Like the scintillating, rousing season she came to symbolize, the Bullets' "Fat Lady" took shape slowly.
She first started singing for the team eight weeks ago in a San Antonio hotel room when Coach Dick Motta turned on his television set.
"Some television announcer, a guy by the name of Cook, I think said something about the series between the Spurs and us was like an opera," said Motta. "It wouldn't be over until the fat lady sang.
"I liked it. It was different. It seemed to say something about the NBA."
She sang louder after the dramatic Eastern Conference final series against Philadelphia, when Motta first cautioned players and fans from getting too overconfident about how the Bullets were dominating the 76ers.
"The opera ain't over 'til the fat lady sings," he said, hardly realizing he had given Bullet partisans a slogan that eventually would work its way into the White House.
The Fat Lady reached a deafening pitch before the Senate series in the showdown for the NBA title. And she beflowed deliriously, along with thousands of Washingtonians, when her favorite basketball team beat the Sonics in the seventh game, 105-99, last Wednesday night in Seattle for the city's first major pro title in 36 years.
The Fat Lady and the Bullets taught their fans a wondrous lesson in persistence and optimism during the two-month playoff trek.
The team overcame injuries, poor defense, internal problems and inconsistence crowd support to shock the oddsmakers and win the franchise's initial league title. In the process, they won the area's sporting public, reach of whose loyalty had been wedded to the Redskins ever since the Senators took their baseball bats and fed to Texas in 1971.
Conversation about the Bullets' exploits dominated many bars, cocktail parties, beach parties and coffee katches. Here was something Joe Fan could identify with: a Cinderella club that struggled to make the playoffs, then battled and defeated the best teams in the NBA.
These were highly visible sports herees. Masks didn't hide their anger, their joys or their frustrations. Fans could sympathize with Elvin Hayes' search for playoff credibility and with Wes Unseld's drive to end 10 years of playoff disappointments. And they could cheer Larry Wright's dunks, Mitch Kupchak's floor dives and Charles Johnson's long-range jumpers. And the fans knew they were being heard.
Mr. and Mrs. Jimmy Carter joined thousands of Bullet rooters who now own Fat Lady T-shirts. More than 8,000 people greeted the team when it arrived from Seattle carrying the championship trophy. Another 50,000 or more applauded the players Friday during a four-hour-long series of parades and ceremonies through Prince George's County and the District.
It took the Bullets five years after moving from Baltimore to stand stop Washington's sports scene. This is the story of how they achieved that plateau: The Phone Call
Abe Pollin, who has owned the Bullets since 1964, was in New York on a business trip last August when he decided he should place a call from the airport to Milwaukee Bucks President James Fitzgerald.
"We had been negotiating about a month trying to arrive at a compensation figure for Bobby Dandrige," said Pollin. "I just felt it had gone on long enough. So I called Mr. Fitzgerald and gave him a figure (250,000) and he accepted it.We shook hands on the phone.
"Twenty minutes later, another team (Golden State) called him and gave him a substantially bigger offer. But he told them he was a man of his word and he had given that word. He turned them down."
Dandrige was the one missing link the Bullets felt they needed to win the championship. Instead of trading away Hayes, as had been considered, they decided to sign the veteran all-star small forward of the free-agent list and build around Hayes and Dandridge.
Dandrige was the Bullets' initial free-agent acquisition. He also became their most valuable player over the 21-game playoff grind, where his intelligence, defense and scoring under pressure lifted the club every time it was ready to falter.
"I just wonder where we would be it I hadn't made that airport phone call," said Pollin, glancing at the championship trophy. The promise
All summer he had been dreaming about his second Bullet team as he tended to business at his general store in Fish Haven, Idaho. And now, a week before rookie camp would begin in late September, Dick Motta made a prediction.
"We can rank among the elite teams in the league," he said, then added a quick caveat to his forecast. "So much depends on Bob Dandridge. If he does what we think he will do, we can run better, we can dictate tempo better, Elvin won't have to score as much.
"If everything works out like I think, we are good enough to get into the playoffs. That's all you can ask for. Once you are in the playoffs, everything takes care of itself. And you have to get lucky." Hayes's Turnaround
ELvin Hayes sat by his locker, hung his head and talked about being traded. It was Nov. 5 and the Bullets had just lost to Houston to see their record drop to 2-4. Hayes, off to an equally slow start, had scored only three points against the Rokets before fouling out.
