Two weeks ago today, Wes Unseld sat on a training table in the middle of the Bullets' locker room in Philadelphia's Spectrum and shook his head disconsolately as the team doctor examined his severely injured ankle.
"I think it could be broken," Stanford Lavine told him. "But we'll take X-rays tomorrow to make sure."
"I was sure he was right," Unseld says now. "It's hard to put into words how badly I felt, sitting there, not being able to do anything about it."
Today, Unseld, whose ankle was only badly sprained, reigns as the resident sports hero of Washington.
His rebound basket that beat the Philadelphia 76ers, 101-99, Friday night to give the Bullets the NBA Eastern Conference title is being replayed over and over on television and is being relived in living rooms and neighborhood pubs throughout the area.
Within minutes of his outside Capital Centre to buy tickets for the championship round. Club officials say interest in the team has never been greater, not even in 1975 when the Bullets last were in the finals.
That Unseld, who thought his part in the series was over after the Bullets' victory in game one, should ultimately provide perhaps the most memorable moment in the franchise's history is the latest of an amazing number of twists, turns and ironic incidents that have marked this thrilling, roller-coaster Bullet season.
The Bullets have overcome an extraordinary number of injuries, a major late-season slump, emotional outbursts by star players and the talent of two heavily favored playoff foes to emerge today in the position of having to beat the champion of the Western Conference (Seattle or Denver) to win their first NBA title ever.
When Elvin Hayes says that, "No one gave us a chance to get this far, they all thought we'd get blown out," he isn't overstating the case. The club stumbled so badly at the end of the regular season and had such a difficult time subduing Atlanta in the opening playoff round that it seemed unlikely Washington would last much more than five or six games against San Antonio in the next series.
But in the process of upsetting the Spurs in six contests and then overcoming the heavily favored 76ers in the Eastern Conference final, the Bullets have won over the Washington area sports fan and renewed the enthusiasm that engulfed the franchise three years ago when it made the finals against Golden State.
And the Bullets also have regained something vital to their future: respect. "We lost our credibility when we lost to Golden State (in four straight)," said owner Abe Pollin. "Now we've accomplished something that people recognize as a major feat. We are back where we should have been all along."
This is the same Pollin who watched attendance drop during the regular season and who sat quietly while his beloved team stumbled to a third-place finish in the Eastern Conference while not attracting a single sellout crowd.
Now they have sold out Capital Centre the last four playoff games. "We are underdogs." said Dick Motta. "Before, this club always was the favorite and people expected a lot from it. But anything we have done in the playoffs was a surprise. We were easy to root for. It became an 'in' thing to do."
For Motta and players like Hayes and Unseld, the Bullets' playoff success has particular significance.
It was Motta who proclaimed the Bullets "one of the league's elite teams" at the beginning of the season and then watched them struggle all season to finally live up to his glossy prediction. And it was Motta who cautioned fans "not to give up on this team" when it was playing so badly at home those final days in early April.
His coaching strategy during the playoffs is being hailed as outstanding. He out maneuvered both San Antonio's Doug Moe and Philadelphia's Billy Cunningham.
Although it was unlikely he would have been fired with a year left on his contract, Motta entered the playoffs knowing the Bullets had to do well to relieve the pressure that was building around him.
"All he did," said guard Charlie Johnson "is turn in a great coaching job. This is a well-coached team because he is a good coach. He has a great feel for the game and he knows when to make the right moves. The players have confidence in him."
Hayes, who has endured so much playoff criticism in the past, basked in the hero's spotlight in both the San Antonio and Philadelphia rounds.
Along with forward mate Bob Dandridge - "They will be remembered as the best forward combination in NBA history," said Motta - Hayes carried the Bullets to the verge of the conference title with his rebounding, scoring and shot blocking.
He clogged the middle on defense, came up with dramatic baskets and rebounds almost every game and served as the team conscience. At every turn, it was Hayes who sang the Bullets' praises and declared that he was coming closer "every day to what I want most: a championship ring."
And when the Bullets got so close in the final two minutes against the 76ers Friday night, Unseld took over tossing around his considerable bulk and utilizing his 10 years of experience to eigher touch or grab every important rebound and to score his club's last two baskets, including the game-winner.
