At the end, as Greg Ballard hugged the basketball amid a flurry of arms and hands, the Capital Centre exploded.

Grown men hugged each other on the court and in the stands. Black and white slapped hands all around. Women cried. Men cried.


The Washington Bullets, a championship team for this and most any other season, pulled out a victory last night against the San Antonio Spurs that they had little right to achieve.

The Bullets trailed by 10 points early in the fourth period. With 3:05 to play, the deficit was six points.

At the final buzzer, the Bullets were 107-105 winners, on a jump shot by Bobby Dandridge with eight seconds to play and a stunning block by Elvin Hayes with four seconds to play.


When the game ended, the 19,035 onlooker stood as one. They cheered and laughed and jumped jubilantly for 10 minutes, basking in the precious victory. The sign on the official scorer's desk-"Next Home Game Seattle Sun., May 20" was a reality, not a boast.


Thirty minutes after the finish, hearts still pounded in Capital Centre.

Outside the arena, the celebartion continued amid a raucous cacophony of honking horns, war whoops and screams of glee.

No one cared that cars were mired in a traffic jam that would last 90 minutes as engines burned precious fuel, carbon monoxide fouled the air and shattered glass made the drive from the Centre much like maneuvers in a mine field.

No one minded at all because this was a night to celebrate, a night to talk about the chance for still another championship, a night, to scream "BULL-ETTS, BULL-ETTS" until the early hours of the morning in a Landover parking lot.


Five hours before Greg Ballard hugged that basketball, Dennis Vala was sipping a beer in the back of a camper near the press entrance of Capital Centre. He was wondering if he would have another opportunity to wear the costume that had made him famous only 12 months ago.

Vala, who lives in Bristow, Va., near Manassas, showed up at a playoff game one year ago, after Bullets coach Dick Motta had uttered the now-famous remark-"The opera ain't over till the fat lady sings."

Vala came then in full regalia-a long white dress, a braided blond wig and lots of lard. The crowd loved him, and the "fat lady" was born. "I was in every paper in Amercia," he said.

But now, two hours before the start of the Bullets' most important game this season, Vala was beside himself.

"I know they need me," he said, "but I'm hurt, man, really hurt. After the second Atlanta game here last month, I was driving home and fell asleep at the wheel. You know who I hit? A state trooper, that's who.

"I went right through the windshield. Ten days in the hospital. Stitches all over the place. The fat lady lost some teeth, too. I'd put on the stuff tonight if I could, but I can't walk, I can't get up and down the steps.

"But tell 'em all I'll be back. I'll be here for the championship. No question. I'll be here, if they have to wheel me in."

So too, will the Bulletts and all of their other adoring fans who made last night's game something special, a celebration of sight and sound and soaring emotions.

For many, it began in the wet.

While Vala drank beer in the parking lot, many zealots were walking the access roads leading to Capital Centre. They needed tickets and as the rain poured down, they tapped on closed windows of approaching cars, holding up two fingers and imploring, "Need two, got any?"

Art Flourney of Oxon Hill was looking for a single and said the highest price he had been quoted was $25. "I'll just walk around the building till the game starts," he said confidently.

"Got here early, paid $2 to park. I'll get in the car, go home to the TV and catch the last three quarters. That's all I lose, two bucks, not counting the gas, of course," he said.

The rain also kept away most of the slick scalpers.

On the inside, the crowd began rocking at first sight of the Bullets in the warmups. Ushers handed out "DEFENSE" signs to all of the customers, many of whom brought their own banners and posters.

"Einstein was wrong," one balcony banner read "E=MVP."

Thirty minutes before tipoff, the Centre was only half full, the direct result of a massive traffic jam on the Beltway between Rte. 50 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

The wizards of the highway department had chosen last night to patch pot-holes. It figured. Many ticketholders were trapped in a bcakup that stretched three miles one hour before the 8:35 p.m. start.

Still, most arrived in time. Gerald Marshall of Washington even had enough time to spend $18.50 at a souvenir stand. He came in a group with 15 friends and said, "My kids wouldn't let me in the house if I didn't bring something back.

"So I make 'em happy. I got three shirts, a wrist band and a pennant. Now I'm going up to my friends. We're gonna holler, scream and act like lizards," he announced.

In an auxiliary press box, a 7-foot-4 young man from Harrisonburg, Va., looked down on the action. His name is Ralph Sampson, and he is being courted by every major college in America to play basketball.

When a reporter asked him how he obtained his ticket, Sampson quickly insisted, "I didn't get it illegally, I didn't get it illegally. I know a player, that's all. Everything's clean."

For most of this epic basketball game, the Washington faithful had little reason for encouragement. Their team looked flat, jumpers missed, foolish fouls were committed. They trailed by as many as 10 points early in the fourth.

And then it happened.

As the Bullets clawed back in those final, frantic three minutes, the decided level in the building was shattering.

And then there was Ballard, sinking two free throws with 36 seconds to play for a 105-105 tie. Then Dandridge scored from the right baseline. Then Hayes blocked an attempt by James Silas, and Ballard hugged the loose ball.

Then, ecstasy. CAPTION: Picture, Greg Ballard (42) holds ball away from Billy Paultz as game ends and Elvin Hayes and Tom Henderson celebrate. By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post