The chairman slammed his gavel on the podium and called for silence. "Gentlemen, let's get this convention of NBA bench-warmers under way. Do I hear any nominations for the team with the best bench in the league?"
"Mr. Chairman, I represent the great city of Philadelphia and its beloved 76ers. Without question, our bomb squad can destroy any other bench in the league. We don't even have to vote."
"Just a minute, Mr. Chairman, the city of Seattle would like to be heard. Downtown Fredy Brown can outbomb any bomb squad and he's not the only SuperSonic reserve with an arsenal of talent. Did you know our second team beats our first in practice?"
"Hold it, hold it. Before everyone gets carried away, Mr. Chairman, I would like to point out that the Washington Bullets won the NBA title last year, defusing the bomb squad and pushing Freddy Brown out to the suburbs. We call them the sprint squad these days. They can run by anyone ."
The Bullets love to talk about how they have "nine starters," but don't think for one dribble that their four leading reserves believe it. They are more receptive, however, to the idea that no bench in the league is deeper, quicker or more consistent.
"You would have a hard time saying which bench is best," said No. 1 sub Mitch Kupchak, who has spent his three-year NBA career explaining why he'd rather be a starter. "But facts do speak for themselves. We won the title last year and I think the bench had a lot to do with it. And I think we are playing really well right now because of the bench."
Washington's bench was on its way to becoming the best in the club's history last year before injuries forced Coach Dick Motta to break up his substitution pattern. This season, his reserves are off to an exceptional start and are the major reason for the Bullets' current eight-game winning streak and a 15-7 record -- which is one-half game ahead of Philadelphia (13-6) but percentage points behind the Sixers in the Atlantic Division.
The reserves' play has been so consistent that Motta, a man who prides himself on predictability, has been forced to alter longtime coaching tenets. He'll go with subs longer and in more pressure situations than before. He's stopped pulling out his reserves at the end of close games just because it is time for his starters to play. And he's using more players more frequently and with more patience than at any point in his 11-year NBA tenure.
Washington's fast break has become a brutal weapon the last three weeks thanks to the depth and quickness supplied by the bench. The reserves provide the club with so much versatility that Motta has felt like a little boy with a new toy: he gleefully juggles combinations, rests his top players for prolonged periods and hardly blinks when opponents try to match up their starters with his second team.
"Last year, I was just establishing substitutions and getting everyone into a routine when injuries killed us," he said. "This year, so far I've been able to be more consistent. I want to be. Each player has to know his role and how I will use him. There is a trust involved and it's up to me to make sure it all works.
"If there is a better bench than ours in the league right now, I wouldn't want to play it. These guys give me the deepest team I've ever had."
Prior to the start of tonight's 8:35 game in New Orleans, the routine will be the same. Charles Johnson will stand next to the assistant coach, Bernie Bickerstaff, and study the opposition. Greg Ballard will sit passively at the far end of the bench. Larry Wright will be wringing a towel or talking to starter Tom Henderson. Mitch Kupchak will be ending his grueling ritual of stretching exercises.
Habits are important to these reserves. Each has found his way of preparing himself for a task he doesn't particularly relish.
"There is nothing easy or fun about coming in off the bench," said Ballard, the second-year strongman from Oregon who resembles a young Wes Unseld in build, demeanor and play. "It's taken me two years to adjust from being a starter to being a sub.
"You never know exactly when you will go in, although at least now I know I'll play in the first half. And you never know how long you will play. Things are easier now for me but not any more fun. This is a tough job."
The adrenaline in sprint squad members starts pumping near the end of the first quarter. Their time is approaching; the second period is their domain. If they play well enough, Motta is willing to go most of the way to intermission with them in the game.
It is during these heady moments that this bunch of offensive-minded pests can shine. They are all better-than-average shooters who are blessed with quickness and a love for running. The result is a fast tempo with numerous transition baskets, gambling steals and scoring spurts.
"We wear down teams when they are really going strongly," said admiring starter Bob Dandridge. "We set a pretty good pace in the first quarter and then, boom, in come these guys going even faster. How do you stop it?"
There is a method to their unsettling madness. Johnson provides leadership, experience and emotion; Kupchak supplies aggressiveness, intensity and soundness; Wright adds quickness and drive; Ballard contributes calmness, steadiness and a knack for doing all the fundamental things correctly.
Of the four, only Johnson has fully embraced and accepted his role. He has had his fling as a starter and now, in his seventh NBA season, understands that his career has been extended by his ability to come off the bench and provide instant offense.
It is not his nature to quarrel with his plight. Johnson is at peace with himself and with his station in life. His mellowness does not allow for anger; instead he is convinced that there is really no major difference between a starter and a reserve -- save for pregame introductions.
"You aren't going to win in this league without a bench," he said. "The major change I've seen in this league is the development of reserves. You have to be deep to win. We are needed and as long as our roles are defined, you can function as a reserve just as well as a starter."
Johnson is a streak shooter. His playing time is determined greatly by his first few shots: If they go in, he stays in. If they miss, he returns to the bench.
But he also is such a fine pressure performer that Motta, perhaps his biggest fan, will turn to him in crucial moments even on off nights.
"I like pressure," said Johnson. "I don't mind being a hero or a goat."
Like Ballard and Kupchak, Wright dreams of being a starter. He frets, sometimes suffers over his departure from games, worries that his performances are never allowed to develop fully and wonders about his future. But he has more maturity this season and a greater awareness of what he can contribute.
Motta wants Wright to fly up the court, forcing fast breaks with his speed and agility. A slow pace means a quick exit, so Wright many times will create a transition advantage on his own simply by weaving through the defense and completing an unconested layup.
"I can jump, I can run and I can hoot, so I'd be stupid not to try to se those talents," said Wright. "I'd like to think the better I do, the more I'll play."
In Kupchak's case, standout performances have been rewarded by increased minutes. He has forced Motta to use him extensively this season, especially during the winning streak when he has turned in career highs in both scoring and rebounding.
This is a more developed Kupchak. His aggressiveness finally is being reflected in better rebounding and his always consistent shooting is even sharper now that he doesn't waste a dribble before getting off his jumper.
And he remains as versatile as ever. Motta usually sends him in as a replacemtnt for Dandridge at small forward, but he also spends time in most games at center (for Unseld) and big forward (for Elvin Hayes.)
Ballard is almost as flexible. Now that Motta has more confidence in his ability, Ballard receives additional minutes because he can swing to big forward as well as small. And both Johnson and Wright can play either backcourt position.
"We can match up with whatever lineup the other team wants to use against us," said Motta. "We also can work around foul trouble better. Greg's progress is a plus, because he is more confident and steadier. Larry is less emotional and CJ understands our system better. And, Mitch, he's Mitch. I know he wants to start in the worst way but I love the luxury of having him on the bench."
Motta doesn't need a vote to tell him the value of the sprint squad. All he has to do to realize its worth is just look at the record. CAPTION: Picture 1, AP; Picture 2, AP; Picture 3, UPI; Picture 4 By Richard Darcey -- The Washington Post The Bullet reserves, left to right, who are far from second best: Larry Wright, Mitch Kupchak, Greg Ballard and Charles Johnson .