HOME TOWN HOLLERING aside, the fact that the Bullets and the Seattle Supersonics are going at each other for the NBA championship for the second straight year is something to cheer about. Not only are they two remarkably well-matched teams - as Sunday's heart-freezing, down-to-the wire, must-we-go-through-this-every-time game proved - but they are also led by two men, who, as much as anybody who ever played pro basketball, illustrate the essential appeal of the sport. The men are Washington's Bobby Dandridge and Seattle's Dennis Johnson. And on Sunday each scored exactly 23 points, shot 10 for 22 from the floor, went three for four in foul shots, and had four assists apiece. But the similarity of statistics is coincidental. The value of these men lies not so much in their likenesses to each other, as in their difference from other players, with whom they perform on the court like top musicians in a jazz band.
For both Dandridge and Johnson have learned something about the game of basketball that very few ever learn, and fewer still have the ability to act on - that basketball is a game of solos and harmonies, that it depends on a sense of your own timing, and on a sense of everyone else's, so that when the defenders are on the floor, you're in the air; when they're running, you're loping; and always vice versa. The main reason that Dandridge and Johnson stand out in their sport is not that they're faster than anyone else, but rather that they know when to be slower: "Sometimes you're ahead and sometimes behind. Instead of the swift and imperceptible flowing of time, you are aware of its nodes, those points where time stands still or from which it leads ahead. And you slip into the breaks and look around."
Ralph Ellison wrote that, in "Invisible Man," when his protagonist was describing Louis Armstrong's music. Dandridge and Johnson may not make music, at least for the ears, but they have the jazzman's gift of being able to assess the circumstances and "slip into the breaks." Friday night, for example, in that astonishing game with San Antonio, a single basket was required for the Bullets to win and move up to the finals. With eight seconds remaining, they gave the ball to Dandridge, naturally, who clamly hit a 15-foot jump shot from the side. There wasn't anyone, including and especially the members of the San Antonio Spurs, who did not know the ball was going to Dandridge. Yet when he was at the top of his jump, ready to shoot, three defenders stood flat on the floor, two of whom were taller, one faster, none better.