Stephen Powers says he’s been to more than 500 Wizards and Bullets games in his life from the time he was growing up to the time COVID-19 gripped the United States a year ago.
And there was never a doubt that when the doors to Capital One Arena opened back up, he’d be in attendance once again.
Powers, a Wizards season ticket holder for seven seasons, was one of the 2,100 fans in attendance for the Wizards’ thrilling 118-114 win over the Warriors last Thursday night. He wouldn’t have missed it.
"In the surveys they’ve been sending us, and (owner Ted Leonsis has) been sending us surveys about this for a long time, 'When are we coming back? What is it gonna take?' I’ve probably always been like, 'I'll be back, no problem,'" Powers said. "'Whatever you guys say to do I’ll come back and I’ll do it that way.'"
"That way," of course, wasn’t like any previous Wizards game he'd attended in his life.
The last nearly 14 months have been anything but normal not just for the Wizards, but for the entire world. Before the deadly COVID-19 pandemic swept across the country in 2020, the Wizards played a basketball game against the Knicks on March 10. No one knew it, but that was the last time they played in front of the home crowd for more than a year.
Through the entirety of this season, the Wizards haven’t played in front of fans at Capital One Arena to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But as vaccination efforts ramped up and cases dropped, the District of Columbia granted a waiver for the arena to host fans for the Capitals and Wizards at 10 percent capacity, or 2,100 fans.
While it’s certainly not the experience of a packed house with the energy of a playoff game, Powers’ experience was, in a lot of ways, incredible.
“When you’re in there and it’s only 2,100, everybody saw you,” Powers, 57, said. “Everybody sees you, you’re waving to people, you’re part of it. It was really special and surreal. Russ (Westbrook) and Brad (Beal) both heard me and my buddy yelling at them during the game, kind of gave us the head nod, let’s go’ when we were down by 11. You’re feeling like you’re spurring them on.”
And from the time he walked into the arena to the time he departed, everything was different than he was used to — and not all of it for the worse.
Powers said security and ushers were very attentive to make sure that, when not eating, fans were wearing their masks. The seats were so spread out that Powers said no one was within feet of him. Concessions were noticeably ramped down with so few fans, but Powers joked there was plenty of beer for everyone if they wanted it.
"Fourteen months, it’s a return to normalcy," Powers said. "It is getting back out there, it is taking the baby steps and getting our toes back in the water so hopefully in the fall there’s 5,000 or 10,000 and maybe we’re back to not being afraid of each other."
His seats, which normally are by the tunnel where the Wizards emerge, were different too. In fact, they’ll be different for the team’s remaining six games this season. And that’s perfectly OK with him.
But it wasn’t just Powers, rather the entirety of the Wizards’ fanbase, that made themselves known to players and coaches on the floor, too.
“It was great,” Westbrook said after the game of having fans in the building. “The fans are amazing, good energy, I know they were excited to just get into the arena and watch some basketball. So happy that we were able to bring home the victory. I look forward to some more home games and getting more people into the arena and getting the fans more excited about the things in the near future for us.”
And as the Wizards emerged victoriously, Powers had perhaps the rarest moment of the night that will make anyone that’s driven in D.C. stop in their tracks: He parked a block away from Capital One Arena around 6 pm. For less than seven dollars.
He plans to attend all of the Wizards’ home games for the remainder of the season as one of the 2,100 fans that will be allowed in the building. He said there was a comfort in being at a game where he had space to himself and was able to just watch the game. After so long, that comfort was sorely missed by everyone in attendance.
Of course, he added he misses the nights when the place is packed and he’s high-fiving random strangers after a big swing, or a big dunk, or a Wizards’ win. And hopefully, those days aren’t too far away.
“I can’t wait for the next,” Powers said. “I got three games in four days: Sunday, Monday and Wednesday. And they’ve got a chance to tie the longest winning streak ever Monday night, and then they got a shot for the record against the Lakers. It ain’t the championship, but you know what? Pretty damn exciting.”