As the Bullets near the end of the most glorious year in the history of their franchise, they have uncovered a surprise present under their Christmas tree: what they perceive as a second chance with the Washington sporting public.
Since the start of this season, team officials from owner Abe Pollin to Coach Dick Motta have been upset over the shallowness of support accorded the Bullets by area fans.
Attendace was dissappointing, the glow from the June championship days diminished to a flicker and the shadow of the Redskins haunted every movement of the team.
"What do we have to do to win over this town?" asked frustrated guard Kevin Grevey. The club probably unrealistically had expected 12,000 plus crowds every night, but by early November most of the players thought the only way they might ever build consistent support was by winning another title.
But now Capital Centre crowds have begun increasing-eeven against weaker opponents-as the team has streaked to the best record in the league. With the Redskins out of the playoffs, the hockey Capitals struggling and the return of baseball stilla dream, the Bulletts have meerged as the one constant local winner.
After drawing only 75,170 fans through the first eight games (compared to 97,097 last year), the Bullets have averaged 12,079 over the last nine contests to pull their attendance to 183,884. That is 294 fans fewer than at this point in 1977. Of their last nine crowds, five have ranged from 13,505 up, and one, against Los Angeles, was the first regular season selout in tow years.
"All you hear about is the Redskins, Redskin, Redskins," said forward Elvin Hayes. "But now we have most of our season left to keep winning and bring in some fans. If we show we are the best team in pro basketball, that we are really a great team, why wouldn't they support us."
So instead of writing off the regular season and waiting until the start of the playoffs in April to build steady fan support, the Bullets now see themselves as Washington's genuine champions, firmly establishing a place in the hearts of the area public.
"We've got the kind of product now that people should enjoy," said Motta, perhaps the most perceptive member of the Bullet hierarchy. "Elvin is a true superstar and Bobby Dandrige puts on a clinic every night in basketball skills.Everyone loves Wes (Unseld). Mitch (Kupchak) and the rest of the bench is exciting, we run and we win.
"You can't expect the same sort of sellouts like they have in Portland. Washington isn1t the same kind of town. But if we keep winning, it would follow that people would want to come out and see us play."
Motta, however, is faced with a bit of a dilemna. This would be the worst possible time for the team to slump if it wants to construct that solid base of support. But he also realizes that to peak too early, which is anytime before the playoffs, would be detrimental to the club's ultimate success.
At least the schedule over the next month is favorable toward continuing a winning habit without the strain of too many road games where strenuous efforts are usually needed to secure victories.
Starting with tonight's 8:05 clash with Indiana, the Bullets play nine games in Capital Centre before Feb. 1, and only six away from home. Of the nine home contests, just three are against top-draw opponents: Phoenix, Seattle and New York, which always attracts a large crowd regardless of the Knick's fortunes.
Some of the other games, such as against San Diego, New Orleans and Atlanta, will test the Bullets' emerging attractiveness. If the club can top the 10,000 mark for any of those meetings, team officials will have difficulty containing their joy.
Motta has eebn careful to play down the importance of most games so far, realizing that it is difficult for veterans to become emotional about many regular-season clashes. He also has religiously used his reserves, trying to prepare them as insurance in case of injuries, the problem that ruined the club's regular season lat year.
Both tactics already have paid dividents. The Bullets stay calm under pressure better than in the past and with the confidence gained from winning a championship, are capable of winning consistently, even on the oard.
When Unseld missed all three games on a just-completed western swing, they pulled out one victory and stayed competitive in defeat at Portland. In the first month of the season, despite a healthy squad. Washington lost four straight during a similar trip.
Even strong reserve strength is no guarantee the club can overcome long-term injuries. This is a finely knit squad, with roles defined precisely and personalities blended at just the right mixture. Toss even a small wrenceh into the works and sometimes the machine will malfunction despite Motta's best planning.
"I think, though, we can withstand problems better than before," the coach said. "Our younger players have more confidence and that makes us stronger. We know how much we were hurt last year by injuries and I think that has made us more careful this year to be ready if we get hit with them again."
As long as the injury jinx stays dormant, the Bullets realize they have and outstanding chance to finish with the league's best record. Their reward would be substantial: the home-court advantage in every round of the plyaoffs, something they enjoyed last year only against Atlanta in the opening miniseries.
"Ever though we won the title last season without the home-court advantage." Grevey said, "it would be nice to have it this year. We really had to overcome a lot of odds and it would be tough going through that again.
"But one thing we've learned and I hope the fans have learned too. No one is better than we are, not Philly, not Los Angeles, not Portland, not Seattle. That's probably the best thing that has come out of the first part of this season."
The Bullets hope to have Unseld back tonight, although his injury is still listed as being on a day-to-day basis ... Motta believes the team, which has not played that consistently the last 11 games, is ready for an upswing. It still has won 16 of its last 20, including eight of 10 on the road ... The club will play at New York Thursday to finish out the year, then take four days off before hosting Chicago Jan. 2. In their only meeting of the season, the Bullets beat the Pacers, Nov. 1, at Indiana.