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Fans, players and officials soak in Washington Wizards’ open practice at Morgan State: ‘This is amazing’

At the conclusion of the Washington Wizards’ open practice Monday afternoon at Morgan State’s Hill Field House in Baltimore, Isaiah Todd, who grew up in the eastern part of the city before moving to Richmond, Virginia, in middle school, spent about 20 minutes autographing T-shirts from fans.

For Todd, the adulation was a reminder of the time when he and members of his AAU teams would sell water bottles outside of the arena to fans attending Bears games.

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“There are kids in the crowd that have probably never even seen an NBA player,” said the 6-foot-9 rookie, a power forward who was acquired by Washington shortly after being selected in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2021 NBA draft. “If I was a kid and I was still out there selling water bottles and the Wizards came into town, I would love if they signed something of mine.”

Kids and adults alike got a chance to get close to the Wizards after their first and only practice at a Baltimore-area college. Team officials estimated that about 1,000 fans filled the stands inside Hill Field House to watch the Wizards train, and the first 500 were rewarded with a free T-shirt.

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The event drew two long lines snaking around the front corners of Hill Field House. In one line, Chris Johnson of Baltimore brought his 9-year-old son, Seth Graham Johnson, to watch the team he grew up rooting for living in Bethesda.

“I remember guys like Chris Whitney, Chris Webber and Rod Strickland,” Johnson said. “And they were coached by Darrell Walker, I think. I may know a little too much about that team.”

Chris Johnson, whose three other children were running a tennis shoe store in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and attending classes at UMBC and Morgan State, said he appreciated the opportunity to bring his son to see NBA players without having to leave the city.

“This is amazing,” he said. “For all of the children in this city who want to be athletes, this is a chance to see men who look like them. They’re role models, and you can tell your children, ‘Hey, you don’t get to make it to the next level by slacking. You’ve got to work hard for this.’”

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Morgan State students and other fans of the Washington Wizards cheer during a T-shirt toss during an open practice at Morgan State's Hill Field House on Oct. 11, 2021.
Morgan State students and other fans of the Washington Wizards cheer during a T-shirt toss during an open practice at Morgan State's Hill Field House on Oct. 11, 2021. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Seth Graham Johnson, a fourth-grader at the Baltimore Academy, admitted that he was missing a reading course to accompany his father. But he called the opportunity a “100 out of 10.”

“I’m the biggest fan in the world,” he added.

In another line, 19-year-old sophomores Anthony Callahan Jr. and Ayanna Francis said they were skipping playing video games and taking a nap, respectively, to attend the practice.

Admittedly not a Wizards fan, Callahan, who is studying physical education, said he was interested in something to break up the monotony of a Monday.

“If it’s different and it’s not an event that is normal, people are going to come out,” he said.

Francis, a multi-platform production major, had an ulterior motive for attending.

“I came for the free T-shirt,” she said with a smile.

Whatever the reason, Todd and head coach Wes Unseld Jr. — who grew up in Catonsville and Westminster, graduated from Loyola Blakefield and played basketball at Johns Hopkins and whose late father, Wes Unseld, was the face of the franchise during its time in Baltimore in the 1960s and 70s — appreciated the chance to return to Baltimore.

“Baltimore is its own country, and we’re all family,” said Todd, whose mother, brother, sister, aunt, and cousins attended practice. “For me to be able to carry that out and play for the Wizards and come back is a story. It’s beautiful.”

“It’s just always a great opportunity to get home,” said Unseld Jr., who takes over a team that finished 34-38 in the condensed 2020-21 regular season, beat the Indiana Pacers in a postseason play-in game and lost to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference first round in five games. “I give our guys a lot of credit. After an hour, hour-and-10 [minute] bus ride, we still got something out of it. That will always be our philosophy.”

In addition to Unseld Jr. and Todd, the Wizards were once the Baltimore Bullets after the organization moved from Chicago in 1963. The Bullets played their home games at the Baltimore Civic Center until 1973 when they relocated to the Capital Centre in Landover.

Reinforcing that history was important, according to John Thompson III, the organization’s senior vice president of player development and engagement.

“It definitely was a conscious effort where we wanted to come to Baltimore,” said Thompson, a former Georgetown head coach and son of the late John Thompson Jr. “We wanted to thank the fans that are from Baltimore and always come to us. We wanted to make that connection with the old Baltimore Bullets, we wanted to make that connection for Coach Unseld because he grew up in Baltimore. So it’s a conscious decision. We wanted very much to go to Baltimore for this open practice.”

The hour-long session included an intra-squad scrimmages, an impromptu slam dunk contest won by Todd, and a half-court shot contest canned by guard Spencer Dinwiddie on his second attempt against forwards Deni Avdija and Corey Kispert, the team’s most recent first-round draft picks.

Three-time All-Star shooting guard Bradley Beal interacted with members of the Morgan State men’s and women’s basketball teams. He said afterward that he was proud that the Wizards had practiced at a Historically Black College and University.

“Understanding the climate of HBCUs, I appreciate the seriousness and the commitment that everybody is making towards recognizing them, building them up, giving kids more sports programs,” he said. “For us to be here, it means a lot. This is my first time seeing this, and it’s very cool. But it’s an unbelievable feeling to be here, and we want to bring awareness to HBCUs. It’s good for our community, and it’s good for our team, too.”

Morgan State athletic director Edward Scott he hopes the event opens doors for people who might not be familiar with the university.

“I think in the short term, it gets people on our campus who might not otherwise come to Morgan,” he said. “The one thing that I’ve learned since being at Morgan is that when folks get on our campus and see how beautiful it is, most people are blown away. So I think the short-term is, we will get people there. Hopefully, the long-term is that we’ll be able to retain some of those individuals because our basketball product is going to be very exciting here, and my hope is that they come back. And my hope is that we convert some of the Wizards guys into Morgan fans.”

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