After he was traded away from the Wizards this month, Nick Young told an L.A. radio show that it felt like Washington’s season had been cursed. A good many D.C. basketball fans — plus a certain bald ex-Washington Post columnist — have felt that way for the better part of 20 years.
But many of the Washington Bullets who arrived in D.C. for this weekend’s alumni festivities hail from a different era, when the team made the playoffs, and competed for titles, and actually won a championship.
“The town was just wild,” said Jerry Sachs, a longtime Bullets front-office executive who will be part of the alumni weekend. “It was just an incredible period. We had a really competitive team with a lot of interesting personalities. My opinion is jaded, because I lived it every day, but I sensed the whole community was engaged, following the team, and excited about our progress.”
And many of the players in town for this weekend played for those winning teams. They include Leonard “Truck” Robinson, who was drafted by the Bullets in 1974 and went to the NBA Finals in his first season. They include current Detroit mayor and D.C. native Dave Bing, who got to Washington a year after Robinson and played in the Eastern Conference Finals during both of his seasons here. And they include at least three players from the 1978 championship team — Wes Unseld, Bob Dandridge and Phil Chenier.
“Of course, we had no baseball or nothing,” Robinson told me Thursday, just after chatting with Chenier, his former teammate. “People identified with the Bullets when they couldn’t get to the Redskins game. The Cap Centre was jumping in those days.”
This is the second year the Wizards have held an alumni weekend, one of Ted Leonsis’s strategies for reconnecting the franchise with its more successful past. The former players are scheduled to go golfing, have a group dinner and attend Saturday night’s game, where they’ll watch from Leonsis’s box and sign autographs.
And even the players who were here during later, less successful periods of D.C. basketball see the merits of this nod to the past.
“It just really makes a lot of sense, and builds a sort of bond,” said Tom McMillen, the former Maryland star who ended his career with the Bullets. “They’re trying to create that linkage, which is important. Tradition is really what makes programs great: the Red Sox, the Redskins, all of that. And the tradition really is your players and your coaches. I think it’s very good what Ted’s doing.”
The players who are scheduled to attend come from several decades. Stan Love played from 1971-1973, Gus Williams from 1984-1986 and Tracy Murray from 1996-2000.
And their stories, of course, don’t always overlap. Robinson — who was also drafted into the ABA — played for the first 60-win team in franchise history, and was coached by K.C. Jones. McMillen was already running for Congress during his final season in Washington; he remembered how Manute Bol would refer to him as “Senator,” and how he enjoyed “a Jeremy-Lin type period” that season when he couldn’t miss.
Sachs, the former executive, told me about watching Abe Pollin make trades over the phone, and arranging to fly 13 players and trainers home from Seattle during the ‘78 Finals on the corporate jet of the team’s catering company.
And just like the players who attended last year’s alumni weekend, the gentleman I talked with appreciated this idea that their teams haven’t been forgotten.
“With the name change, I think a lot of people may have lost touch with the fact that the Bullets had some really good teams and great players over the years,” Sachs told me. “Maybe I’m talking for myself, but I think people enjoy catching up with guys, seeing them, reliving some of the great moments we had as a franchise....I have a lot of fond memories, obviously, and I’m anxious to see some of these guys, and see if their hair is as gray as mine.”