WASHINGTON - The sports mania overtaking the capital is obvious in the MCI Center gift shop, where on a recent evening a woman best known for her friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton - fundraiser extraordinaire Beth Dozoretz - is championing a different Washington celebrity.
"Michael Jordan is the only reason I'm in this place," she says, looking anything but the typical basketball fan in her snug shearling coat with matching purse. The first-time season ticket holder browses the souvenirs with her 7-year-old son, trawling for any- thing with a Wizards logo on it.
A ticket to the Wizards and a glimpse of the legendary Jordan. A seat at a Capitals game and a sighting of another newcomer, Jaromir Jagr, perhaps the world's best hockey player. These are the measures of influence as a city best known for its political muscle basks in the glow of megawatt sports stars.
"Whoever we tell we've got Wizards tickets, they say, `Oh my God, I'd die to get one of those,'" says Dozoretz, who on a recent game night ditched her more swanky hangouts for the packed MCI Center. "I've seen Michael Jordan quite a lot on the golf course, but never on the basketball court."
The dazzling new headliners of the city's basketball and hockey teams have offered a bright spot for the district while other businesses suffer layoffs and the tourism industry limps along in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Restaurants and shops around the MCI Center fill to capacity on game nights, as a small oasis takes shape around the downtown arena.
"You see people going to a Wizards game the way you'd see people hitting the fights in Las Vegas - everybody's dressed and got this big-night-on-the-town mentality," says Al Koken, a veteran Washington sports broadcaster whose once-secret parking spots by the arena are always taken now. "It spills over to the Capitals. Jagr gives the team that `ooh and ahh' factor I don't think anybody has given that franchise consistently."
Last night's Wizards game against Jordan's old team, the Chicago Bulls, was listed as a sell-out, as has been every Wizards game since the season began. The team has drawn more fans than ever, since moving to the MCI Center from the smaller USAir Arena in suburban Landover more than four years ago.
Despite a lackluster first half of the season, the Capitals also are drawing crowds, selling out six of their 20 home games so far, compared with only one sell-out at the same point last season.
"We feel really blessed to have any business after Sept. 11," says Cheryl Lewis, the manager at The Rock, a sports bar. Though business is slow when the teams are away, Lewis says, when the teams are at home, the bar keeps all four floors open and fields nine bartenders. Last season, it needed only one floor and a single bartender on game nights.
"People lost jobs, they aren't spending money, they aren't traveling," Lewis says, "but now we see a 100 percent turnaround in our business."
The boomlet comes courtesy of Jordan and, to a lesser extent, Jagr. Though the city has long embraced solid, journeymen players - many fans balked at the flashy former Redskins cornerback Deion Sanders - their star power is irresistible to fans whose teams have been viewed as underachievers in recent years.
Most of the excitement surrounds 38-year-old Jordan, widely considered the best player in basketball history, who worked as a Wizards executive for more than a year before ending his second retirement.
Now, with his two-year contract with the Wizards, the stage is set for dramatic match-ups like last night's Bulls contest. An arena once so quiet for Wizards games that people in the stands could hear the players talk is bursting with fans, and nearby bars that used to close early on game nights are bringing in extra staff to handle the rush.
"It's not like a morgue anymore," says Ken Lench, a government lawyer who used to have a whole seat free for his jacket. Now his pals scoop up his extra tickets, and they all make a night of it at sports bars near the MCI Center.
"Before Michael Jordan, I'd bring a newspaper and look up from it every now and then," he says. "Now, there are a million flashbulbs going off."
The Wizards are hot these days - winning 11 of their last 13 games going into last night's game - and fans are showing up to watch a lion in winter. Jordan, last night, became the fourth player to top the 30,000-point career plateau. On New Year's Eve, in a win against the New Jersey Nets, he scored 22 points in succession - one shy of the league record he set in 1987. In the game before that, he became the oldest pro player to score more than 50 points - he got 51.
Crowds seem just as gripped by his flirtation with spectacular failure. One game before he dropped the 51 on the Charlotte Hornets, Jordan scored just six points in a loss to Indiana - a career low.