They may be the four best players on what Bullet general manager Bob Ferry calls "the best bench we've ever had," but helping to make history isn't the same as being starters.
"You look for your minutes and you hope to play well," says Kevin Grevey. "But you also wish you were starting. You can have this sitting on the bench and waiting. It's not much fun."
But for the present they have no choice but to sit.So each tries in his own way to cope with being a substitute.
Mitch Kupchak rarely sits when he is not in a game. He's a human pogo stick, jumping up and down applauding a play on the court or just standing to relieve his abundant nervous energy.
Grevey is much calmer. He normally sits at the end of the bench, his back tight against the rear of his chair his legs spread apart. And he never looks over toward coach Dick Motta.
Larry Wright likes to hold a towel, which he squeezes and strokes while rarely taking his eyes off the players in front of him. He almost seems to be plotting some devilish surprise for the first opponent who dares to guard him.
Greg Ballard tries to relax. He knows his few minutes will come but is never sure when. So he sits with hands folded in front of him trying not to let his nervousness affect his stomach like it did earlier in the season.
As always they will wait during tonight's game against Indiana at Capital Center for a call from Motta: "Okay Mitch (or Kevin or Greg or Larry), go in." Until that call comes, they contemplate how they can convince Motta they would be better as starters.
He has four angry young men on his hands who are attempting each time out to show him he is a bad judge of who should start and who should sit. The result is that on many nights nine Bullets not just the starting five turn in fine performances.
But in their anxiety to impress they have discovered the pitfalls of coming off the bench. Cold hands and forced shots lead to mistakes and inconsistent play. And that combination results in varying amounts of playing time and mounting frustration.
"When you start you know you are going to play a lot" says Wright.
"When you come off the bench you never know if you'll get in again or not. It means you have to produce immediately and that isn't always easy."
It took a while for this bench to form. Both Grevey and Wright started in place of Phil Chenier earlier in the season and Ballard has begun to get more playing time in the last three weeks. Only Kupchak has realized his role from the vary start of the schedule.
But now Motta has been able to utilize his reserves in a more predictable manner. Kupchak usually replaces Wes Unseld late in the first period. Wright goes in for Tom Henderson at the start of the second and Grevey normally fills in for Chenier a few minutes into the same quarter. Ballard has been substituting for Bob Dandridge sometime before intermission.
Ferry, who has played against, played on or been an executive for every Bullet team since the franchise moved from Chicago to Baltimore in 1963-64 can't remember a previous squad that consistently used nine players in a game.
"There is a reason for that," said Ferry. "In my day, the theory was that it wasn't necessary to keep a lot of talent. Under the Gene Shue regime, we went only seven or eight deep because that's all you could keep happy.
"Now with free agents, you've got to arm yourself with all the talent you can. You know that you will lose some eventually. I'd love to have 11 great players if I could."
For Motta, just having nine gifted athletes can create headaches. And he'd also like to give the last two players on the squad, Joe Pace and rookie guard Phil Walker, more playing time, "but you run out of minutes. It's hard enough now to maneuver everyone in some games," he said.
What complicates Motta's problem is the youthfulness of his bench. Grevey is the oldest reserve and this is only his third year in the league. And the first four subs are all No. 1 draft choices whom Ferry says "know they are good enough to be starters in the league."
It can be harder for young players to adapt to limited roles, especially after getting a taste of starting.Bullet coaches in past years didn't face the same difficulties, because their benches usually included a few veterans playing out their careers.
"Those kind of players realize why they are in the league," said Ferry. "They are happy with what they are doing. They aren't going to fret about why they aren't starting."
The good Bullet benches of the other years (Jimmy Jones, Nick Weatherspoon, Truck Robinson, Clem Haskins in 1974-75, Ray Scott, Leroy Ellis. Fred Carter and Mike Davis in 1969-70 and Wayne Hightower, Bob Ferry, Wally Jones and Sihugo Green in 1964-65) all had a mixture of youth and experience. But none had the fire power of this year's group.
Kupchak, Grevey, Wright and Ballard combine for a n average of 39.8 points a game. Kupchak (52 per cent) and Wright (53 per cent) are the two most accurate shooters on the squad. And besides Chenier, Grevey is the team's best streak shooter, especially from distance.
And no Bullet coach has been able to tap a bench as versatile as this one. Kupchak, who ranks with Darryl Dawkins as the best reserve big man in the league, can play all three front court spots. Grevey swings between forward and guard. Wright can handle either the playmaking or shooting guard spot and Ballard is strong enough to guard big or small forwards on defense.
"Kupchak alone makes this the best bench," said Ferry, "because he is the best player ever to come off the bench in our history."
Yet Kupchak is averaging only 27 minutes a game, despite the fact he's one of the three best players on the team. The other two forwards, Dandridge and Elvin Hayes, are averaging 38.9 and 36.5 minutes, respectively.
Kupchak's value as a substitute was best illustrated when Unseld hurt a leg earlier in the season. Kupchak started in his place for one game, but Motta jokingly said he felt so insecure not having the 6-foot-11 player next to him on the bench that he put Pace at center until Unseld returned.
Despite his desire to start, Kupchak has been able to control his emotional peaks and valleys fairly well. Grevey, at least outwardly, is affected harder by his varying playing time. Wright, who still feels he should not have lost his starting job, will glare at Motta if he believes he should be left in games longer. Ballard, the bullish rookie who improves with every appearance, admits he has been so upset sitting on the bench that he hasn't even bothered to shower after some contests.
But when these reserves do get in as a unit-most times with Hayes as the fifth player - they frequently emerge as a better running group than the starters. With Wright and Grevey pulling up for outside jump shots, Kupchak filling the fast-break lanes as well as any big man in the league and Hayes assuming Unseld's rebounding role, they are able to change the game's tempo in a matter of minutes.
"Our aim is to develop a backup for every player," said Ferry. "In this case, some of them offer a nice contrast to the starter. If you are a defensive man and Unseld has been leaning on you, it's tough to adjust to Kupchak and his running.
"Or if you are guarding Henderson, now you have a bug like Wright to handle. It can make an opponent's life a lot harder."
But sitting and watching from the bench is also hard, even when you've had a good game and the team has won.
"Once you've started," says Grevey, "there is nothing else to compare with it. I don't think any of us want to be like John Havlicek and make a career out of being a sub."