Football is alive and well in the District, but new Washington Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis did his best to steal a little bit of the thunder last week. The Wizards held their Midnight Madness Tuesday morning and open scrimmage on Sunday’s Fan Fest at the George Mason Patriot Center with surprising turnouts. Over 3,000 fans showed up for the NBA’s first Midnight Madness event, but Sunday’s scrimmage drew even more. As I sat in the stands at the Patriot Center for both events last week, the massive fan support over a pair of practices was eye-opening. Basketball is apparently back again in the city, and fans, kids and courtesy watchers wasted no time jumping at the chance to see this new Wizards team.

Everyone’s favorite rookie, John Wall, hasn’t even played an NBA game yet, but the city treats him like a star. Jerseys, signs and children’s chants of “sign my poster” filled the Patriot Center on Sunday. But don’t blame it all on hype, Wall helped continue the love fest with some moves that you’ll only see on a PlayStation video game. If you’ve never seen love or infatuation before, the Patriot Center would’ve blown you away. Fans absolutely adore this team and it’s evident when they fill a gymnasium on a nice Sunday morning to see a group of millionaires stretch, jog and joke around.

But don’t credit the players, credit Leonsis: he’s doing things his way and his way is catered directly to the fans. Never underestimate the power of giving back. Leonsis’ decision to draft Wall and to host a series of free events—when he could’ve easily charged for admission— already ranks him above some of the other coin-hungry owners in the area in my book. So far this summer, I’ve been to John Wall Day, Midnight Madness and Sunday’s Fan Fest, all of which have churned out amazing numbers and support. Again, credit Leonis.

When longtime owner Abe Pollin died last November, it opened the door for the Washington Capitals owner and former AOL mogul to take over—and he’s ruled like a kind-hearted king thus far. You probably would’ve frowned at the prospect of attending a Wizards game a few seasons ago even if you found tickets at the bottom of a cereal box. But frown no more, times have changed. There’s a new belief, new players and a new owner that’s making everything Wizard-related the hottest ticket in town. All hail, Leonsis, the new king of D.C. basketball.

Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO