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The Wizards are finally capturing D.C.'s attention

For the first time in 40 years, the Wizards have a core the city can proudly rally behind.

The new mural at Ben’s Chili Bowl
Photo: Graham MacAree/SB Nation.

Take one step off the Metro into the revitalized U Street Corridor, and you’ll find a long line waiting across the street at Ben’s Chili Bowl, the beloved two-story diner famous for chili served on half-smoke sausage.

Between two banners adorning the restaurant's red cursive name sits a ledge with a simple message: “A WASHINGTON LANDMARK SINCE 1958.” Back then, the U Street Corridor was a hub of African American culture, known locally as “Black Broadway.” In the ensuing years, it was torn apart by 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, infected by the city’s crack epidemic, and rebuilt into one of its hot spots through gentrification.

Trendy bars and remodeled landmarks dot both sides of the street, but Ben’s Chili Bowl’s cafeteria-style layout remains. The clientele is more diverse, but the food and mood haven’t changed.

For the last five years, the restaurant housed a mural depicting four of its most beloved customers: Go-Go music legend Chuck Brown, local radio icon DJ Donnie Simpson, Barack Obama, and Bill Cosby.

In January, amid rising pressure to remove Cosby due to repeated sexual assault accusations, the restaurant’s owners decided it was time for a fresh coat of paint. They held an online vote featuring a long list of local celebrities, politicians, and legends to replace the old mural.

That list caught the eye of Hunter Lochmann, the senior vice president of marketing and brand strategy at Monumental Sports and Entertainment (the parent company that owns the Wizards and Capitals). At first, he asked the restaurant to add John Wall, the Wizards’ star player, to its long list.

But soon, a more ambitious idea popped into Lochmann’s head. He contacted Vida Ali, the daughter-in-law of the restaurant’s founder, with a long-shot request. Would the restaurant consider a temporary mural portraying Wall and backcourt partner Bradley Beal to drum up interest in the team’s upcoming playoff run?

To his surprise, Ali said yes.

“We really don’t do organizations, per se,” Ali said. “That’s why I think they thought it was such a long shot. But they’re more of a team, so it was kind of more that spirit of supporting a team that was kind of fun to do.”

Two days before the team’s home playoff opener against the Atlanta Hawks, Wall and Beal joined hundreds of fans to celebrate the unveiling of the new and improved Ben’s Chili Bowl mural. It’ll stay there until May 5, Ali said, though a deep Wizards playoff run could merit an extension.

But Ali had one lingering question: what about Monumental’s other professional sports team, the Capitals? They were also starting a playoff run and Ali told Lochmann she would have happily dedicated mural space to celebrate them, too. What better way to honor the rabid hockey fanbase that’s now sold out Verizon Center 315 consecutive times?

“The Capitals, you can always build a brand there,” Lochmann told me. “But they’re further along in the connection to the city in some ways [than the Wizards].”

That bond between city and team was damaged by decades of irrelevancy and neglect. But for the first time in nearly four decades, the Washington professional basketball franchise has a product worthy enough to stitch that connective tissue back together.

Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Ted Leonsis has a plan. Its revelation came not from the Wizards or the Caps, but from the city’s football team. Back in 2009, Leonsis fielded an email from an SB Nation Washington football team blogger. If he owned that team, how he would fix its toxic culture?

Leonsis prides himself on transparency with fans, so he responded with a detailed set of values that governed the Capitals’ resurgence. That’s how his “10 Point Plan” was born.

“I dashed it off very, very quickly, and whoever got it, he was so happy that I responded that he published it,” Leonsis said in a wide-ranging interview at Monumental’s corporate headquarters. “It’s taken on a little life of its own.”

That’s when the “The Plan” became ubiquitous around town. The first step wasn’t about winning championships or building dynasties. It was about confronting the team’s history, or lack thereof. From there, a more tangible goal emerged. “Right now, everyone is in the mode of, ‘How do we overcome a history and become a have team,’” he said.

In Ted-Speak, a “have” team is known for enjoying decades of sustained success and countless legacy players that activate a rabid fanbase and engender loyalty for life. With Wall and Beal leading the Wizards to a division title for the first time in 38 years, that foundation may finally be in place.

Becoming a have team requires a history that’s actually worth celebrating. That’s why The Plan calls for building around a collection of high draft picks who take their lumps before maturing together into a homegrown core that inspires a generation of fans.

