Students of basketball genealogy know that today's Washington Bullets are descendents of the old Baltimore Bullets. What an act they had in Baltimore. They had Earl Monroe spinning. They had Gus Johnson with a gold star in his front tooth. "It was a jazz band," Bob Ferry says fondly. "Everybody did his own thing. You never saw so much soul."
In 1968 Ferry was a journeyman center playing out the string with the Bullets. They paid him, too, to help Gene Shue with the coaching. And in his spare time, Ferry was the team's talent scout. Today, he is the Bullets' general manager. He and owner Abe Pollin are the only survivors of the 1968 team that finished last in its NBA division.
As much magic as Monroe devised, the beautiful guard couldn't get the Bullets out the mud. Never before, never after, has anyone come down at blistering speed, done a 360-degree spin with the dribble going and then put up a 20-foot jumper the way Monroe did nightly. "We sat on the bench saying, 'Wow, way to do it, Earl,'" Ferry said.
Gus Johnson was a strongman. If Monroe blew a dancing horn in this Bullets' jazz band, Johson was the drummer, pounding way to his own music. "He was always breaking backboards with stuffs," Ferry said. They were wondrous players, Monroe and Johnson, all-stars both, but the Bullets finished last in 1967, last in 1968.
This afternoon, 10 years later, the Bullets begin playing the final chapter for the NBA championship. It's always a fascinating project to trace the creation of a successful sports team. So much luck, so much hard work, so many outright guesses, so many inexplicable events, come to fruition at once that success seems preordained. For today's Bullets, it began with a coin flip in the summer of 1968.
Irony here. Had the Bullets won the coin flip, they would have chosen first in the college draft. Elvin Hayes of Houston was the Big Man that summer. But the Bullets lost the flip. San Diego took Hayes, and the Bullets then had a decision to make: should they choose Wes Unseld or Otto Moore, Charlie Paulk or Bob Kaufmann?
The general manager, Buddy, Jeannette, wanted Otto Moore, a 6-foot-11 center. Shue and Ferry wanted Unseld. In time, Jeannette's insistence on Moore would cost him his job. In time, the triumverate of owners would dwindle to a single man, Pollin, because of the Moore-Unseld debate.
"At that time we needed character," Ferry said yesterday. "We had Monroe and Johnson, and we were looking for a stabilizer. We needed rebounding and character - and Wes had them both."
Hayes likely would have been traded by the Bullets. In fact he was traded by Houston, the new home of the San Diego team, in 1972. Houston practically gave him away. Word was that Hayes was troubled, a losing mal-content.
And who traded for Hayes?
The Bullets, Shue and Ferry liked him. "We felt he was a winner who as getting a bad rap because he was with an expansion team and was expected to do everything for them," Ferry said.
To get Hayes, the Bullets traded forward Jack Marin, now a law student at Duke University. Otto Moore is playing basketball in Europe, Bob Kaufmann is the general manager of the Detroit Pistons and where have you gone. Charlie Paulk?
The Bullets today play Seattle in the NBA championship series. Hayes and Unseld are pillars of strength. They seem to belong right where they are. Yet had the coin flip of 1968 gone the other way, it's likely neither man would be with the Bullets. And another thing: only last summer, after the Bullets lost to Houston in the Eastern Conference-semifinals last summer, they thought of starting all over again.
They would trade Hayes. They would find a big, young center. They would get a small forward who could score. All that they would do, all those desperate things an organization does when it is going nowhere in a rush. "It was mass confusion," Ferry said.
Pollin, Coach Dick Motta, Assistant Coach Bernie Bickersraff, Executive Vice President Jerry Sachs, attorney David Osnos and Ferry met daily in an effort to determine the team's future.
"I really felt strongly that we ought said. "Word got out that we traded Elvin to Buffalo for Adrian Dantley. I did talk to them, but that was never close to being done. We were talking about everything. What I wanted all along was to get Bobby Dandridge."
For three years, Ferry said, he had coveted the small forward of the Milwaukee Bucks. When Dandridge became a free agent, Ferry convinced Pollin to buy a player for the first time in Bullets' history. Ferry believed the Bullets could win the Eastern Conference championship by adding Dandridge, not subtracting Hayes.
Ferry's theory ran his way: the league's dominant centers were in the west, Bill Walton at Portland and Kareem Abdul Jabbar at Los Angeles. Ferry believed, the best team was Philadelphia, which won without an awesome big man.
"We needed some way to nullify Dr. J. (Julius jerving, the Philadelphia star)," Ferry said. "And I'd read where Dr. J said Dandridge was the most underrated forward in the NDA." NDA."
So the Bullets gave a reported $250,000 as compensation to the Bucks when they signed Dandridge. If that seemed a lot of money in August of 1977, it is small change in these giddy days of May, only a week after Dandridge outplayed Dr. J in the conference championship.
The Bullets, then, are Eastern champions today because they were lucky enough to lose a coin flip in 1968. Later, they guessed correctly on a trade for a reputed malcontent. And they worked hard enough to know a Milwaukee forward could handle the good doctor.Ferry also picked up an unemployed guard, Charles Johson, in January after having a vision, he said. Some things you can't explain.
And 10 years later the Bullets' jazz band is a symphony orchestra.