WASHINGTON – Magic Johnson handed Kanga Gwanyama $5,000 in cash, telling the 13-year-old he could only hold on to the money for five minutes and that most of it would go into savings.
Johnson brought cheers and a few tears to Gwanyama and hundreds of kids and parents at the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Washington on Thursday. He did so not as the Hall of Fame basketball player but as one of the new owners of the NFL's Washington Commanders.
The visit was one stop on a whirlwind tour of the area by owners leading up to the season opener Sunday that's expected to be a sellout. After the long-awaited ownership change from Dan Snyder, festivities this week have been a chance for Josh Harris, Mitch Rales and Johnson to introduce themselves to players, coaches and the community that has embraced them.
Johnson said from the get-go he “wanted to be in the community” and “wanted to make an impact and make a difference.” This is the start of that for the entire ownership group.
“We’ve been incredibly overwhelmed by the welcome we have gotten,” Harris said Friday, noting he now carries around throat lozenges because of how many conversations he's having. “We’re hosting a party for 60,000 people and we’re changing the narrative for the city and our job is to do that right now. We’re happy to do it.”
Ultimately, the new owners know their impact will be judged on the football field, where Washington is more than three decades removed from its last Super Bowl title and the franchise's glory days. The team has made the playoffs just six times in 30 years.
Harris left the first practice of training camp exclaiming, “We're undefeated!” And as Rales said Wednesday night at a dinner event for the Economic Club of Washington, D.C.: “We’re all Super Bowl champions at training camp. Now the real world starts.”
But the honeymoon period is in full swing, including a fan rally featuring Harris on Friday evening. Fans chanted, “Thank you, Josh! Thank you, Josh!” while Harris pumped up the crowd.
The party culminates Sunday afternoon when the Commanders host the Arizona Cardinals and celebrate the start of a new era for the organization.
“It’ll be an emotional moment, it’ll be a great moment and then when that kickoff happens, I’m going to be ready for the Commanders to kick some you-know-what,” Johnson said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.”
Down the road, the Commanders could have another new name — just not a return to their old one — and will have a sparkling, state-of-the-art stadium. For now, ownership's focus has been to fix what they can about the team's current home that has long delivered a miserable fan experience.
"A lot of things needed work," Harris said, citing everything from bathrooms and broken chairs to the sound system and struggles getting in and out of the stadium. “What we’re trying to do is welcome people into a changed house.”
Johnson said Harris has already invested millions of dollars in improvements for fans and players, alike. Washington ranked last among the league's 32 teams in an NFLPA player survey earlier this year, particularly when it comes to facilities and travel.
“Josh and I went to lunches together and we would meet 10-12 players during the course of that lunch, and we had a roundtable to get to know each other,” Rales said. "We wanted to learn about their lives and who they were and the way they were thinking and what they were experiencing as part of this new regime and what it was like in the old days and what we could do to improve things for them.”
Johnson addressed players and coaches for the first time Wednesday, telling stories about how he won five NBA championships as a player and went into business and fielding questions about what it takes to accomplish all that.
The team's entire practice schedule changed as a result, but the visit was welcomed — along with the newfound assistance and communication from ownership that was lacking under Snyder.
“They’re trying to give us all the tools that we need to be successful,” top receiver and face of the franchise Terry McLaurin said. “They really are very communicative with us and asking what we need to help make our jobs the easiest, and the No. 1 thing they just keep continuing to preach is allowing us to focus on our job on the field.”
Harris said players asked for extra hot tubs, a water station and other things ownership immediately delivered on.
Keeping distractions to a minimum would also be a major improvement from the previous regime, when off-field scandals made plenty of headlines. Eventually, Harris and the other owners would like to create an organization that runs without their day-to-day presence.
But first, there's plenty of work to be done on every aspect of the team.
“Once we get through all this, we want to start to keep the focus on the team and winning football games, and we don’t want to be a distraction,” Harris said. “But right now, people want to see us, hear us, talk to us, and so we’re responding.”
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