That’s a history the Wizards simply don’t have. In the decades following their 1978 championship, the franchise became a remote outpost just as the sport was growing in popularity. When they weren’t a dumping ground for past-their-prime stars like Moses Malone, Bernard King, and Michael Jordan, they were staining their few strokes of genius, like Chris Webber or Gilbert Arenas.

Against this backdrop, Leonsis’ blueprint was a breath of fresh air, especially after Wall arrived in 2010 via a rare dose of lottery luck. Yet, it didn’t take long for the trauma of embarrassment to return. The Wizards didn’t just lose in Wall’s first two seasons. They lost while earning a reputation as a place that lacked any institutional control.

“We didn’t win shit,” Wall recalled. “We were losing all the time. Coming from where I came from [Kentucky], we only lost three games, so I’m used to winning all the time. It was a different culture.”

Leonsis and longtime general manager Ernie Grunfeld paint this as a necessary transition period to clear out players infected by Arenas’ tomfoolery. But mistakes were made that still had lasting effects, such as picking Jan Vesely sixth in the 2011 draft or Leonsis exuberantly referring to Wall, Andray Blatche, and Jordan Crawford as a “new big 3.”

“Those guys were so young, they were trying to develop theyselves and make a name. I was trying to do the same,” Wall said. “There wasn’t a veteran presence out there to help us.”

There was more lottery luck in 2012. The Wizards scooped up Beal with the third pick, giving them a potentially dynamic young backcourt. Their homegrown principles were put to the test when they flirted with a trade for James Harden, but ultimately decided to build with youth.

(The specific details of the possible Harden trade package depend on who you ask. Leonsis now admits he was against the idea, while management sources at the time suggested the talks were more informal. Grunfeld declined to comment when asked for this story).

“Filtering it through The Plan, it was, ‘Can you have two ball-dominant alpha people on the team?’ It was hard,” Leonsis said. “We envisioned what’s happened now, which is a point guard who has the ball a lot and a shooting guard. And boy, if that worked, they’d play well together for a long, long time.”

In the coming years, Nene, Trevor Ariza, and Emeka Okafor arrived to offer Wall and Beal with much-needed veteran savvy. When Okafor suffered a career-ending injury before the 2013-14 season, Grunfeld sacrificed a first-round pick to acquire Marcin Gortat, believing his pick-and-roll fluency would tease out Wall’s craft.

It worked. For a time.

The Wizards stunned the Bulls in the first round of the 2014 playoffs, with Beal starring alongside Wall. That convinced free agent Paul Pierce that the Wizards were the have team he needed to join. After an uneven 2014-15 season, the Wizards again turned heads in the playoffs and may have become the first local Big 4 team to make its conference finals in nearly two decades if not for a Wall wrist injury.

That’s what made last season so deflating. The Wizards were only five games worse, but that was enough to dismantle whatever cache they had built. Kevin Durant, who had been linked with a possible return home for years, refused to even grant the organization a chance to make its pitch.

The league had spoken. The Wizards, despite modest success, were not a have team. Not yet, anyway.

Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Under a different owner, the core may have scattered into the NBA winds. But Leonsis is a patient man who believes management upheaval breeds franchise instability in toxic ways. One of Leonsis’ favorite pastimes is poking fun at those who advocate major changes, whether they’re angry fans, critical columnists, or even other organizations that “destroy their team” in order to “win the offseason.”

Leonsis and Grunfeld were encouraged by last season’s second-half performance following a trade for Markieff Morris, but were troubled when players kept telling them them 2015 first-round pick Kelly Oubre didn’t get enough of a chance to play.

Leonsis takes these exit interviews with players seriously — they convinced him to retain Randy Wittman in 2012 despite a modest 18-31 finish. Now, the players were reminding him that The Plan only works when those young players are put in a position to succeed.

That’s why Grunfeld and assistant general manager Tommy Sheppard camped out at Pelican Hill in Newport Beach for eight hours last spring to secure a commitment from Scott Brooks. They knew the former Oklahoma City Thunder head coach had first-hand experience incubating a generational core in a city with little basketball history.

Once free-agent pursuits of Durant and Al Horford failed, Grunfeld made a decision. For better or worse, he told Wall and Beal, you’re the leaders. No more passing the buck to veteran crutches. No more letting on-court wounds fester and lead to resentment.

“We had a conversation with them that, this is your time, this is your team,” Grunfeld told me. “You have to take the bull by horns. And I think they both have.”

