NBA team did week-long preseason training at Patriot Center. Photo by Stephen Kine.

Promptly at 11 p.m. on the night of Sept. 27, the doors to the Patriot Center flew open and the rush began. Students pressed their way to the front of the line, hoping to claim a seat in the first row of the arena. They had been waiting all day in anticipation to see an NBA team up close, waiting to catch a glimpse of their favorite player.

Back in June, Monumental Sports and Ted Leonsis purchased the majority share in the Washington Wizards franchise. Leonsis held a press conference, along with an all-employee meeting, to announce his acquisition and invited Head Coach Jim Larranaga to the celebration. During the festivities, Wizards’ President Ernie Grunfeld told Larranaga that the franchise was exploring the option of holding their preseason training camp on the campus of George Mason University.

“It’s just a natural to have the Wizards train in the area they play,” said Barry Geisler, General Manager of the Patriot Center.

Larranaga mentioned the idea to Geisler, who contacted the franchise to set up a meeting. In the past, the Wizards have held their training camp at Virginia Commonwealth University. Because VCU has a permanent wood floor – not an NBA quality floor – the Wizards trucked two full basketball courts to Richmond, Va.

The Patriot Center is equipped with an NBA-style basketball floor but the lack of retractable seating on the sides of the floor disallowed the team from setting up their typical, two-floor facility.

The Verizon Center staff, however, was able to make it work. They slid the normal Patriot Center floor toward the west end of the arena to make room for a half-court on the east end.

From there, all that was left was the finalization of details and the planning of the first midnight tip-off in NBA history.

After months of preparation and planning, the event became a reality.

More than 4,000 students were squeezed into the north side of the Patriot Center to witness the first official practice of the Washington Wizards’ 2010-2011 season.

“I thought we’d get 1,000 but, obviously, we got many more than that … it was great how the university community embraced the event.”

Larranaga added, “For me, as the head basketball coach, you like to see the enthusiasm for any basketball event … there were 4-5,000 students there for the opening tip-off. So we’re hoping to get them back and then some for the Mason Madness [on Oct. 15].”

Following a live music performance from Mambo Sauce, the Wizards’ players were introduced one-by-one. The team ran through over an hour of drills and intersquad scrimmaging before ending the event by throwing T-shirts into the crowd.

Several players remained on the floor until 2 a.m., signing autographs and talking with fans.

“There was a lot of excitement. Great crowd. All the kids were into it. As far as the fans, it was a very enthusiastic night,” said Washington Wizards’ coach Flip Saunders.
All signs point to a second annual midnight tip-off occurring in the Patriot Center at Mason next year.

“As things stand now, it won’t be the last time we do training camp here [at the Patriot Center],” said Geisler.