Win or lose, most of the Washington Bullets view a basketball game as just a day at the office instead of some monumental event. No "joy-of-victory, agony-of-defeat" philosophy for this bunch.
For the Bullets are a product of the modern era of professional sports, in which emotional displays have given way to a more methodical, strictly business attitude.
To the Bullets, this is no longer a game played in world of fantsies and All-America dreams. It is a job where long-term security and loyalty are fleeting and where a career often is measured in months instead of seasons.
The older players, the ones who set the prevailing attitude for the rest of the team, see the two hours they spend on the court during games or at practices as office time. Other people don't carry on whenever they have a good day at work, they say, so why should they?
"This ceased being a lot of a fun a long time ago," said captain Wes Unseld, the most unemotional player on the Squad. "It's a job. I get paid to play well, not to do anything else. I do what they ask me to do just as any employe does what his employer requests."
When the Bullets wrapped up the Atlantic Division title two weeks ago by beating Detroit, there was no cheering in the locker room.Granted, they had been leading the division for weeks and it had become only a matter of time before the race was over. But is was their first divisional crown in four years and a prize many preseason prognosticators thought would go to Philadelphia.
What better time then for a celebration, complete with a few swigs of beer, some yells, handshakes and hugs.
But that would have been out of character for the Bullets. The healthy players dressed quickly and left. The injured ones - the bulk of the squad - received their required treatments, walked through a maze of young autograph seekers who had invaded the dressing area and also vanished.
"No need to celebrate," said forward Bob Dandridge. "This is just the first step. There are things more important ahead that will cause us to be more festive."
Guard Charles Johnson calls this the professional approach. "If you get hung up on emotion, you can't be consistent. We all know our roles and jobs; that's a sign of maturity. We do what we have to and then we go on to other things."
Perhaps it's this cold, calculated approach that can make Washington at times a dull team to watch. The free spirits - Larry Wright, Mitch Kupchak, even Elvin Hayes - still have their moments, to the delight of the fans. But more often, the Bullets seem in a hurry to get their appointed task done with a quickly as possible so they can beat the traffic home.
Ironically, their coach is one of the more emotional and fiery in the business. Dick Motta thrives best with athletes who respond to his pep talks, play recklessly and regard each game as a life-or-death situation. With Washington, he still gives his Knute Rockne lectures and he still screams during tense timeout, but his actions now serve more as a catharsis for him than an inspiration to his players.
"If he never gave a pep talk to yelled at us," said one veteran, "it would be great. I don't think we've won or lost a game since he has been here because of any of his shouting."
Motta, who is no one's fool, recognizes the change of attitude in the league during the 11 years since he first began coaching at Chicago. And he has adjusted. His working day has been reduced, he is not so much of a "disciplinarian" here and his approach to his players more and more is that of a boss to his employers.
This is a team that carefully watches such things as favoritism. It is so delicately balanced that the least bit of fluctuation in the chemistry can cause disruption.
Because Motta also is the club's dominant personality - he is among the league's most cooperative, quotable coaches with a gift for gab and a quick smile that makes him highly approachable - he constantly must guard against ruffling feathers. He yells at only certain players during games and practices, he keeps tactics simple and business-like and he tries to give the players as much personal leeway as possible.
"I think there are about four divisions within every team and this one is no different," he said. "You have the contributors and noncontributers, the whites and blacks, the young and old and the newcomers and the entrenched."
This is a squad of loners. The stero-typed image of a team partying hard at night and playing hard during the day is shattered by the Bullets. They rarely socialize, and although Kevin Grevey and Kupchak once roomed together there are no deep friendships among the players. They go their own ways when they leave Capital Centre. 'All Good Prople'
General Manager Bob Ferry, who carefully assembled the roster over the last 11 years, believes another traits also characterizes his selections: "They are all good people."
The players, says Ferry, "are a pleasure to be around. They are likable and intelligent. No one gives us a hard time. They aren't that type."
It is no accident that the Bullets are such athletes. Since the Baltimore years, which ended with the move here in 1973, Ferry has pulled off a remarkable achievement. He has changed the entire personality of the squad in order to conform with Motta's team-oriented, role-playing approach to basketball.
The old Bullets were more flamboyant, what with Earl Monroe's spins and jukes and Gus Johnson's backboard-shattering dunks. These were one-on-one players who won with a flair that delighted their coach, Gene Shue, but would give Motta ulcers.
Although Ferry is an outgoing loquacious individual with a love for one-liners and arguments (he always takes the other side), he'd rather keep the same kind of low-key profile his team has adapted.
His has been a life of layup lines, locker rooms and hotels. From player to scout to general manager, he has been immersed in the sport so long that he is now much more comfortable sitting in the standthat he is now much more comfortable sitting in the stands at some remote junior college checking out his latest sleeper pick in the draft than when he's placed under public scrutiny.
He can be a volatile man with a quick temper and highly opinionated views. He also has one of the keenest basketball minds and is among the toughest contract negotiators in the business. His crowinning achievement has been his ability to keep the Bullets a contender despite poor positioning in almost every draft the last decade.
"We choose players very heavily on the basis of character," said Ferry. "Take Greg Ballard. I don't have to worry about Greg causing internal problems. That is one reason I drafted him. With the rumors of Wes retiring and all that year, I wanted to add another class person on this team for stability purposes. This kid is a rock."
This, however, is not a squad of yes men. There are no more defined personalities in the league than Unseld, Dandridge, Henderson or Hayes, all of whom pride themselvs on their strength of character.
Yet there is no acknowledged team leader among these veterans. Unseld is the captain, but he admits that doesn't mean anything. Henderson is the most vocal on the court, but he isn't pushy. The older players all have their say, sometimes creating controversy when they bring the problems of the club into the open.