Wall further established his franchise-player credentials with a fourth straight All-Star appearance, and those around the team believe Beal should have joined him this year. They are The Plan come to life.

“John will be here for his career,” Leonsis said. “We don’t take him for granted, we love him. Brad will be here his whole career. Once they start to be recognized as being great players, and some of the other great players in the league start to age out, then you have other players who go, ‘Well I want to play with the Wizards.’ If I play with John Wall, I’m going to get paid.’”

A 2-8 start tested fans’ patience, and the Wizards’ playoff hopes looked bleak well into December. But suddenly, the team started to string together wins. At first, they were nail biters, but they soon became dominating displays showcasing the team’s balance and unselfishness.

The Wizards won 17 straight home games from early December to February, the second-longest streak in franchise history. Attendance rose from an average of 15,231 fans in the 11 games before the streak to 19,592 in the 13 regular-season games after it. Six of those 13 games were sellouts, compared to just one of the previous 28.

The young core leveled up, with Wall as the maestro, Beal as the sweet-shooting assassin, Otto Porter as the do-it-all complement, and Oubre as the athletic wild card. Brooks fostered a consistent joy for competition, giving his players confidence while keeping them engaged with the daily grind.

Before games, you’ll see Beal and player development coordinator Winston Gandy staring each other down in spirited one-on-one contests. (“I’ve been getting stops on you recently,” Gandy bellowed before a late-season game against the Hornets).

Brooks empowers his growing player development staff with essential roles and encouraged all assistant coaches to spend quality time on the court with players after practices and before games. As Gandy and Beal went at each other, lead assistant coach Tony Brown rebounded for the other Wizards shooters.

“They were very organized last year, but this year, I feel that they’re a bit more militant,” Oubre told me. “That’s a great thing. We need that. We need people to be on top of us.”

As they surged up the standings, the Verizon Center swelled with enthusiastic locals. Wall has long grumbled about a lack of respect locally and nationally, pointing to infrequent national television appearances and transplant-heavy crowds that turned marquee matchups into road games. But this year, he’s noticed a difference.

“In the past, we wouldn’t have a great fanbase in the regular season, but it would always get better in the playoffs. You’d expect it to be that,” Wall said. “But this season, it’s gotten a lot better. It’s been amazing for us.”

That crescendo is symbolic of Leonsis’ larger ambitions. When Pierce was in town, he told Leonsis that the Wizards would never become a have team until Verizon Center was a scary place to play. Even when the Wizards made back-to-back second-round appearances, they curiously struggled at home.

This season, they finished with the league’s fourth-best home record and have won all their playoff home games. Nobody would confuse Verizon Center with Oracle Arena at its loudest, but these baby steps for most organizations are quantum leaps forward for this one.

Leonsis’ peers are starting to notice, much to his delight. Near the end of our hour-long conversation, Leonsis recounted how fellow owners at a recent NBA Board of Governors meeting said they feared a potential playoff matchup with the Wizards. “Oh, you’re gonna be beasts for a long time,” Leonsis recalled them saying.

Dare we say, the Wizards are becoming … cool?

As the city rediscovers its long-dormant Bullets Fever, the organization has taken steps to ensure this flicker of success has staying power. When advertising at the Gallery Place Metro station opened in late March, the organization arranged to plaster every space they could with faces of different Wizards players alongside their hockey brethren.

Passengers step off the train and are immediately greeted with billboards featuring a screaming Morris, a focused Bojan Bogdanovic, and a snarling Gortat grabbing a rebound. Banners reading “THIS STOP: PLAYOFFS” hang on the upper levels leading to the arena exit. Take the escalator down to the green line, and you’ll descend between giant posters of Wall and Beal hawking 2017-18 season tickets.

Each sign is punctuated by the team’s new slogan: #DCFamily. Lochmann heard Brooks use it in his introductory press conference and decided to co-opt the sentiment.

“They break every huddle with ‘FAMILY ON 3,’ so we’ve kind of positioned it as it’s a chance for Wizards fans to kind of re-emerge with the family,” Lochmann said. “Join the family. Be a part of the family.”

The last time the Wizards made the playoffs, the organization used the phrase #DCRising, which encouraged folks to get in on the ground floor. Now, the Wizards want to expand the tent and convince the city that this collection of familiar faces won’t let them down. They aren’t interlopers from somewhere else or cult heroes who burn their 10 minutes of fame. They’re D.C. pillars and they’re here to stay.

Even if their place in front of Ben’s is only temporary.