Midnight Tip-Off more marketing savvy, than madness
Kirk Hinrich slapped the ball as he prepared to make an inbounds pass and shouted, "We got it! We got it!" He waited until Gilbert Arenas curled around a screen, then flipped an underhand pass. Arenas caught the ball, quickly turned and buried a three-pointer off the glass as time expired for the period and nearly 3,500 fans at George Mason's Patriot Center applauded and cheered. But not everybody was thrilled to see the shot go down.
"I didn't like that. That was on me," Nick Young said with a laugh. "I didn't like that. But it was Gil being Gil. I wanted him to miss, but it was a Gil shot."
It was a throwback moment on a night when the Wizards ushered in a new era, at a time when many of its fans were, or perhaps should've been asleep. They had a midnight practice that was open to the public, televised on NBATV and generated enough publicity in hype that the quality of play -- understandably shaky considering the time of night and jitters of scrimmaging for the first time in front of a crowd -- was negligible.
The Miami Heat and Carmelo Anthony's trade drama may have dominated the headlines as most team's held Media Day on Monday, but between 12:01 a.m. and 1 a.m., only one NBA team was practicing; only one team was gaining recognition -- and that was the Wizards.
Since there was no structure to the scrimmage, the purpose of the practice was blatantly obvious.
"We're very aggressive marketers, unabashed about it," said new owner Ted Leonsis, who arrived for the event after attending some owners meetings in New York earlier in the evening. "Monday night in the rain and people are here, so it takes a serious commitment."
A team that won just 26 games last season, and 19 the year before, was able to draw a loud and boisterous audience, hoping to get the first look at No. 1 overall pick John Wall and the return of the fallen hero, Arenas -- for free.
After a performance by the go-go band, Mambo Sauce, and some basic drills by the players, the fans got to witness a rather heated, and sometimes sloppy, scrimmage. Newcomer Kirk Hinrich played some serious defense on Wall, Wall connected with JaVale McGee for several alley-oop dunks, Young buried several contested jumpers, and Arenas provided some flashes of his old (No. 0) self.
Coach Flip Saunders said the idea of a Midnight practice fit right into his "wheel well" and that his players were enthusiastic when he presented the concept to them. "I don't think anyone questioned it. When I explained to them why, I think they felt good about it," Saunders said. "I thought overall, it was a good one hour. we had some guys trying to do too much, but overall it was pretty good. They went at it pretty hard. It was good."
And nobody got hurt. As the practice wore on, the players looked spent, but Wall still had energy to burn, as he intentionally missed a free throw in the closing seconds of a scrimmage, darted down the lane and dunked with two hands. I may have been ready for bed, but the 20-year-old Wall certainly wasn't.
"It was fun," Wall said. "It was our first time getting our jitters out. We was all anxious to be out here for training camp. We had a great time."
Wall was the last player introduced during player introductions and he had to contain himself from breaking out into a dance as the music blared from the speakers. It was a stark contrast to Arenas, who went second-to-last and ran onto the court, sprinting past a tunnel of cheerleaders, before he was even announced to the crowd. He just lowered his head, lifted his hand, and ran while fans in the arena cheered. Then, he hid behind Andray Blatche.
As Wall spoke to reporters after the game, Arenas was quietly taking -- and making -- several three-pointers from about five feet beyond the arc. They were dropping like layups. Arenas was noticeably slight and lean, as he garnered the loudest cheers of the night when he beat the rest of his teammates down the court during the warm-up sprints. He and Wall were spotted several times, happily slapping five, and they playfully wrestled back stage before introductions.
It was hard not to consider the night a success, especially since it provided Young with something he never did at USC. Young made the night special for one George Mason student when he nailed a halfcourt shot and won the kid $500. "That was my first time experiencing it," Young said of the midnight practice. "They had it after I left, with O.J. Mayo. I couldn't bring the hype. They was hating on me."
When asked to compare the crowd to the one at Kentucky, Wall said, "In college, all of this would've been filled, probably moreso. but it was a good crowd that came out to support us."
He also mentioned that his Midnight Madness at Kentucky was around 7 p.m. He had no problem with Saunders's plans to have a late first practice for training camp. "I was happy. It reminded me of college, so it was great," Wall said. "For students to come out this late and they have school tomorrow, it means a lot."
Said Leonsis, "It think it's exactly what the team needed. Just kind of a jolt of adrenaline."
| September 28, 2010; 6:52 AM ET
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