, it does. And with Ernie at the helm, the Wizards were destined to never be anything more than the underachieving, laughingstock of the league that they’ve been for the majority of Grunfeld’s tenure.
Now that he’s gone, the possibility of another identity is once again viable. Of course, a quick turnaround is by no means the new expectation, and Grunfeld is certainly leaving a dumpster fire of a mess for the next executive to clean up. At the very least, however, we now have a prayer that our franchise will one day be a competitive one. With Ernie, the only thing we had worth aspiring to was free Chick-fil-A.
It’s really a testament to the power of sports that the Wizards have been able to maintain any semblance of a fan base at all. Irrationality is the essence of being a team fanatic, but even supporters of the most decrepit teams find a glimmer of promise to fuel their continued, if frequently frustrated, allegiance. Ernie Grunfeld’s existence pilfered that from this fanbase.
Why get excited for a high draft pick when the GM is going to waste it – that is if he doesn’t trade the pick first. Why bother trying to fool yourself into believing that this time the franchise will successfully develop a talented player to reach his potential? Why keep track of free agency and trade rumors when your team never lands big-time free agents or makes non-luxury tax-related trades?
Why watch at all?
This was the line of thinking that Ernie Grunfeld’s stewardship transmitted. Its ill effects were visible anywhere and everywhere you looked: in the constant reports of turmoil in the locker room, in the underhanded jabs from players and commentators around the league, in the half-empty stands at the Capital One Center, and in the local kids rocking Kyrie Irving jerseys instead of John Wall threads. As long as Ernie remained in charge, you were better off not investing your time and energy into the Wizards.
But now, the wicked witch is dead! Ernie Grunfeld is gone and we’re free at last! Free to hope in our team, free to watch basketball without fatalistic dread, and free to teach our sons to love the Washington Wizards.