Bullet Coach Dick Motta has likened the NBA playoff grind that will end for both Washington and Seattle tomorrow night to the sports equivalent of a death march.
"You start out with 22 teams in the regular season and then they make you travel 2,000 miles to get it down to 12 for the playoffs," he said. "Then they get it down to two survivors and then they just let 'em beat each other up.
"It consumes you. The only gray hairs you see on my head are the ones that have grown since the playoffs started. But that's the way I like it."
When the final game of this 32nd NBA season ends tomorrow, Seattle and Washington will have played the most contests in league history, 104 and 103, respectively. It will also be the longest season, finishing one day later than the 1976 playoffs. For the Bullets, the campaign has stretched from rookie camp in mid-September through the 82-game regular season to this title game, the one victory the franchise has been seeking for 17 years.
Grind will be plentiful. For finishing with the third best record in the Eastern Conference the Bullets split $22,500; for defeating Atlanta, the players, divided $22,500; for defeating San Antonio $37,500; for winning the Eastern Conference the league pool was $50,000.
If the Bullets win the title tomorrow (they are 4 1/2-point underdogs) they will split $150,000 (the 11 active players vote on shares, with the injured Phil Chenier and trainer John Lally likely to reap some of the bounty); if they lose, they divide $100,000.
Capital Centre hasn't fared badly, either, drawing 173,559 for 10 playoff games, including seven straight sellouts of 19,035 fans, most paying $10.50 a ticket.
The Bullets have been involved in four playoff series involving 20 games, about two-thirds of a normal college basketball season. It will have taken them five days short of two months to arrive at this contest, beginning with an opening miniseries victory over Atlanta on April 12, when even Motta had his doubts how long the club would last.
Each player has been affected differently by the playoffs. Elvin Hayes has ridden an emotional roller coaster. Bob Dandridge has tried to protect his body from wearing out. Wes Unseld has attempted to be the steadying force. Mitch Kupchak has battled a maddening shooting slump. Tom Henderson has wondered about playing time. And Kevin Grevey has counted his contusions.
"John Havlieck taught me what the playoffs are all about,' said Dandridge. "He would play each game like it was his last one and then he would go and collapse in his hotel room from mental strain. I found out what it was like to be intense every time out."
Kevin Grevey doesn't recount the last two months with memories of wins or losses. Instead, he looks at his body and points out the various injuries he has sustained since April.
"I can't believe anyone could be hurt this much," he said. "Against Seattle alone, I've had four injuries. Four injuries. It's sickening to come this far and then have stuff like this ruin it. It takes the fun away from the playoffs becauseI can't contribute the way I want."
As he spoke, he fingered a brace on his left wrist, which he unknowingly sprianed Friday in the fifth game against the Sonics. Of all his injuries, Grevey finds this one is the most irritating because it affects both his shooting and his ball-handling.
"It feels better today than yesterday and I think I can play Wednesday," he said. "At least I'm going to try, as long as I don't feel like I'm hurting the team.
"People keep asking me if I am injury prone, but I'm not. I never missed a game in high school or college because of an injury. Now everything seems to be catching up to me at once."
Grevey, who was bothered by a amstring pull, an akle sprain, a sore neck and a scratched eye during the regular season, made it through the Atlanta and San Antonio series without major problems.
But against Philadelphia he pulled a neck muscle while drying his hair with a towel. And he irritated tendons in his knee by slamming into a table during a game. Then he sprained an ankle in the opener against Seattle, strained his knee so badly that fluid had to be drained from it before game three, and developed a hip pointer in game four. And now the wrist.
"I'm tired," he said. "Both mentally and physically. That has to be a reason I'm getting hurt so much. All of us are feeling it. Our resistance isn't as high as it was. You can take only so much and then there will be injuries because of fatigue.
"You can't believe the time I've spent in hospitals and training rooms getting therapy. No one asks me about strategy or anything anymore. All they want to know is about injuries. But after Wednesday, I at least can get away for a while and rest. That sounds like a great idea."
