The Washington Bullets have spent the last three weeks building up tonight's game against Seattle as a grudge match between two not-so-friendly rivals.
It made nice advertising copy but apparently neither the public nor the players believe it.
Capital Centre will not be sold out for the 8:05 confrontation between the National Basketball Association's top two teams, according to Bullet officials, who estimate that a crowd of 14,000 to 16,000 will show up.
And while Bullet players admit the adrenaline will be flowing a little faster, they quickly add that there is no great animosity between the clubs despite last spring's closely fought NBA final round.
"There is no hatred," said guard Tom Henderson. "We go at each other on the court but you don't see any verbal stuff between us.
"The only thing I took exception to last year was that only Paul Silas came over and congratulated us after we won the seventh game. I thought they could have had a little more class than that. If we had lost, I would have gone over there and told them how well they had played."
If anything, the final round set a standard for good sportsmanship. Crowds in both cities were well behaved and no player complained of unnecessary roughness, a contrast to Washington's series against Philadelphia. The Sonics emerged as a team difficult to dislike; their coach, Lenny Wilkens, is one of those nice guys Leo Durocher hates and the players are a fine blend of talent and likeable personalities.
Whatever frustration Seattle had after losing the seventh game probably was eliminated in October, when the Sonics humiliated Washington, 121-92, in the Kingdome before 15,089 screaming fans. Sonic players said afterward it was a night for them to prove to the Bullets that they had not been intimidated by the results of the championship series.
"They were the better team that night," said Henderson, "but we've improved 100 percent since then. We weren't in shape when we played them and it showed.
"We owe them one now. I'm sure they will be up for this game, but we will be more up since it's in our place. And it's a chance to beat a good team and keep our winning ways going."
However, Bullet Coach Dick Motta said he wasn't planning on stressing that October game to his players.
"People who get by in this league learn to forget the history of the season," said Motta."It's the only way you can keep sane.
"October is so long ago. That's not to say they won't get excited. These people are human. They react to a big crowd and to the fact that they are playing a good team like Seattle. You don't want to be embarrassed in a game like this."
Seattle, which got off to an excellent start before being slowed by injuries to Tom LaGarde, still sidelined by a bad knee, and Lonnie Shelton, has rebounded nicely the last few weeks to again take charge in the Pacific Division.
This is a slightly different club from the one that pushed the Bullets so hard in the spring. LaGarde had replaced free agent Marvin Webster in the pivot, but now Jack Sikma, who was selected yesterday to the All-Star Team, has moved from forward to center. Shelton, who came over from New York as compensation for Webster, has taken Sikma's place at forward.
Shelton and Sikma, along with Silas coming off the bench, give the Sonics the kind of front-court muscle necessary to match that of the Bullets. Wilkens is convinced the team runs better this year without Webster in the middle.
Seattle also is one of the few clubs that can match the Bullets in depth. Both are at least nine deep in good players, with Mitch Kupchak and Fred Brown the supersubs on each squad.
Dennis Johnson, also an All-Star team member, is still up to his shotblocking tricks. Against Phoenix recently, he knocked away attempts by Walter Davis and Paul Westphal during the same offensive possession. But his rival from the title series, Kevin Grevey, is expected to miss this contest with a pulled hamstring.
"It doesn't feel all that good," Grevey said yesterday. "I probably won't be able to play the next game or two. I'm getting treatments and I want to make sure it heals."
If the clubs need incentive for this one, they can think a bit ahead to money they can earn by finishing with the best record in the league: $100,000... Phil Chenier continues to make progress in practice. It appears that he might be ready to be activated from the injured list around the All-Star break (Feb. 3-6)... Charles Johnson, who has scored 38 points in his last three halves, will replace Grevey tonight... The Bullets are picking up the tab for renovating their locker room at the Bowie State practice facility. The room had been so bad that few of the players bothered to change clothes there after practice... The Sonics are in the midst of a six-game road trip, having won at Indiana and Chicago.