"Maybe they're getting ready to send me someplace," Hayes said. "I don't want to be traded, but I think they want to unload me."
Motta, frustrated by Hayes' indifferent play, had chewed out his superstar after the game. Later, there was talk that Hayes would be dealt off. But he apologized to his teammates for "trying to play like an average player so I could avoid criticism," and then began performing the way he can.
"We felt he wanted out," said Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff. "He wasn't in condition. He was playing like he was trying to get out of here."
Motta and Bickerstaff could live with Phil Chenier's early season back problems, which prevented him from playing in any exhibition games. They could tolerate Hayes' outspoken prediction that, "We can win this thing going away and I can get my champonship ring" even if he didn't score a point in some games.
But they had to have a contented Hayes, free of hangups, to make it to the playoffs.
Except for another flareup at midseason, when Motta again chewed out his star for not putting out 100 percent Hayes ultimately emerged as a new player this season. By playoff time,he was happy and relaxed and, when he finally kicked his reputation as a loser by carrying the club to the final round, he could smile broadly and declare: "Now all they can say is Elvin Hayes is a winner. I have my championship to prove it." Lost Pride
"It's a season of cycles," Dick Motta had warned after the Bullets best Portland, 102-93, Jan. 13, which turned out to be the high point of the regular season. "You can't celebrate too much."
Within five days, Motta's prophecy began to unfold. Chenier, who had pulled a hamstring Jan. 8, woke up the morning of Jan. 19 with back spasms and leg pains. He wound up in the hospital, in traction, and never returned to the lineup after starting only eight games the whole season.
Then Tom Henderson sprained an ankle, Mitch Kupchak tore ligaments in his thumb, which had to be repaired with an operation, and Kevin Grevey came up with neck and leg problems. On Jan. 22, only seven players, one under the league limit, suited up at Phoenix. By Feb. 22, when the Trail Blazers beat them at Capital Centre, the Bullets' once gaudy, division-leading record, had fallen to 29-28.
"I think we've lost our pride," Hayes said at one point during the drop from the top. "There are some people who aren't earning their money out there every night." Help From the Sky
He arrived in a helicopter, on a 20-day trial basis to fill the vacancy left by Chenier's injury. He was small, although the Bullets needed a big guard, and he had supposedly lost a step, although the Bullets needed backcourt quickness.
But Charles (C.J.) Johnson - trout fisherman, aspiring French restaurant owner, model-car lover and man of the world - stayed longer than 10 days. The former Golden State star wound up receiving a three-year contract while earning a special place in the hearts of Bullet fans.
The little man with the feathery outside shooting touch struck up an immediate friendship with Hayes, who learned to relax as never before. "Laverne and Shirley," Bob Dandridge called them.
And Johnson accepted the responsibility of shooting during pressure situations and playing tough defense against men four inches taller. By the time the playoffs rolled around, Motta depended on him to provide leadership and big baskets.
"I kept looking around, trying to see what could be wrong with this guy," said Motta. "I mean, why did they let him go? Why didn't someone gobble him up? Boy, did a lot of clubs make a mistake."
But even the Bullets almost by-passed him. General Manager Bob Ferry was going to sign some unheralded semipro guard before, he said, "I had a vision. I played a hunch."
Johnson's primary duty was to replace Kevin Grevey, the converted small forward who said in training camp that the acquisition of Dandridge had "made me expendabe." But with Chenier ailing, Grevey learned to play guard so well he averaged almost 18 points as a starter and once scored 43 points against Houston.
"The best left-handed white guard in the league," wrote a Seattle writer. "That's great," said Grevey. "I'm the only left-handed white guard in the league."
But Motta knew what Grevey and Johnson meant to the team. "Without them, we would never be in the playoffs," he said. "When Phil got hurt, what would we have done if Kevin hadn't come through? And what if we hadn't picked up C.J." Empty Seats
It was hard to tell which hurt. Abe Pollin more at the end of the season: the play of his Bullets or the lack of fans in his Capital Centre stands.
The more the Bullets stumbled, losing four of the last six home games to the likes of Kansas City, New Jersey and Cleveland, and the worse their guards played defense (opponent guards were the top scorers in 18 straight games), the smaller the Centre crowds became.
Of the last nine regular-season home crowds, only two were larger than 9,500. Overall attendance was lower than the previous season, moving Pollin to say the franchise was still feeling the effects of its 1975 final-round blasting by Golden State.
