Ben Olsen with his fans
Ben Olsen was going to be honored after the third quarter of Tuesday night's Wizards game; a nice gesture for a local icon on the day he retired. Then, of course, Abe Pollin died, and neither Olsen nor the Wizards thought this was the right night for a tribute to somebody else.
Still, Olsen--a longtime Wizards fan--came to the game, and while many of the United supporters found out the tribute was canceled and stayed away, several dozen showed up, in black and red, carrying scarves, and thinking they were going to honor Ben.
Which is why, beer in hand, Olsen wound up spending a good long part of his retirement night shaking hands and signing jerseys and posing for photos and trading memories with soccer fans in the 400 level of a basketball arena. "Ben-ny Ol-sen," the fans chanted when he appeared. "Ben-ny Ol-sen."
"It's this stuff here," said Jeff Werner, when I asked why United fans have gone so gaga over Olsen for so many years. "He just seems like a regular guy. We're sitting here, thinking 'Let's ask him if he'll be on our indoor team now that he's retired.' "
Truth is, there are lots of reasons for the Olsen love, lots of reasons I put him second on my list of D.C.'s Most Beloved Athletes last summer. (A list that no one happened to agree with, but whatever.) He was hard-working, and he'd been here forever; he was both honest and funny with the media, and respected by his teammates; he won titles and played hard during the bad times; he was the most prominent D.C. athlete to live in the city, he seemed liked a regular guy, and he did so while putting his body and extensive body hair on the line every time he took the field.
"Dude, man, he IS D.C. United," Chico Solares once told me. "He's the heart of the team. He's the spirit of the team."
Olsen, though, always seemed, I don't know, perplexed about the whole "heart and soul" thing. Almost uncomfortable. Maybe there's no easy way to wrap your head around something like that.
"I just don't understand it. I really don't," Olsen said after the Heart of a Lion game. These people here, they're just so supportive. I mean, all I do, I play hard, but it's not because I have this great heart. I just like to play soccer. I like to play for this team, and I guess they appreciate it."
Tuesday night, I again asked him the fan question, and now he was more willing to confront and acknowledge his popularity. Well, sort of.
"I just can't believe they do that type of stuff, and it's tough to realize they do stuff like that for me," he said. "It's a little bit tough to comprehend that, but it's flattering none the less. You saw it up there [in the 400 level]. I mean these people are just so supportive. I guess now I can look back and say I've been here a while, I've maybe brought them some joy, I've been a part of some championship teams, and if you follow someone and you're part of a championship team or a successful team, I can see why people, you know, cheer for you. But to that extent? Always a little bit surprised."
Olsen--who lives in Shaw and retains his city cred, unlike certain bloggers--said he would remain in the area, that all his options are in D.C., that "this is home, and I'll stick here for as long as I can." But even if and when he joins the team in a front-office capacity, the Heart of a Lion banners and spontaneous displays of affection and group cheers will inevitably diminish. So I asked if he'd miss the cheers.
"Absolutely," he said. "I've got an ego, man. I've got an ego, and that's one of the things I know I'm gonna miss. There's certain things I'll probably miss that I don't know, but the two things I do know are the fans getting behind you and cheering, and also the locker room. Being with the guys, the team camaraderie, going out and fighting with guys. The locker room culture is something that very, very few people get to experience. You get to work with guys your age, screwing around all day long. I liked all facets of being a professional athlete. I liked the media, I liked playing, I liked the kids, I liked the crowds, I liked the winning. Maybe the travel got to me towards the end, but other than that, I loved it. I've got no complaints."
Anyhow, not to get all melodramatic, but it the evening felt sort of appropriate. Olsen--for entirely understandable reasons--got upstaged by a bigger local sports story, and so instead he went to hang out and be serenaded by the hardcore soccer fans who loved him. Before I headed back to the press area, I asked Olsen whether he ever dreams about fans cheering for him.
"Nah, most of my dreams I'm playing and I can't really move right," he said. "I'm very slow, my legs don't work, I just feel really sluggish, and everybody else is a lot faster than me."
"The difference between that dream and reality is actually starting to become less," he said with a laugh, "so that's really why I retired."
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