The Mona Loser

By avoiding the playoffs since moving to the MCI Center, the Wizards have really beaten the odds.

Sixteen of the 29 NBA franchises made the postseason in each of the last seven seasons. Assuming all teams had an equal shot at reaching the playoffs on any given year, there’s a 1-in-275 chance that a squad would go that long without a single berth. You’d be more likely to crap out seven times in a row while throwing dice at the Bellagio.

But, barring a Wizards-like collapse, the long local nightmare is over. The Wizards left the weekend with a 24-15 record. In the Eastern Conference, only the Miami Heat has a better record.

The Heat can pin all its successes on a single acquisition—or, rather, a Shaquisition. But personnel shifts alone can’t explain the Wizards’ turnaround. The only big roster change from last season’s 25-57 squad is forward Antawn Jamison, who came from Dallas for core-group Wizard Jerry Stackhouse.

Jamison’s surely helped: His running floater at the buzzer on Saturday in Indiana gave the Wizards, playing with NBA steals leader and 20-point man Larry Hughes in street clothes, a win that wouldn’t have come their way in years past.

But Jamison, remember, didn’t even crack the Mavericks’ starting lineup last year. There’s gotta be more at work here. The team’s acting as if a curse has been lifted.

Perhaps...the curse of Chris Webber?

Look at the evidence. The very night the MCI Center opened, Dec. 2, 1997, another downtown landmark was unveiled: A dramatic 50-foot rendering of Webber, hand painted by Seattle muralist James Crespinel.

At the time, Webber seemed deserving of such a laurel. He was the Wizards’ marquee player and a guy who was supposed to lead teammates Juwan Howard and Rod Strickland to multiple NBA titles in the House that Abe Built. The mural, located on the side of the Oriental Bank Building across the street from the arena and paid for by Fila USA, featured the shoe company’s angry slogan, “Don’t Hate the Player, Hate the Game,” and was spotlighted in such a way—and was so damn big—that everybody in the same ZIP code had to take notice.

“I’m not really an art person, but that was something,” says Chris Tavlarides, co-owner of Capitol Outdoor Media, the Georgetown firm that leased the wall space for the mural to Fila. “We forget what a big deal Chris Webber was around here.”

Contrary to the Fila theme, most Wizards fans grew to hate Webber by the time he left for Sacramento in 1998. The mural, like most of the bad memories Webber left here, has long been forgotten. But, while the in-the-flesh Webber took off, the giant homage to him stayed behind.

And it’s still here.

“Chris is with us,” says Tavlarides. “He’s just covered up.”

Turns out that over the years nobody ever bothered to paint over the Webber portrait. Instead, it’s merely been obscured behind giant vinyl tarpaulins featuring other sponsors’ logos and slogans. A Banana Republic ad is currently in the space.

Many of the key players in the Webber mural’s tale have fared poorly since he went up on the wall. Fila USA, which once had a host of NBA endorsers including Grant Hill, got out of the basketball-shoe business entirely shortly after tossing Webber from its spokesmodel roster in the summer of 1998. Fila claimed Webber broke a good-conduct clause in his contract with the company after he got caught with 11 grams of marijuana at an airport in Puerto Rico that August. Webber said the pot belonged to a friend but paid $500 to escape the drug charge.

Several months before the airport bust, Webber was arrested on drug, assault, and traffic charges after getting pulled over in Prince George’s County on his way to Wizards practice. In that incident, he was pepper-sprayed by a cop for refusing to get out of his Lincoln Navigator. Webber told a P.G. County jury in December 1998 that the pot belonged to a friend and was acquitted of the drug and assault charges. He was fined $560 on the traffic counts and lost his license.

Webber sued Fila USA for wrongful termination of his contract and, in 1999, was awarded $2.6 million. Last year, Webber’s high school, Detroit Country Day School, struck all references to him from its record book after grand-jury testimony indicated that now-deceased University of Michigan booster Ed Martin had been paying the player throughout his teenage years. Jonathan Epstein, CEO of Fila USA during its marriage to Webber, pleaded guilty to federal charges of accounting fraud in December 2003.

And then there are the Wizards. Very little has gone right with the home team while the painted Webber has been in hiding across the street. Seven different head coaches. A debacle-laden three-year run with can’t-miss executive/icon Michael Jordan, one of the few folks who ranks right up there with Webber on the list of biggest busts in franchise history.

And, defying the odds and depressing the fans, zero playoff appearances.

But a big change in Webber’s local presence is under way, one that perhaps explains the newly positive vibe around the MCI Center. The ghost of Webber, it turns out, is being chased away.

Big Chris is being bricked over.

Crews from Clark Construction have taken over the south side of the 600 block of F Street. The developer is putting up a building that, by year’s end, will house both an 800-seat venue for the Shakespeare Theatre and the headquarters of the International Union of Bricklayers.

Byron Peck, D.C.’s best-known muralist, says the city should mourn the disappearance of the Webber work, regardless of its commercial origin, as it would the loss of any work of art.

“That was a pretty dramatic piece,” says Peck, adding that he was originally commissioned to paint Webber before the contract went to Crespinel. “That was done on very rough brick, and to have a gradiated color coming off the brick like that—well, to me, these things are as good a piece of art as a lot of photorealism.”

Crespinel, reached on a sabbatical in rural Mexico, says he’s learned to cope with such losses, proud as he is of the piece.

“What gave that Chris Webber mural its quality was the fact that I used fine-art brushes and really high-quality stuff, tubes of great paints and driers and varnishes, and a process that was exactly the same as if I was painting a portrait,” says Crespinel, who over the years has also brushed up bygone murals of Allen Iverson, Carl Lewis, and a 300-foot-tall Shaq while in the employ of shoe companies. “It’s hard, but I really try not to get too attached to what I paint. When I was learning to do what I do, I had to use the same wall over and over, which meant I was constantly painting over my own paintings.”

That said, Crespinel seems genuinely excited by the news that current plans call for his wall-sized Webber painting to be merely bricked over, not torn down.

“If they just brick it over, well, that means he’ll still be there,” says Crespinel. “Then somebody can come dig him up in 100 years.”

A hundred years, eh? Well, don’t be surprised to find the Wizards back in the tank come the 2104–2105 season. —Dave McKenna

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