"Don't give up on this team too soon," said Motta, whose club had to beat Philly the final day of the season to finish third in the Eastern Conference with a 44-38 record.
"We've got to start doing the little things," said Unseld, who bluntly added that Motta needed to provide the right direction.
"We need better support," said Pollin as the Bullets entered the playoffs for the 10th straight year. Confidence Builder
The higher-arching 20-footer never touched iron. It swished through the net, making rookie Greg Ballard a hero in the 107-103 overtime victory in Atlanta, that pulled the Bullets past the Atlanta Hawks 2-0, in their first-round miniseries.
The Cinderella Hawks had hardly been a pushover for the Bullets, who played game two without the sore-necked Dandridge. Atlanta scrapped and scrambled and Washington found it had to execute its offense and do Unseld's "little things" to win. It also needed 41 points from Grevey in the finale to get the game into overtime.
"Atlanta restored our confidence," said Dandridge. "Before the injuries, we were getting to a point where we felt we could blow out anyone. then we lost our confidence."
The Bullets had made a habit of losing games that didn't mean much during the regular season. Suddenly, that had changed. "They knew what they had to do and they did it," said Bickerstaff. "They could call their own shots." Iceman Cooled
In the six playoff games against Washington, San Antonio's George Gervin created a Motown Sound that even the Supremes couldn't duplicate. The Detroit native dazzled with his marksmanship, his coolness, his consistency under pressure.
But as good as he was, as unstoppable as he proved, Gervin alone couldn't beat a suddenly smooth-functioning Bullet team that overwhelmed the Spurs with a torrid fast break.
All the pieces that Motta thought would produce a winner came together. Hayes and Unseld dominated the boards, Dandridge overwhelmed Larry Kenon, Grevey and Charles Johnson took turns hitting from the outside and the defense improved each game.
Hayes was especially brilliant. He had 28 points, 11 rebounds and six blocked shots in game two, when the Bullets wrestled away the home-court advantage from the Central Division champs. His dunk and ensuing block of a Gervin drive wrapped up game four. And he combined with Wright to score 11 of the last 15 points, including a breakaway dunk, in Washington's decisive game six triumph.
"Not bad for a team that finished 44-38, right," said Motta. "Who knows that we are capable of doing now"? Bobby D.
"The only trouble with my game," said Bobby Dandridge, "is that it was in hiding in Milwaukee for eight years. In Washington, everyone had a chance to see it."
No one got a closer view of Dandridge's talents than Julius (Dr. J) Erving, the 76er medicine man who was supposed to cure the Bullets of playoff fever quickly.
Instead, it was Dandridge, confident that his offense was better than Dr. J's defense, who dominated his small-forward matchup. He outscored Erving, he helped the Bullets outrun the 76ers and put in crucial baskets at almost every turn. By the time he was done, Motta was calling him "the best all-round small forward in the league."
Dandridge's performance was not the only stunning aspect of the 76er series. The Bullets overwhelmed their more publicized opponents starting at game one, when they won 122-177, at Philadelphia's Spectrum despite only a one-day break from the Spur series.
Hayes, 32, that marvelously gifted athlete with the body and endurance of a man 10 years younger, reached the peak of his season in that opener. After the Bullets blew a four-point lead in the last nine seconds of regulation, he scored the last seven points in overtime to secure the upset victory.
"I thought we could beat San Antonio and I really wanted to beat Philly badly, to show teamwork is still better than one on one," said Motta.
But before he could celebrate the end of the 76ers, he had to survive Unseld's first-game sprained ankle, which put him out for the three contests, and a freak Grevey neck injury that occurred while he was drying his neck with a towel.
The Bullets took out all their season-long frustrations on Philadelphia. They won games three and four at home by 15 and 16 points, respectively; running off a spectacular 17-0 spurt in the second game. After Philly stayed alive by taking game five, 107-94, a sellout crowd at Capitol Centre was treated to one of the most thrilling games in Bullet history.
The emotional, high-pitched contest came down to the last 12 seconds with the score tied at 99. Hayes missed a jumper, Johnson missed a jumper but Unseld, playing on that bad ankle, put up one rebound and then another that went in to win the game and series, 101-99.
As the crowd poured onto the Centre floor and pulled down one of the baskets, Pollin declared: "This is the biggest night in the history of the franchise." "He Would Have Loved It."