In those dark moments early in April, when the players were disenchanted and the fans were staying away in droves, Unseld made a rare controversial public statement. After a loss to the Knicks, he said the team was "not doing the little things" it must do to win. And he added that only one person, Motta, could change the bad habits.
That was the beginning of the change in the Bullets. Unseld and Motta huddled the next day for an hour and talked over the club's problems. The next game, Unseld scored a season-high 25 points, the Bullets beat Los Angeles and wound up winning three of their last four regular-season games.
The Atlanta series ironed out the rest of the dificulties. The players quickly found that if they didn't execute the offense and didn't block out on rebounds and didn't help out on defense - Unseld's "little things" - they couldn't beat the Hawks.
"From the second Atlanta game on, we've done all the subtle stuff that the fans never see," said Unseld. "We're going beyond the first option on our offense. We're looking for the open man.
"Philadelphia was just the opposite. They rarely pass. If they run a play, the guy who gets the ball first shoots. That's not how you win playoff games."
Hayes agreed. "We really should be giving Atlanta credit for what we've done," he said. "That was a tough, tough series, but just what we needed to get our act together. Once we found out how well we could play, our confidence took off."
There was no lack of confidence in the organization this season, despite Phil Chenier's back problems, which kept him out of all exhibition games. Much of the enthusiasm was created by the addition of free-agent Dandridge to the roster.
But the club got off to a poor start, including Hayes, who thought he was going to be traded. Team officials seriously considered that move, but he finally got untracked, ironically, in a home game against the 76ers.
The Bullets got moving after Motta moved Kevin Grevey into the starting lineup at guard opposite Tom Henderson. For Grevey, the switch proved to be the salvation of a career that was floundering at small forward.
By Mid-December things had finally fallen into place. Motta, long-known as a deliberate, set-it-up coach, had the Bullets running at every opportunity. They raced to five straight victories, won 11 of 13 games and streaked to the top of the Central Division.
When they handed Portland only its fifth loss of the season, Jan. 13, Motta was certain they were headed for at least a 55-victory season. Hadn't they beaten the NBA's best team, he asked, with Chenier on the sidelines because of a hamstring pull?
But Motta didn't know then that Washington's 24-15 record was to be its best of the season. Chenier, who had started only eight games, woke up Jan. 19 with severe lower back pains. Instead of flying out to the West Coast to join the team, he entered the hospital and was out for the rest of the schedule.
That began a string of injuries that almost ruined the Bullets' playoff dreams.
In a game against Golden State Jan. 18, Kupchak hurt his thumb, Grevey pulled a neck muscle and Henderson sprained an ankle.
None of the ailments was considered serious at first. But Henderson wound up missing the next three games, Grevey sat out 1 1/2 and Kupchak eventually needed an operation that sidelined him for 15 contests. Against Phoenix Jan. 22, only seven players suited up, one less than the official league limit.
By the time Kupchak returned to the lineup, the Bullets had lost 10 of 15 contests (overall record: 29-28) and San Antonio had jumped to what proved to be an insurmountable lead.
Washington scrambled to fill a roster vacancy by adding Johnson, a husting veteran guard who had been cut by Golden State in early January. Johnson was supposed to stay for only 10 days but played so well he earned a three-year contract and eventually emerged as a settling force on the team.
Kupchak's presence helped straighten out things for a while. The Bullets put together a couple of four-game winning streaks, but then couldn't contain opponent guards, or win at home. They lost to the likes of Indiana, Kansas City and New Jersey at the Centre before finally beating Philadelphia on the last day of the regular season to secure third place in the Eastern Conference.
"Injuries killed us," said Motta. "They disrupted everything." Yet the Bullets overcame injuries to Dandridge, Grevey and Unseld in the playoffs to reach the final round.
"That's what playing smart, intelligent basketball can do," said Dandridge, who won his duel with Juilus Erving in the 76ers series. "We've always been our worst enemy. We've had the intelligence and the experience. All we had to do is execute and that's what we finally did."
But it is also useful to remember something Motta said before the season began. "Once you get to the playoffs," he pointed out, "regular-season play doesn't matter anymore. If you can get lucky and get a few players hot, you can accomplish things that don't seem possible."