Only now, 35 years after the title run, as memories have grown dimmer and their roster of the living has been reduced by one – guard Charles Johnson passed away in 2007 of cancer at the age of 58 — are the 1977-78 Washington Bullets getting their full due. Leonsis has made it part of his mission to reestablish the connection between the modern Wizards (the name was changed in 1997) and the great Bullets teams of the past, and the time has come to put the 1978 champs on a pedestal, to shine a spotlight down on one of the greatest sports teams in the city’s history.
“My hope through this reunion,” Dandridge said this week from his home in Norfolk, “will be that everybody reflects back and appreciates that we still have 11 guys around. That in itself is special. For me, I need to see everybody. I need to know how you’re doing, how’s the family, what are you doing these days — because now, at this time in our lives, it’s an even more special bond.”
“You get a little older,” said Phil Chenier, a three-time all-star guard on those Bullets teams, now a Wizards broadcaster, “and you start to really appreciate your past. We lost Charlie Johnson since the last [reunion]. It makes you start looking at things a little differently.”
Short shorts, tall afros
The spring of 1978 was the spring of “Bullets Fever” — the tune, penned by local musician Nils Lofgren, that became a ubiquitous presence on radio stations area-wide. It was the spring of “the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings” – the phrase Motta borrowed from a San Antonio broadcaster and turned into a team slogan. It was the spring of bleary-eyed mornings – since most playoff games in that era were tape-delayed until 11:30 p.m. local time.
It was an era when the shorts were short and the afros were tall, when $5 could get a cash-strapped Georgetown student (such as a young Ted Leonsis) a round-trip bus ride to the Capital Centre in Landover, a ticket to the game and a hot dog.
The 1970s Bullets – who began the decade as the Baltimore Bullets, before being moved to Landover in 1973 — were one of the great teams of that era, having made the playoffs each season starting in 1968-69, with a pair of Finals appearances, both four-game losses, in 1971 and 1975. (They would lose in the finals yet again in 1979.) That 1977-78 team was supposed to have been built to win it all, after the signing of free agent Dandridge — who had won a title in Milwaukee in 1971, with the Oscar Robertson — and Lew Alcindor-led Bucks — but injuries at times left Motta with just seven healthy bodies and ultimately limited the Bullets to just 44 regular season wins.