Photo by Keith Allison/Flickr

Washington Wizards Team Up Against Hunger

Star basketball players use their influence to zero in on D.C.’s food insecurity crisis.

By Satchel Price

It was an emotional night at Verizon Center. The Washington Wizards had just beaten the streaking Brooklyn Nets in a heart-pounding mid-March contest. At center court, John Wall stood with the ball, surrounded by thousands of fans.

“This is my city!” he screamed.

It was not the first time Wall had uttered those words, and it will not be his last. Having spent his entire career in Washington, D.C., with another five-year contract set to begin next season, Wall’s relationship with the city is unique. As the face of a franchise that has embraced charitable giving in the past few years, he knows the importance of using his influence to help the community.

And unlike many people, he has the platform to make a difference.

“I mean, we’re not here just to play basketball, we’re here to do other things and use our ability,” Wall said prior to a game between the Wizards and the Atlanta Hawks in late March. “That’s something I think we have been doing.”

Under the ownership of Ted Leonsis, who bought the team in 2011, the Wizards have worked hard to find their place in the community. Leonsis merged the Monumental Sports and Entertainment Foundation (MSE) with two of his other franchises, the NHL’s Washington Capitals and WNBA’s Washington Mystics.

Like most professional sports franchises, the Wizards, Capitals and Mystics have strong followings around the city. That exposure gives them unique opportunities to reach out and help the community, according to Zachary Leonsis, business manager at MSE and Ted’s son.

“We have this special platform, we connect to the whole city and our fans,” Leonsis said. “And if we can use it to raise awareness … that’s really important to us.”

The MSE Foundation tries to help Washington in a number of ways, as defined by its five pillars. One of those five pillars is “hunger and homelessness.”

‘Whenever I came home from school each night, I knew there would be food on the table. That’s tragically not the case for everyone.’

— Zachary Leonsis, son of owner Ted Leonsis

Leonsis said he knew hunger and homelessness would be an important part of the foundation after his personal experiences volunteering around the area.

“I saw who people really were. And it makes you realize that it could happen really to anyone,” Leonsis said.

Over the past few years, the Wizards have had a standing relationship with D.C. Central Kitchen, an organization associated with famous chef José Andrés for people battling food insecurity. Instead of making these events required for all players, the team often seeks out guys who have a genuine interest in whatever issue is being presented.

The team’s most recent D.C. Central Kitchen event was last year, but the experience hit home with some players.

“Some of them, on their own, went back with their wives, and did a meal prep,” said Sashia Jones, the team’s senior director of community relations, in a phone interview. “They were like, ‘Hey, Sashia, how did you set that up?’”

One of those players, back-up forward Martell Webster, “was really affected,” according to Leonsis, and went back to help this season. “He must have given 100 hugs that day. He knew people by their first name,” Leonsis said.

Wall said he sees his famous standing as a chance to show young people in the community that he cares.

“It’s a tough situation, dealing with what people are dealing with, and whenever you can help any situation when times are hard for other people and you have the opportunity to do it, I think it’s the biggest thing,” Wall said.

This all raises the question of whether food insecurity receives enough publicity.

Jones says some of that can be attributed to the nature of different schedules. The foundation typically focuses on charitable giving and hunger around holiday season, right when the Wizards and Capitals are in the middle of their respective campaigns. That means it is harder to find players willing to give their time, so while the foundation still contributes however it can, the availability of different players for different issues can be affected by that schedule.

Leonsis pointed out that it is often easier to organize the players when they are actually together, rather than training individually during the offseason. In fact, a combination of factors makes giving difficult – but not impossible.

“We play 41 road games a season. We play 82 total games. Players have practice. But we still find time,” Leonsis said.

Still, that is not to underscore the other acts MSE Foundation does. In addition to the D.C. Central Kitchen, the team also has relationships with the Capital Area Food Bank, Salvation Army and NBC4’s Food 4 Families.

Whether it is Wall, who grew up poor in North Carolina, or Leonsis, whose father’s net worth tops $1 billion,the people involved with MSE Foundation and the Wizards said they understand the importance of fighting hunger.

“Whenever I came home from school each night, I knew there would be food on the table,” Leonsis said. “It was never a thought for me, it was never something I questioned. And that’s tragically not the case for everyone.”