Abe Pollin's 1978 Bullets transformed the long-dormant Washington sports scene
The view from the back seat of the car in which Wes Unseld rode that day in June 1978 was difficult, if not impossible to imagine for a native Washingtonian. The Bullets' victory parade began at Capital Centre and, slowly, oh so slowly and deliciously, traveled the entire length of East Capitol Street from Prince George's County to the Capitol, until the cavalcade and its police escort completed its triumphal route at the District Building.
Abe Pollin rode somewhere ahead of us. What a sight must have opened up before him that day. All his Bullets had their own chauffeur-driven car, but he got to gaze at the vista first.
No one knew what to expect. Of course, there would be thousands congregated at 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue for speeches and all the normal pomp. But what would the spontaneous, grass-roots, Washington-wide reaction be from a town that had not won a major sports championship in 36 years? A victory ride can be lonely if the streets are bare.
Instead, there was scarcely a block on the entire route that was not lined on both sides with people holding Bullets banners and wearing Bullets jerseys, their arms waving, cheering for Pollin, Coach Dick Motta, Elvin Hayes, Bobby Dandridge, Mitch Kupchak and Unseld, the warrior who'd always hated shooting free throws but who, with the Bullets ahead 101-99, made the two foul shots that sealed the deal in Game 7 in Seattle.
Like everybody who'd grown up in Washington, and in my case, reached 30 years old without a single title, I told myself, "Remember this parade." And, as one of several reporters who got to ride (inconspicuously, please) in players' cars, I actually have. Like a necklace of affection that seemed to stretch to the horizon, the fans were gathered -- not packed, not Canyon of Heroes stuff -- but unremitting nonetheless, with seldom more than a few feet between them. At points they were two or three deep, on every block and intersection, for miles and miles. The whole city, every type of neighborhood and racial mix, was represented, all happy, all united by a winning team.
No doubt, academics believe that a strong social fabric is created in many ways. But after that ride, I've never doubted that a title team was one of them. The sports culture of a big city, a town's sense of whether it is a home of champions or a burg fit only for losers, can change radically. But the process can be torture, so slow it defies logic and shreds generations of patience.
Before Pollin's Bullets, Washington had, since 1942, been synonymous with losers -- not just losers but hideous Senators and, if you skip the George Allen years, Redskins teams, abominable for decades at a time. Two versions of the Senators left town, the last in 1971. An ABA team came and flopped. Pro soccer came and went, too. None of our college basketball or football teams reached the top. The 1951 Terrapins (I'm told) and 1960 Midshipmen were special. But that's meager gruel to feed on for 36 years. If it involved a ball and it came to our town, it failed.
The facts were the facts. In the wake of the 1968 riots, and the District's history of lost teams, you fled this city. You didn't move to Washington.
But Abe Pollin did.
That's when things finally started to change. And, over a decade, this area slowly changed from a town of losers to a city of winners. In 1973, Allen took the Redskins to the Super Bowl, but lost. Later that year, Pollin moved the Bullets here from Baltimore, calling them the Capital Bullets for a year before daring to confront our jinx and actually put "Washington" in the name.
As this whole town will spend the week attesting, Pollin, who died on Tuesday at 85, left enough legacies for several lives. As a philanthropist he was passionate, hands-on and international. As the man who built Verizon Center, his willingness to be a risk-taker at age 73 was central to the rebirth of a large swath of downtown. And, as a long-view thinker, he was the contrarian who, two years after D.C. lost its second MLB team, saw opportunity here. Abe abhorred a business vacuum. So, he filled it.
However, to me, Pollin will always be the owner who changed our view of ourselves on the national sports scene. His Bullets also played for the NBA title in '71 and '75, pounding on the door until they got through. The '77-'78 team was especially important to the town because it was an unselfish, underdog team with a new coach and a mere 44-38 regular season record. Without a 20-point scorer, but with nine essential players, each melded to his proper role, the Bullets gave birth to one of the classic underdog lines in sports. Motta, with his team down but not out (including trailing three games to two in the NBA Finals) was the first to say, "It's not over till the fat lady sings." And they've been saying it ever since.
After the Bullets won, the dam broke. The Georgetown Hoyas went to three NCAA championship games and won one title. Joe Gibbs arrived in 1981. Enough said. Sugar Ray Leonard amounted to a Washington franchise in boxing. By 1984, I walked into Duke Zeibert's Connecticut Avenue restaurant, a law-politics-sports hub of the time, and saw both the Redskins Super Bowl trophy and the '83 Orioles World Series championship trophy on display side by side in a glass case at the entrance. Washington was for winners.
These days, Washington fans think it has been an eternity since we won anything that brought the whole city to its collective feet. Yet Maryland was the NCAA men's basketball champion just eight seasons ago. Even the Redskins' current trek in the wilderness, now 18 years without sniffing an NFC championship game, is only half of what we endured before Pollin. Now, we've just built a new ballpark that may eventually do for the Southeast waterfront something akin to what Verizon Center did for Chinatown. As for the Caps, that cup with Lord Stanley's name on it seems to await them.
Once, when Washington's teams lost, the city yawned and said, "Oh, well, that's just us. First in war, first in peace and last in, well, every sport known to mankind." No more. Never again.
Abe Pollin always referred back to his '77-'78 team and vowed to duplicate the feat. He never did. But he brought the title to his home town that mattered the most -- the first one in 36 years, the one that broke a curse that seemed it would never end.