The National Portrait Gallery is one of the most prestigious art museums in the world. Located on the corner of 7th and F streets in downtown DC, it houses some of the greatest works of American portraiture. In fact, the museum’s website proclaims that its collection “help[s] us understand who we are and remind[s] us of what we can aspire to be.” Residents of the nation’s capital, however, know better. It isn’t the art that’s powerful and symbolic. It’s the stairs.
On the fateful night of November 20th, 2013, an infamous tradition was born. Bitter NHL rivals—the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins—squared off at Capital One Arena earlier that evening. In what was supposed to be a balanced game, Sidney Crosby’s Penguins slaughtered Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals, winning by a score of 4-0.
Thrilled by their glorious triumph, a large group of Pittsburgh fans congregated on the steps facing the arena outside the National Portrait Gallery. “DC’s our house!” they chanted in unison. I was at the game that night, and I unfortunately had to walk by the crowd on the way to my car. The experience was infuriating. An avid DC sports fan, I couldn’t get over how arrogant and insolent these intruders were. But as tempting as it was to retaliate, I realized that there was a simpler way to reclaim our stairs: win. If we could will our Capitals to victory, we would silence the vile Penguins fans.
But the Caps never won. They suffered crushing defeats year after year, and the Pittsburgh fans got louder and louder. They seized the steps in 2016. They seized the steps in 2017. It seemed that all hope was lost for our talented hockey team.
I need not remind you of what came next. Indeed, the Capitals’ 2018 Stanley Cup victory will go down as one of the greatest achievements in DC sports history. But even more incredible than the hockey was the city’s reaction. Each playoff victory brought more Caps supporters to the steps. When they reached capacity, people flooded the streets. Whether it was a home or away victory, massive crowds flocked to that famed block of 7th Street. The scene was a sea of red, one that even Moses couldn’t part.
Cheering on those steps was nothing short of surreal. It took me over an hour to push my way through the tens of thousands of people, but it was worth it. I was embracing people I had never seen before, doing my best to prevent the crowd surfers from falling onto the concrete (an endeavor that is frankly more difficult than you’d expect), and screaming until my voice gave out.
It may seem that a mutual affinity for a sport or a team is something superficial. For a long time I believed just that. I presumed that I had little in common with my fellow DC sports fans and thus had never bothered to talk to many of them. The 2018 Caps proved me wrong. 20 years down the road, I may not remember the games themselves, but I will never forget the sea of red.
We reclaimed the steps. Now, it’s time to add a portrait of Alex Ovechkin to the gallery.
By William Klein