For free, 14,000 check out Wizards

For many, the visit to MCI Center is first

January 25, 1999|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- As he turned down 6th Street in his approach to the MCI Centerbefore yesterday's scrimmage, Washington Wizards center Lorenzo Williams didn't know what to expect.

He had seen the polls during the lockout, indicating a high number of fans not caring about the NBA. He had read the newspaper columns and heard the local sports talk shows, with much of the commentary toward the players negative.

"Yes, I was kind of concerned," Williams said. "I didn't know what reception we'd get from the fans."

How about overwhelming?

At about 7: 30, on a nasty, rainy morning, the first fans arrived to get in line for the free Wizards intrasquad scrimmage as well as an opportunity to pick up free tickets for Saturday's preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers. All the tickets were distributed in about an hour.

By the time players began arriving shortly after 11 a.m., the line to the MCI Center was wrapped nearly around the block, and the doors wouldn't open until 12: 45.

"Honestly, I thought we'd get 4,000, maybe 5,000 people," Wizards guard Tim Legler said.

Make that 14,000-plus, including many who had never stepped into the MCI Center.

In what is supposed to be a newer, fan-friendly NBA, those people got an extra treat: a personal greeting from Juwan Howard, who stood at the main entrance shaking hands as people walked in, and a handshake from teammate Mitch Richmond, who was at another entrance no more than 20 yards away.

Williams and fellow center Terry Davis stood in the concourse, posing for pictures with fans and engaging in conversation. Coach Bernie Bickerstaff nearly blended in with the crowd, talking basketball to the people who did recognize him.

"I think this is great, everybody reaching out," Bickerstaff said. "The players, the fans, they understand who's important. It's just good to get out here and hear the roar of the crowd."

The scrimmage was what you would expect from a team that had practiced for only 2 1/2 days: The white team, led by Howard's 25 points, crushed Richmond's blue team, 100-74.

It wasn't pretty. But don't tell the fans.

"I actually have very good seats, which I'm sure I would not have gotten if I had paid for tickets," said Michelle Temoney, a Washington resident who came to the MCI Center for the first time with her two sons. "For my two kids and myself, it would be a lot of money to come here for a game, so this being free definitely helped. I think [the Wizards] want to get the people back and basically say, `We're sorry.' "

Arnold Lindsey of Washington arrived with his 5-year-old son Markus at 9 a.m. But not only did Lindsey get front-row seats for the scrimmage -- a spot right behind the basket that usually goes for $125 -- but he also secured 12 tickets for Saturday's preseason game against Philadelphia.

"To be honest, I'm usually sitting up top," Lindsey said, pointing to the 400 section at the top of the building. "This is good, real good. I think the effect the lockout had on the fans will be short-term. Fans tend to forget very quickly, especially if the players they have are playing well."

Under that scenario, Washington fans might be very forgiving if the team signs free-agent point guard Rod Strickland -- last season's league leader in assists -- and gets off to a strong start when the season opens on Feb. 5. Strickland's agent, David Falk, is still negotiating with general manager Wes Unseld.

As Bickerstaff addressed the crowd before yesterday's scrimmage, most in the crowd chanted loudly, "We want Rod! We want Rod!"

"That was great, to hear those cheers, and maybe we need a little bit more of that," said Richmond, who missed nine of 13 shots and scored 10 points. "Hopefully, we can get Rod back soon and look like a team."

Scoring honors went to 6-foot-11 free-agent forward Randell Jackson, who hit 12 of 15 shots while scoring 26 points for the blue team. Legler, who missed much of the past two seasons with injuries, scored 18. Calbert Cheaney (groin) and Tracy Murray (ankle) did not play.

"The guys went out and played hard, and that's all you can ask for," Bickerstaff said.

And the fans appreciated the effort -- and the free seats. Maybe the interest that existed yesterday won't be there for those Wednesday games against the Toronto Raptors -- or that Friday game against the Chicago Bulls -- when the regular season starts.

But the fans enjoyed the moment.

"This is something they should do once a year," said Anthony Gore, 42, of Washington, looking very comfortable in his midcourt, front-row seat. "Or at least the beginning of every season, to make the fans feel welcome."

NOTES: Rookie Jahidi White (Georgetown) grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds and was involved in some physical play with Davis. "Jahidi really has an opportunity to put fear into people," Bickerstaff said of the 6-9, 290-pound center. Chris Whitney, the top point guard with Strickland out, had nine assists and seven rebounds. The team issued a "contract" to fans, promising no increase in ticket prices next season, no increase for season-ticket holders for the next two seasons, a donation of $1 million in tickets per season and one family night per month (with discounted tickets, food and beverage) for the next three seasons.

Pub Date: 1/25/99

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