A Mount Rushmore that never was

They were going to become the face of their sports. They were going to win titles, become stars and marketing studs. And they were going to do it in the same city: Washington. In 2012, each of the four major sports teams in the nation’s capital featured a young star — with three of them drafted first overall. The one who was drafted second was the most hyped.

Robert Griffin III (Redskins), Bryce Harper (Nationals), Alex Ovechkin (Capitals) and John Wall (Wizards) would become the future Mount Rushmore of Washington sports. They resonated nationally — Harper and Griffin in particular. This quartet was young, talented and here in D.C.

“We came out of one of the worst periods we’ve had in this town. I remember doing a blog about how that might have been the worst sports year in local history,” said Andy Pollin, who has been a sports talk show host for 27 years in Washington, first at Team980 and now at 106.7 The Fan.

“Hope and change” was the theme of another famous D.C. resident at the time — President Barack Obama. It applied to the sports teams, too. To borrow another political phrase, there was hope this group would Make Washington Great Again.

“I thought it was the beginning of a new era,” Pollin said. “You look around and they’re all young stars and you said, ‘Wow.'”

Now you have to ask: What happened?

When Harper signed with the Phillies, he became the second member of that group to leave. Griffin did so — but not by his own volition, as the Redskins cut him three years ago. Wall will be sidelined for nearly another year thanks to a ruptured Achilles tendon.

It’s not that Wall or Harper were bad — and Griffin had a standout rookie season. Harper is a six-time All-Star and was a National League MVP; Wall is a five-time All-Star. But the Nationals never won a playoff series in Harper’s seven seasons, and the Wizards haven’t won 50 games with Wall. They lost three times in the Eastern Conference semifinals and once in the first round.

Ovechkin, at least, has lived up to expectations and helped deliver a title to Washington last spring. And it was for the Capitals, who had a reputation of excellent regular seasons and playoff flops. When this era began, the Capitals might not have been the team many anticipated would deliver the most.

“I was always skeptical because of all the [past] disappointments,” said Eric Bickel, one of the radio hosts of The Sports Junkies. “I never thought they would be the ones to break through. I thought it was too ingrained in their culture to just lose. I always thought [Ovechkin] was a superstar, but was the [Charles] Barkley of the NHL. That was completely wrong, too.”

ESPN reporters Eddie Matz, Greg Wyshynski and Ian Begley helped us take a look back at why each player brought hope — and then what followed:

Bryce Harper

How it started: Harper’s reputation preceded him like few others in the history of pro sports. In 2009, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated — as a 16-year-old. In 2010, he was the top overall pick in the draft, the surest of sure things. Two years later, on April 28, 2012, he made his major league debut on the biggest of big stages (at Dodger Stadium) and didn’t disappoint, going 1-for-3 with an RBI double.

Despite being just 19, Harper was named an All-Star and won the NL Rookie of the Year. That same season, he also stole home after being intentionally beaned by Phillies hurler Cole Hamels, and when asked if he would celebrate his home run in Toronto by having a beer (because of the lower legal age), Harper — who is a practicing Mormon and doesn’t drink alcohol — uttered the now infamous line, “That’s a clown question, bro.”

Perhaps most importantly that year, Harper helped lead the Nats to their first division title since moving to D.C. in 2005 — and their first playoff appearance.

How it played out: To say that it was all downhill for Harper in Washington after his standout rookie season would be inaccurate. But it certainly was a roller-coaster ride.

On the upside, there was his historic 2015 season, the one in which he hit .330 with 42 home runs and was named MVP, becoming the youngest unanimous winner ever. Not to mention six All-Star appearances. And four playoff berths. And last summer’s rousing Home Run Derby victory at Nats Park.

But there were plenty of downslopes, too, including the ugly incident that punctuated that MVP campaign, when Harper was choked in the dugout by Washington closer Jonathan Papelbon, who felt that his teammate was loafing it on the basepaths.

Ultimately, though, it was Harper’s inconsistent production (see: 2016, 2018) and his team’s failure to win a single playoff series — not necessarily in that order — that left folks wondering just how much energy (and money) the Nationals would spend trying to retain their franchise face.

The answer? Not enough. — Eddie Matz

Robert Griffin III

How it started: The hysteria began long before he officially joined the Redskins. Less than a month before the draft at a card show in northern Virginia, 15 minutes from Redskins Park, Griffin sat inside an expo center, signing autographs and meeting fans for more than four hours. Hundreds of people lined up, some in shirts that read “RG3 in DC.” Others wore a shirt with Griffin’s face on the “Hope” T-shirt that had been used for President Obama.

One fan in line wore Superman socks, like Griffin. Others already had Redskins jerseys with his name and future No. 10. Redskins fans clearly were excited about Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner out of Baylor, coming to Washington. He truly represented hope for a franchise that had produced little since winning a Super Bowl 21 years earlier.

Griffin had the charisma to win any news conference; fans swooned. On the air, Bickel referred to him as “RGesus.” The future, for a change, looked good for the Redskins.

How it played out: Griffin was as advertised his rookie season, throwing for 3,200 yards and rushing for 815. He made the Pro Bowl. Then-Redskins coach Mike Shanahan often referred to him as a potential transformative player.

