Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.
It was the first night of the new year, a time to look into the future, but it was also a night for the Washington Bullets to remember the glories of the past.
For 48 minutes, they chipped away at the rumors of them being too old and tired to scare anybody any more. They were playing the haughty, young Houston Rockets, the erstwhile Central Division doormats who have supplanted them in first place, but on a night like this, even that didn't matter.
The Bullets just kept on doing everything they are supposed to, and when they were finished, they had a 104-89 victory that made them look like the champs they used to be and the Rockets look like the chumps they used to be.
A compassionate judge would have called the game nolo contendre with 6:25 to go when the Bullets built their lead to 92-79 with a basket they had no business geetting.
Phil Chenier, suffering through a four-for-17 shooting drought, launched a jumper from 20 feet that traveled only 19 feet.But Elvin Hayes was there to catch the ball and deposit it gently in the basket for his 11th point of the quarter and 32d of the night, a pair of statistics Houston has every right to rue.
In front of 9,620 witnesses at Capital Centre, Hayes was proving that he could beat Rockets Moses Malone and Rudy Tomjanovich to the basket. It was something he had failed to do in the Bullets' two losses in Houston, so there was a distinct note of righteous retribution in Hayes' voice afterward.
"They were just setting up in a semizone defense and then standing there and watching me," he said. "I'd just come down and make a quick cut across the middle and there I'd be, all alone."
That wasn't the only time the Rockets failed to stand on the 6-foot-9 linchpin of the Bullets' offense.
"They weren't very good covering me when they had to covert from offense to defense, either," said Hayes. "As soon as they'd shoot the ball, I'd just break down the court.I know that bothered Tomjanovich. He was breathing hard even in the first half."
When Hayes' shooting arm got tired, he had plenty fo relief. Dave Bing canned all seven of his shots from the field and rookie Mitch Kupchak had one of those nights when he flirted with brilliance.
With the Bullets nursing a 27-25 lead going into the second quarter, Kupchak raced off the bench to score 14 points in the next 12 minutes. The stunned Rockets limped to the dressing room at halftime trailing, 56-43 while Kupchak rejoiced at the opportunity for so much exercise.
"I made two or three baskets, I got two or three rebounds and I got to finish the quarter," said Kupchak who ended the night with 21 points and 26 minutes played. "You have to go with guys hwo have proved they can do it. I haven't done that yet."
But he went a long way in building his case last night. Coach Dick Motta was so pleased that he worked to steal time for the 6-foot-9 former North Carolina star at forward as well as at center.
"Mitch makes more things happen as a forward than he does as a center," Motta said. "I really think Mitch can be a Bob Pettit-type forward." A smile spread across the coach's face. "I guess that's a pretty good statement, isn't it?"
The Rockets may not argue with Motta after Kupchak grabbed eight rebounds to complement both, his scoring and the board work of Hayes, who had 13 rebounds and Wes Unseld, who finished with 10.
The only time the Bullets faltered was in the third quarter. Tomjanovich shot them into a daze with every delivery the law allows - jump, hook, dipsy-do and just flat-out indescribable.
The outburst provided 16 of the 25 points the Houston forward scored and sliced Washington's lead to 78-73. Then it was a question of whether the Bullets could keep their poise, a task at which they have been something less than spectacular this year.
"We didn't panic," Motta said after Hayes had rescued the Bullets with his magnificient fourth quarter. "We didn't try to get everything back at one time."
Folding would have been easy if Unseld had not continued to keep Malone away from the boards and his rebound total to 12. And it would have been easy, too, if Bing hadn't made a personal issue of swatting the ball away from deft John Lucas time and again.
"Luke is going to be a fine player," Bing said of the former Maryland star who had 19 points and sported the mustache Lefty Driesell never let him wear. "I'm a lot more impressed with him after ploying him that I was when I saw him on TV."
When the Bullets were finished handing out compliments to the Rockets, they ought to have lavished a few of themselves.
By winning, they had moved within one game of .500 - the greatest psychological barrier in any sport - and they had cut Houston's lead over them to four games. And the joy of that was that they hadn't needed anybody else to help them.
"I told these guys that the only people they can really count on are themselves," said Motta. "I guess they believed me."