On the last day of training camp in October, Dick Motta told his players he thought they should dedicate the season to Marc Splaver, the team publicist who had been stricken with leukemia during the past summer.
"We didn't make a big issue about it," Motta said. "But every time things got bad for us, we thought of what he was going through and it made us a little more humble."
Splaver, the good-humored, energetic, capable basketball enthusiast, had returned to work in September. But he suffered a relapse in May during the 76er series and died May 3. For the rest of the playoffs, the Bullets wore black arm patches on their uniform.
"The only sad part about all this is that Marc wasn't here to enjoy it," said Motta after the final victory Wednesday night. "But I bet he is sitting next to a fat lady somewhere right now, singing as loud as he can." End of the Long Wait
It had been 36 years since Washington last celebrated a major professional sports championship. But on the night of June 7, at the end of the longest season in NBA history, the Bullets gave Washington-area sports fans a night to remember.
They beat Seattle in the seventh and final game of the championship series, 105-99, to become only the third-team in NBA history to capture the final game of a seven-game series on an opponent's court.
Again, the hero was Unseld, who had been to the finals twice before, in 1971 and 1975, only to lose each, 4-0. This time, his two foul shots with 12 seconds remaining-insured the victory.
The Bullets also received a huge assist from Kupchak, who had struggled with a prolonged shooting slump during the playoffs - "it was awful, it was hell," he said - but with 90 seconds to go, he came up with a three-point play, with an assist from Henderson, that gave the Bullets a 101-94 lead.
Finally, the NBA title was Washington's.
It had taken an heroic effort after the Bullets had blown a 19-point lead and lost the opener at Seattle. There was bitterness on the team after that loss. However, Motta, whose coaching had been superb throughout the playoff drive, calmed down his players, especially Hayes, and they recovered to win game two behind 34 points from Dandridge.
Seattle turned right around and upset the Bullets, 93-92, in game three at Capitol Centre when Dandridge's final shot rimmed the basket and fell out. Washington needed a split of the next two contests at Seattle to stay alive and the Bullets fulfilled that goal with a 120-116 overtime triumph before 39,457 fans in the Kingdome when the struggling guards came alive and outshot the Sonics in the final 17 minutes.
Seattle won game five, 98-84, at home. Then the Bullets registered a rousing 35-point, record-setting, 117-82 triumph at Capital Centre in game six. That set up the climactic final game at the Seattle Center Coliseum, where the Sonics had won 22 straight games since last losing to the Bullets in February.
Unseld's foul shots helped earn him the most-valuable-player award, although Dandridge was just as instrumental in the final victory. Abe Pollin finally had his title, which he had been seeking for 14 years, and the Bullets could return home to a triumphant welcome. "What A Feeling"
Three days after pro basketball's ultimate triump Motta still couldn't explain how he and his players turned their act around so quickly.
"There were no turning points, no heroic acts," he said. "We had the talent all along. It was just a matter of finally playing together and getting people healthy.
"I knew we were better than Seattle, but we peaked for Philadelphia and we could never really play to our potential against the Sonics. We made it a tough series. It shouldn't have been."
For Motta, winning the title was his greatest sports thrill. He had worked 10 years in the NBA for the honor and when it finally came, he said he hoped the joy he experienced "would go on forever. What a feeling."
Pollin, who carried the championship trophy off the plane when it landed at Dulles Airport Thursday the applause of 8,000 fans, says he will build a special trophy case at Capital Centre for his new prize.
"I want everyone to see it," he said. "I want everyone to share in my joy." The Captain
Wes Unseld has prided himself on being unemotional. Win or lose, he took every game the same way for 10 years. Until Wednesday night.
When the title he had been seeking, for a decade finally was his, Unseld almost broke down in tears in the locker room. He admitted it was his finest moment, "something I've always wanted. Now that it's here, I can't express how good it feels."
He hugged his wife and hugged Pollin and grasped the huge trophy in his strong hands. No one could remember him smiling so much about anything since he joined the Bullets.
Later, on the flight home, he talked about the achievement. He finally looked at the finger that eventually will wear the championship ring.
"How do you insure the ring?" he asked.
"You can buy a policy," he was told.
"That won't do it," he said. "Insurance can't ever replace the 10 years of memories that ring will hold. Nothing can. Nothing."