But then came: a torn ACL in a playoff loss to Seattle, an offseason of passive aggressive comments, a tough season, anonymous quotes bashing him, a coaching change, more injuries and more comments. By 2015, he was no longer starting. By 2016, he was in Cleveland.

It was a shocking fall from the heights Griffin obtained in 2012. On the night they beat Dallas in the regular-season finale to clinch the NFC East, the Redskins were giddy. One member of the front office stood outside the locker room and said of Griffin, “He’s going to get a lot of people paid.”

That didn’t happen. A player who once appeared to be generational lasted just four seasons in Washington.

And when Griffin cleared out his locker following a 2015 playoff loss, he left only a poem taped to the front of it — Dr. Kent M. Keith’s “The Paradoxical Commandments.”

It reads, in part, “What you spend years creating others could destroy overnight … Forgive them anyway … Be kind anyway … It was never between you and them anyway.” — John Keim

Alex Ovechkin

How it started: Ovechkin arrived on the NHL scene like a Russian tank, rumbling over opponents while also possessing an unparalleled offensive arsenal. The first overall pick in the 2004 NHL draft, he won the Rookie of the Year award two years later — outshining the prodigious Canadian teen Sidney Crosby, sparking a career-long rivalry between the two — with a 52-goal, 106-point season.

Those numbers would peak at 65 goals and 112 points in 2007-08, when Ovechkin led the Capitals back to the playoffs for the first time in four years to earn him the first of his three Hart Trophy wins as NHL MVP. He was becoming a star on a global scale, but his impact locally was just as impressive: With a rock star’s swagger and electrifying play, Ovechkin led the “Rock The Red” movement that increased the fan bandwagon for the moribund franchise exponentially. Though the Capitals averaged just 13,900 spectators in his rookie season, they were selling out every night by 2011-12 to the tune of 18,506 fans per game in Washington.

But by then, Ovechkin and the Capitals were defined by something else: playoff failure. Washington had racked up three semifinal losses and would add a third quarterfinal loss in 2012-13. Ovechkin was a point-per-game player in the postseason, but he shouldered much of the blame — in particular when it came to the Capitals’ inability to win in Game 7, going 2-5 in them.

How it played out: After two seasons of low goal totals in the regular season from 2010 to 2012, Ovechkin recaptured the magic and won five of the next six Rocket Richard trophies as the league’s top goal-scorer. He captured the Hart Trophy again in 2013. He has 653 goals in 1,070 games, ranking him 14th in NHL history at age 33 and giving him a statistical chance of catching Wayne Gretzky (894 goals) for the most in league history.

None of that would matter if Ovechkin and the Capitals hadn’t found playoff success. After 13 seasons of flops and fiascos, they defeated Crosby and the Penguins for the first time in the postseason, won the Eastern Conference and dispatched the Vegas Golden Knights in five games to win the 2018 Stanley Cup championship. Ovechkin earned the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP for his postseason-best 15 goals in 24 games.

What happened next will never be forgotten in the history of D.C. sports: several days of drunken merriment as the Capitals held a celebration on the National Mall and paraded the Stanley Cup through the District. That included Ovechkin doing “snow angels” in a fountain in Georgetown. The struggles of 2012 were a distant memory. Ovechkin did something no D.C. athlete in the four major sports had done in decades: He brought a championship home.

— Greg Wyshynski

John Wall

How it started: Wall received a hero’s welcome on his first day in Washington. The Wizards rolled a red carpet outside of the Verizon Center to greet the No. 1 overall pick on the day after the 2010 NBA draft. The mayor declared that warm Friday in late June as “John Wall Day.” The organization played video greetings for Wall from local sports luminaries, including Ovechkin and Stephen Strasburg.

In the ensuing seasons, Wall generally lived up to the hype. His size, elite speed and playmaking caused matchup nightmares for opposing backcourts.

Wall’s exploits helped the Wizards move past the Gilbert Arenas-Javaris Crittenton locker room gun altercation and back to respectability. Washington won three playoff series with Wall running the show; the point guard was an All-Star for five straight seasons.

One of the enduring images of the Wall-Wizards partnership? Washington trailed Boston by two in the closing seconds of Game 6 of their 2017 second-round playoff series when Wall knocked down a contested 3-pointer to force a Game 7. He jumped on the scorer’s table and tugged on his Wizards jersey in front of an adoring home crowd to celebrate the moment.

How it played out: Two and a half months after hitting that shot, Wall signed a four-year, $170 million “supermax” extension. The contract kicks in next season.

At the time, the extension seemed like a prudent move for the franchise: Washington would continue to try to build a winner around the backcourt of Wall and Bradley Beal. The alternative — potentially alienating Wall, losing him to another franchise and starting over — didn’t seem viable.

But the calculus for the Wizards changed dramatically last month. Wall, already sidelined for the remainder of the season following surgery to repair a heel ailment, ruptured his left Achilles tendon after slipping and falling in his home. He’s expected to be sidelined until late in the 2019-20 season.

The unfortunate injury triggered a trade of young star Otto Porter Jr. — something ownership was opposed to prior to Wall’s fall — and might force the Wizards into a complete teardown in the next 18 months.

No matter how things play out in the coming months, Wall always will be revered in Washington for his off-court generosity and on-court contributions. But the franchise and its fan base now have to wonder if he’ll ever regain the athleticism he has relied on for the past nine years.

If not, the Wall era in Washington might meet an untimely ending. — Ian Begley

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