Washington’s basketball franchise has had three postseason droughts of at least five years, and each time the Chicago Bulls were there to welcome them back to the playoffs.
With the Wizards reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and set to take on the Bulls for the third time, beginning on Sunday, former Bullets/Wizards player and current TNT basketball analyst Chris Webber was asked to reflect on that first postseason meeting in 1997 – when the Michael Jordan-led Bulls swept the Bullets in three games.
But at the time, the loss felt like a win.
“If I ever had a moral victory,” Webber said during a teleconference to discuss the 2014 playoffs, “that was our moral victory.”
The 1996-97 Bullets snapped a nine-year postseason drought, going 44-38 and beating out the Cleveland Cavaliers for the final playoff spot to earn the right to be demolished by Jordan and Scottie Pippen in a best-of-five playoff series. To the surprise of many, however, the eighth-seeded Bullets were far from an easy out in three hotly contested games against the defending champions.
“It wasn’t a reward to play the best team in the NBA at that time,” Webber said. “I think you should make sure that everyone knows, it was the best team in NBA history, in my opinion. It was the team that won 72 games and we lost three games by I think seven points total. They blew out everyone else but us.”
Webber’s memory was a little off, as Bulls actually won 69 games following up the historic 72-10 run of the previous season with the second-highest win total in NBA history. And the Bullets actually lost the three games by a combined 18 points, but they played Chicago even for 40 minutes in Game 1 (which the Bulls won, 98-86), for 44 minutes in Game 2 (a 109-104 Bulls win) and 47 minutes in Game 3 (a 96-95 Bulls win).
“We played hard and we tried to get it done. But Michael Jordan, he was pretty good back then, so I guess he had something to say about it,” Webber said.
After Game 2, Jordan gave the ultimate praise when he hailed the Bullets as a “team of the future.” Washington had four starters age 26 or younger in Webber, Juwan Howard, Calbert Cheaney and Gheorghe Muresan. Rod Strickland, who finished third in the NBA in total assists that season, was just 30.
“I always tell people, it was such a different NBA then. Young teams were not in style and in fashion and we were one of the youngest teams in the league,” Webber said. “At that time, you had the Bulls, Indiana, dominating in the East, the Pistons, other teams in the West. We had expectations and our only hope was to make the playoffs. So, we knew who we were. We were young and building for the future.”
Jordan’s comment would actually serve as a curse, because the future would only be one more season. The Bullets changed their nickname to Wizards for the 1997-98 season and came one game short of returning to the playoffs.
Webber was traded to Sacramento for Mitch Richmond in May 1998, had a disastrous lockout campaign that resulted in Bernie Bickerstaff getting fired, and the team wouldn’t make a return to the postseason until 2005.
Webber had his best years with the Kings but he still has fond memories of his four seasons in Washington.
“I think I always talk about two places that most people, if you haven’t been the game, you don’t know who has the best fans and I always say Oakland and Washington. The fact that D.C. is going to come out, that place is going to be crazy.”
Webber then turned the conversation to the current Bulls-Wizards series. He said Washington has to enter Chicago looking to “steal one game.”
“The playoffs is where you make your name and I think that if I’m on this team, I’m salivating if I’m John Wall, if I’m [Bradley] Beal or others. Because I can control the tempo, the ball is in my hands. It’s really a chance for them,” Webber said. “In Washington, if you play hard, you’re going to be rewarded, just by the fans, the love and the admiration and I would say, just start out from there, the easiest way to get into the game and the easiest way to get the jitters out is to play hard and attack and if they do that, they have a chance.”