On an exceptionally warm afternoon in D.C., I exited the Chinatown/Gallery Place metro stop that runs underneath the Verizon Center, and realized that I still had about 25 minutes before I could enter the building. So, instead of making my usual pit stop at the administrative entrance lobby, I decided to relax in the fantastic atrium inside the National Portrait Gallery, which is located conveniently across the street from the arena. I must admit that I don't frequent museums on a regular basis, and didn't actually tour any of the galleries on my visit today, but their sun-lit indoor atrium is one of the few warm, and non-abrasive public locales in Chinatown to spend a few peaceful moments, read a book, or in my case listen to my i-pod without any disturbances. After I was done listening to about 15 minutes of the Smashing Pumpkins on my miniature music device, I walked across the street to the arena to pick up my concourse credentials for tonight's game.
I went in with two of my co-photographers, one of whom followed me down to court-side to get a glimpse of my team, the Knicks, warming up before the game. Amar'e Stoudemire was shooting around, displaying his new moves he had presumably learned from NBA legend-turned-mentor to the stars, Hakeem Olajuwon. Like several of today's star players, the Knicks forward had worked with Hakeem to expand his offensive capabilities, and has been eager to show off his wider range of skills so far this season, since missing the first 30 games with a knee injury. This evening, he was displaying a Euro-step move accompanied by a reverse dunk finish that caught the attention of rookie forward Chris Copeland.
|After spending the first five years of his career overseas, Knicks rookie forward, and Orange, New Jersey native, Chris Copeland is getting his first taste of the NBA at the age of 28.|
|STAT: Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire has averaged 14.2 points in 16 games this season, since returning from a knee injury on January 1st.|
|The Knicks added 6'7" swing man Ronnie Brewer over the off-season for his defensive prowess on the perimeter.|
|Knicks swing men James White, left, and Ronnie Brewer, right, converse during pregame warmups.|
After watching a few minutes of back-up Knick point guard Pablo Prigioni work on his three-point range, I made my way up to the storage closet behind section 117 in the Verizon Center to pick up my Nikon SLR camera for work, then immersed myself in a pool of New York fans who were camped out behind the Knicks bench looking for autographs. There was a definitive New York presence in the building. I have a feeling it was about 50-50 Knicks fans to Wizards fans, but it seemed like 60-40 at some points. Unquestionably, there were more Knicks jerseys than Wizards jerseys, especially those of Carmelo Anthony, who grew up in Baltimore, and legendary Knick center Patrick Ewing, who played four years for the Georgetown Hoyas, the collegiate inhabitants of the Verizon Center.
|After playing for 17 years overseas, Knicks rookie point guard Pablo Prigioni, a native of Argentina, is in his debut NBA season at the age of 35.|
|Prigioni takes time to pose with a fellow Argentine before the game|
Knicks fans were particularly photogenic, and were more than willing to take a handful of pictures. Some posed for the camera, others wanted photographs of their Knicks gear, including one guy who encouraged me to take a picture of his orange and blue Air Jordans that matched his Carmelo Anthony jersey impeccably. There were a substantial number of New York jerseys representing every era. Some of the more popular jerseys worn by fans included those of Anthony, Stoudemire, Ewing, John Starks, and Jeremy Lin. I also spotted at least one jersey of Willis Reed, Clyde Frazier, Bernard King, Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, Kurt Thomas, Iman Shumpert, and Steve Novak.
|A Knicks fan holds up a cardboard cut-out of Carmelo Anthony's face|
At the beginning of the first quarter, I started making my rounds about the concourse, encouraging fans to smile for the camera, when I noticed a huge crowd of people gathered around a tall man near one of the first floor executive suites. Moving closer, I realized that the commotion was over Magic Johnson, who decided to drop by and watch the game in the front row along with Kentucky coach John Callipari, and Wizards owner Ted Leonsis. I tried to get a couple fans to pose with the NBA legend, and take a picture, but he was quickly ushered back into his suite by a security guard once the huge line of people around him requesting an autograph, or a personal photo, started to congest that region of the concourse.
It was a late-arriving crowd, and the flood of people coming into the arena didn't completely stop until halftime, so I accumulated most of my pictures tonight standing by one of the main entrances to the arena. Unlike most nights, I didn't make any excursions to the other floors. Instead, I stayed mostly rooted in one place, but was still able to get about 450 photos given the size of the crowd. One usher estimated the attendance must have been around 14,000, though the official attendance was listed as being over 18,000, which far eclipses the typical number of fans for a weeknight Wizards game.
After more than meeting my quota of fan pictures, I was able to watch the last couple minutes of the game. I was shocked to see that the Knicks, who had won the last 10 meetings between the two clubs, were trailing by 8 points with just over 2 minutes left to play. The Wizards ended up cruising, impressively, to a 106-96 victory behind 21 points and 9 assists from John Wall. The Knicks were led by Carmelo Anthony with 31 points in the Knicks' first loss in 11 games against Washington.
It wasn't until after the game, that I got the thrill of a lifetime. In most NBA arenas, announcers and commentators operate from the court-side press table, but at the Verizon Center, there's a table that is home to both the home and away broadcasters, and is located at the top of one of the lower level sections. I stand in front of this table every night, and see Wizards color commentator Phil Chenier before every telecast, so I know exactly where it is. I figured if there was anywhere that I could introduce myself to Clyde, it would be there. Of course, there was a line to talk to him, so I waited patiently for some of his other admirers to take some pictures with him, before handing him my business card, and getting his take on the Knicks' fiasco tonight against the Wiz.
He seemed a little surprised that I would hand him a card of all things, but he was extremely amicable and told me he'd check out my site. His analysis of the game was completely astute, and was said with one of his own patented phrases. "They [the Knicks] played swiss cheese D," he told me. I couldn't agree more, Clyde. The Knicks' porous defense allowed the Wizards to shoot 52.3 percent from the field, including 55 percent from downtown. Wizards guard Martell Webster, alone, went 5-9 from three-point range, scoring 19 points on 6-11 shooting overall. Incredibly, the Wizards have only 13 wins on the season, but have managed to beat 5 of the 6 NBA division leaders.
As a Knicks fan, it was a tough one to swallow. It's never a pleasant feeling seeing your team lose to one of the lower echelon teams in the league by double digits. But no matter how disillusioned I was, it wasn't the time, or the place, to walk out of the arena with a long face. After all, I'm currently a contracted worker for the Wizards, and in some ways, I represent their organization, even if it is somewhat on the periphery. As far as tonight was concerned, I was just happy to be in the building, and meet a childhood hero. That was all I could possibly ask for.