If owner Abe Pollin seethes over any public outbursts by his players, he does so behind a smiling face. Pollin is the original positive thinker, a self-starter who has been successful in two pursuits: construction and sports franchises. To him, every day is sunny, every minute worth living.
His generosity and openness have created a fiercely loyal bank of friends which he refers to as "my Capital Centre family." After the way he defied overwhelming odds and built the Centre, moved the Bullets to Washington and gained a National Hockey League franchise, most members of that family feel he is capable of accomplishing anything.
Pollin is an emotional man prone to quick decisions and adherence to a strict ethical code. The players, on the whole, like him even when he brings hordes of unwanted young autograph seekers into the locker room. They don't even seem to be jealous that he has a particular favorite: Unseld. Private Conscience
Unseld is the team's private conscience. He is purposely a reluctant public figure, disdaining interviews and the spotlight to stay, at all costs, out of controversy. He is, in the eyes of the owner (Abe Pollin), who adores him, the ideal worker: never complaining, always competitive, dignified and respected.
If he was more enthusiastic, his teammates might try to emulate him.
Instead, he often appears bored with his job, much preferring to talk about cameras or history than the intricacies of a pick-and-roll offense.
For Hayes, these last few seasons with Washington have been the happiest of a controversial career. He has found stability, respect and maturity as a Bullet and, although he still has critics, his play during last year's playoffs took the teeth out of their bite.
He is admittedly moody, sometimes flying off at the slightest remark. He still frets about his statistics and he overreacts to criticsm. Yet he also is a freiendly, enthusiastic person not afraid to speak his mind. He also still loves to play after 11 years in the league.
This big, restless man with the Bionic Body and the nomadic sleeping habits finally has learned to live with the pressures of being a superstar. He has accepted the concepts of team play with enthusiasm and he has emerged as the club's most popular player, the dunk-shot specialist whose spectacular abilities can fill the Centre with the sounds of "EEEEEEEE."
If Unseld is the Bullets' behind-the-scenes strength, Hayes is their public face and Dandridge their cutting edge. Unlike Hayes, Dandridge is shy, but he is just as determined to be his own man and not be threatened by management.
Dandridge is not a popular figure in the front office because of his contract squabbles and his outspokenness. He is tolerated, however, because he was the glue that cemented last year's title team. He is a consummate modern professional, fully aware of his strengths and weaknesses and of the value of his body. He would prefer to function within a team structure only during games; otherwise, it would be ideal for him if he was left alone to train at his own pace and to travel on his own schedule. No Spotlight Seeker
Dandridge keeps his own counsel. He does not seek the glare of the public spotlight but is quite willing to accept the burden of controversy when it comes his way. His awareness of the world around him extends far beyong the confines of a court. He would seem to be just as home in a brooks Brothers suit negotiating a business deal as he is dressed in a Bullet uniform working against Julius Erving.
These three stars have plenty of help from the supporting cast. Need comic relief? Johnson, the little showman with the quick wit and taste for such finer things in life as wine and old cars, is the answer. He is a master at breaking tension with an imitation, ready smile or appropriate one-liner.
Need a consistent performace? Then turn to playmaker Tom Henderson, who is always the same: Loose and jovial in the locker room where he is the master of nicknames, and silent but enthusiastic on the court, where he lends to the team a stability that becomes more valuable as this season wears on.
Need a leading man? Why not Grevey, one of the league's most eligible bachelors and breaker of hearts from coast to coast? Grevey's philosophy of life mandates that he must follow his whims. It is the good life, ideal for his outgoing personality and roll-with-the punches manner.
The vitality of the team is provided by its younger reserves. This is not a roster bogged down with aging veterans waiting out their pensions by playing a few minutes of garbage time every game. Instead, Ferry has filled the bench with talented newcomers who strain constantly to win more playing time, all the while pushing the regulars to more consistent performances.
Kupchak's infectious enthusiasm has to rub off even on Tiny, the Bullet Dachshund mascot. There years of probasketball have not doused Kupchak's desire or his dedication. He also is good-natured, which is a blessing since his teammates are continually kidding him about his almost blind loyalty to his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. Jitterbug Guard
No one on the ros* ter, however, wants to taste the elixir of success more than Wright the jitterbug guard with the quickness of a cheetah and spirit of a bubbling fountain of champagne.Wright rides peaks of emotion like a mountain climber, delighting in his achievements and brooding over his mistakes - but never long enough to completely erase his happy grin.
Ballard and rookie Dave Corzine are introverts, quietly waiting their turn for stardom. Corzine, the team's champion eater, is the subject of ceaseless joking, especially from Henderson, but he takes it all with a good-natured disposition that has won him respect. Ballard burns with a will to be the best. If he succeeds, Leo Durocher again will find out he really didn't understand the psychology of nice people.
No one on the Bullets can be too sensitive; otherwise, the needle-point humor of assistant Bernie Bickerstaff, who sometimes is a bridge between Motta and the squad, would jab too deeply. Bickerstaff keeps everyone human by pointing out their frailites. His humor is accepted because the players also respect his technical abilities and his overriding honesty.
There also is room on the team for a touch of compassion created through the frustrations encountered by Phil Chenier during his painfully trying comeback. Chenier, a quiet, uncompalining man who has known what it is to be a star, wants desperately to feel he is part of the Bullets' success. His teammates, by treating him as an equal, have not slowed his quest.
"There is nothing mysterious about this team," said Henderson. "I look at us simply as business associates more than teammates. In that light, you know exactly how everyone should be treated."