WASHINGTON, DC – Making news is nothing new for self-made Greek-American billionaire Ted Leonsis, an award-winning filmmaker and philanthropist. But this week, the news Leonsis made in a feature story in the March 1 issue of Washington Post Magazine, had to do with Leonsis’ best-known capacity: his ownership of two professional sports teams in his native District of Columbia – the Washington Capitals of the National Hockey League (NHL), and the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Washington Wizards.
Both teams are on track to make the playoffs this year, but neither team has gone all the way to winning a championship in the years that Leonsis has owned it. That is not to say, though, that Leonsis’ teams have not been successful. The Capitals have won seven divisional titles since Leonsis purchased them in 1999; they have never won hockey’s most-coveted prize, the Stanley Cup, since their establishment in 1974.
As for the Wizards, they have seen higher glories, but reached lower nadirs, too. Leonsis hopes to lead them to their first NBA title as the Wizards who in 1995 changed to that name from the Bullets, a decision made by then-owner Abe Pollin. The Pollin family failed to win any championships, perhaps their most-remembered act coming in 2003, when he fired NBA legend Michael Jordan as team president (who also played on the team) in the twilight of Jordan’s career – after he had already won six titles with the Chicago Bulls. Seven years later, the Pollins sold the franchise to Leonsis.
Because of increasing gun violence in the nation’s capital, Pollin was acutely aware of his team’s name’s overtone, and changed the name to the Wizards. Now, Leonsis tells the Post that despite rumors to the contrary, changing the name back to the Bullets “has never been considered.” It is a story that the fans and the media often talk about, Leonsis explains, but he considers it a story comprised of “empty calories.”
It is nostalgia for a championship, Leonsis says, not for the name itself. And so his remedy is: win another championship.
It would be their second. Their one and only NBA title was in 1978. Boasting one of the greatest frontcourts in NBA history – Center Wes Unseld, Power Forward Elvin Hayes, and Small Forward Bobby Dandridge – along with Kevin Grevey and Tom Henderson in the backcourt, the Bullets extended the Western Division Champion Seattle Supersonics to seven games, bringing the City of Washington its first championship in any major sport in 36 years.
The following year was the last time the Washington franchise reached the finals, losing in five games the Supersonics, whose clutch defense – led by Finals Series MVP Dennis Johnson – was the difference in Seattle’s winning the rematch.
As for the name change, it is not as if “Wizards” was universally accepted, either. There was backlash because of the connotation to the high-ranking Ku Klux Klan title of the same name.
Washington is particularly riddled with criticism over its sports teams’ names, the most prevalent and longstanding controversy over its Redskins of the National Football League (NFL) – the term assailed for being a derogatory description of Native American Indians. Is football next for Leonsis? “Honestly, I don’t think about it,” he told the Post, because the NFL does not allow cross-ownership (of teams in other sports), and Leonsis has no intention of selling either the Capitals or the Wizards.