This is a game of circumstances," said the Bullets' Charles Johnson, whose pro basketball life these days is limited to 10-day contracts. "A lot of people who should be playing in this league aren't."
And one of the teams that should be playing better in the NBA this year, the Los Angeles Lakers, is not. With several anonymous players a year ago, the Lakers had the best regular-season record in the league. Now, having replaced their Johnson-like players with what amounts to an all-star team, L.A. has lost only four fewer games than all of last season.
"You just can't go out and buy everybody," the Bullets' Dick Motta said after the 119-112 victory. "When you tinker, you tinker with the perimeter players. But how can you turn down a Dantley or a Wilkes? Or Lou Hudson?
"But I liked the Lakers last year. They were great. They were hungry. I liked the way they helped each other. Then after one (playoff) game (that helped Portland win their series) they cleaned house.
"And they've been trying changes since day one (this year). It shows at the end of games. They abandon everything then and go to Jabbar. We had them in pretty good shape."
The Lakers win on the road about as frequently as the German army. But yesterday certainly seemed like a fine chance, at least by the ordinary logic of sports. The Lakers were as healthy as they may ever be: the Bullets were missing Phil Chenier and Mitch Kupchak.
So what happens? Abdul-Jabbar goes four for 12 in the first half and the Lakers lead by nine points. Abdul-Jabbar goes nine for 15 in the second half and the Bullets win by seven, with Johnson on the court for the Bullets during many of the critical moments.
"Embarrassing," said Laker coach Jerry West. "From what I've seen as far as work is concerned, I'm not optimistic. I'm not sure we can be excellent, although the first half might have been as good as we can play we can be flashy. But on the road you've got to work every night."
There are two basketball statistics that reflect work - free throws and rebounds. Yesterday the Bullets grabbed an astonishing 31 more rebounds, and the Lakers got the ball to their most dedicated worker, Adrian Dantley, for only four shots in the second half.
Dantley is exactly sort of player the Lakers have coveted. He is smart and powerful with and without the ball, a wonderful complement to Abdul-Jabbar, whose most impressive numbers are not the ones casual fans notice.
A fierce and clever competitor gets his reward in whistles and trips to the free-throw line. Dantley this season has shot 415 free throws. No one else in the NBA is close. The nearest Bullet, by contrast, Elvin Hayes has shot just 266 free throws.
Incredibly, Hayes has shot 64 fewer foul shots than Dentley has made.
"This (team) is to my advantage," said Dantley, as always depressed after a loss. "But we're not like we should be. We've got to get the loose balls, things like that."
West was more biting: "Our personnel is good: we haven't found the right combination. Ours is a long, long road."
One of the hurdles yesterday was Charlie Johnson, who increased his chances for another 10-day contract with 11 points, four rebounds and some tough defense in 24 minutes of action. He is a man who once declined an offer to play in the NBA because he was unsure the lifestyle was appealing, and now who hangs on by the thinest of threads.
"I was drafted by the Warriors (in the sixth round) in '71," he said. "But I wasn't sure I wanted to be a pro athlete, so I went to school in Mexico, continued my work in sociology for several months. I also played basketball there, because it was an American school in Mexico, and then went back to California."
The next year he signed with Golden State and began his career-long battles with "circumstances." Once a starter with perhaps the fewest minutes of any starter in the league, Johnson was the essence of the Warrior zest that beat the Bullets in four games for the NBA title two years ago.
"A lot of all this is timing," he said, "if you have the talent to fit in on a certain club. If you're a quick player on a team that wants power, you many of the traits of last season's champions, the Trail Blazers'. So did last season's Lakers. And this season's Lakers might develop that special "chemistry" in time.
They have been helped more so far by the least won't fit in. Or the other way around."
The Warrior team that won the NBA title had known of their three top draftees. Norm Nixon. Kenny Carr has been hobbled by injuries and Brad Davis sits far enough down the bench to be mistaken for the ball boy.
"But I'm not sorry I left Maryland (a year early)," Davis said after another game of zero minutes. "I'm learning a lot."
"I watched Brad a lot during the summer," Motta said. "If there's a weakness they'll find it in this league. And Brad has trouble with his shot. He pushes the ball well up the court, but isn't a great defensive player."
Though he hardly has the formula for whatever chemistry teams need to be NBA champs, Johnson has seen enough in his career not to be surprised by anything in pro sports, even the Lakers' from last season to this.
"I don't think a front office can straighten things out," he insisted. "Only players do that. You ever see a front-office guy score a point?"