There were well-founded predictions two months ago that the Bullets, who had struggled to finish third in the Eastern Conference, would not last long if they got by the Atlanta Hawks in the playoff miniseries.
But Atlanta helped shape the Bullets into a championship contender. Hubie Brown's bunch made Washington work for every point. To win, the Bullets found they had to execute their offense and play more as a team, both of which had been problems in March.
They also discovered they could win despite injuries. After capturing the opener in Capital Centre, they took game two - and the series - despite the absence of Dandridge, who had a sore neck. Grevey scored 41 points in that overtime triumph and Grey Ballard, playing for Dandrifge, contributed 13 points and 11 rebounds.
But Atlanta was no San Antonio and it seemed that the run-and-gun Spurs would be able to handle Washington in the Eastern Conference semifinals. They trampled the Bullets by 11 in the first contest.
But Motta had everyone healthy again so he could exploit San Antonio weaknesses. As long as the Bullets could rebound well, he felt they could beat the Spurs by fast breaking and working on their defensive weaknesses.
With Grevey scoring 31 points, Hayes 23 and Dandridge 16, the Bullets won game two at San Antonio, then ripped off two more victories in Capital Centre to take command of the series. Hayes, the playoff fall guy in years past, was rebounding, scoring and blocking shots and forcing San Antonio to concentrate its offense around the perimeter.
Only George Gervin, the Iceman, kept the Spurs competitive. He averaged 35 points before tiring in the final game, when a Hayes dunk and then his block of a Gervin drive wrapped up the series, 103-100, and sent the Bullets against the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference finals.
Washington's teamwork and brains proved more capable than Philadelphia's one-on-one play and love for the sensational.
Washington set the pattern for the round in the first game, when Hayes scored nine points in overtime to pull out a victory at the Spectrum. He finished with 23 points and 18 rebounds for the game, but his effort was almost wasted when philadelphia wiped out a four-point lead in the last nine seconds of regulation.
The only gloom in the Bullets camp after that victory was Unseld's ankle injury. He wound up missing three games.
The Bullets returned home to a cheering Capital Centre crowd after losing game two and dashed off two lopsided triumphs. In the process, Dandridge outplayed Julius Erving decisively, scoring 57 points in the two contests while Hayes added 51 in his matchup against slumping George McGinnis.
Philadelphia hopes rose slightly after a fifth-game win, but Motta never wavered in his publicly announced conviction, "We are a better team than the best team, money can buy. We know we can beat them. We have no doubt."
He was proven correct on the night of May 12 which ranks as one of the most memorable in Washington sports history. Before a screaming, emotional crowd, the Bullets put away the 76ers, 101-99, on the strength of two splendid last-minute plays: Unseld's tip-in of his own missed rebound shot and Hayes' block of Lloyd Free's last-second attempt to send the game into overtime.
"The Opera isn't over 'til the Fat Lady Sings," Motta had declared during the series. On that night, she sang along with the thousands who jammed onto the floor, tore down one of the Centre baskets and celebrated their team's unexpected trip to the finals:
The Bullets had made two previous appearances, in the round, losing in four straight each time.
Washington wasted no time in blowing a golden opportunity to take over the championship series. The Bullets had a 19-point lead against the Sonics in the opener at Seattle, only to let it slip away in the face of Fred Brown's outside shooting, 106-102.
Dandridge scored only six points in that contest, but had 34 in the second at the Centre and the Bullets evened the series at 1-1. But Seattle shocked them by winning the third, also at the Centre, when Dandridge's game-saving shot rimmed the basket and fell out.
Washington scored an overtime triumph in game four when the Bullet guards shook a slump and began scoring. The Sonics rebounded by outshooting the Bullets at the foul line and winning game five.
That set the stage for the sixth game Sunday in the Centre. The Bullets' offense suddenly came together, Seattle shot horribly and Washington raced to a 117-82 triumph, the largest victory margin in final-round history.
Now only game seven remains.
"Maybe when it's over, I'll collapse," said Dandridge. "But we all know we have on to go. It's not asking too much of your body to get up one more time."