Joe Theismann was, of course, talking. At 30,000 feet en route from New York to Washington, on a $12 million private jet with a living room-like interior, the Redskin quarterback sat across a dining table from Abe Pollin, who owns the Bullets.
"this guy," Theismann said, nodding toward Pollin, "is making Washington a basketball town."
Somewhere, perhaps higher than 30,000 feet, George Preston Marshall said naughty words. And out there in Lotus Land, George Allen threw down two more dips of vanilla ice cream to placate his ulcer.
A Redskin quarterback saying Washington is a basketball town?
Pollin couldn't believe it, either, but he was loving it, whether or not Theismann meant a word of it.
"Somebody came up to me," Theismann said, "and said, "The Bullets are going to win two straight championships. What are you guys going to do?'"
Theismaun led the laughter, but no one enjoyed it more than Pollin, and that was a week ago, long before the Bullets, by beating the Atlanta Hawks in Game 7, laid real claim to the town's heart.
Wait a minute, you say. You say the Bullets won it all last year and beating the Hawks this time is only a second-round victory with two more series to go. So how, you ask, is this one different? How does this victory give the Bullets more credibility than ever?
Glad you asked.
Jimmy Carter may have been out in the wild, backpacking, or working on his cross-court forehand last June when the Bullets won the last game of the NBA championships. This time he was in Capital Centre alongside Abe Pollin, his presidential palms sweating.
When the Bullets won the championship, they did it with Elvin Hayes on the bench, fouled out. He did nothing that night. But this time, against Atlanta when survival was at stake, Hayes played the game of his dreams, a superstar game for 48 minutes.
Bobby Dandridge did wonders beyond compare this time. A year ago he was only great.
Cap Centre was sold out, filled with 19,035 screaming crazies, and the game was carried on national television.
It was no accident that Game 6, televised by WDCA-TV-20, drew that station's highest ratings ever. A million viewers are said to have seen the game. Those are numbers previously available here only to the Redskins and aliens named Mork.
Theismann's playful chatter may be closer to the truth than he dare imagine.
A second straight NBA championship would be nice for the Bullets, but, it says here, that championship is not necessary to establish the Bullets as a major-league attraction worth every customer's every ticket dollar.
For that, they can thank the Atlanta Hawks.
Much as Joe Frazier pushed Muhammad Ali to greatness, as Alydar chased Affor,ed a i to greatness, as Alydar chased Affirmed all over the country, as the Dodgers pestered the Yankees for decades, so did the Hawks in this playoff finally force the Bullets to a performance of unquestioned brilliance.
Now, let's wait another minute. Those are strong words, "unquestioned brilliance," and you may wonder how a guy can write that purple prose when the Bullets beat only a third-place team and it took seven games to do that. Why, you ask, is the typist saying all these silly things on such flimsy evidence?
Hubie Brown is why. If the Hawks' coach said Joe Theismann could play center in the NBA, we would soon see the charmer in shorts posting up on Kareem. Brown is never wrong when he talks about basketball. after losing Game 7 to the Bullets, Brown was awestruck.
"We were beaten today by a great team who had great superstar performances-for for four quarters by Elvin Hayes and in the fourth quarter by Bobby Dandridge," Brown said.
He closed his eyes. Maybe he could see Dandridge yet.
"dandridge did it in critical one-one-one situations. Critical."
Of Dandridge's 29 points, 17 came in the last quarter when he wouldn't let the Hawks come back.
"We were looking for a miss. One miss."
Brown still had his eyes closed. He shook his head.
"He kept getting it down.He made some tough shots. Geeeeezus."
Brown said Hayes, Dandridge and Wes Unseld were the reasons Washington won. "Those three had to play superstar games to win," he said. Led by those three, the Bullets stormed the offensive backboard for 25 rebounds. They scored 15 baskets on second or third-shot possessions. The Hawks scored three times that way.
"I don't care how you cut it, that's a man's job," Brown said. "That's the game."
How did Brown account for the Bullets' rebounding dominance?
"They just whipped us. Nothing else. Just whipped us. We know that. I tell you, the toughest thing to teach is offensive rebounding. You have to want the physical beating you're going to get."
But isn't some of that just the way the ball bounces?
"Not 26 times," Brown said, using his statistician's number of Bullet rebounds. "Not against us."
Professional basketball is such a game of rhythms that once a team establishes its dominance, the fact of dominance seems to carry the team to performances unimaginable on those nights when everyone has two left feet. In Game 7, the Bullets were on a high that made the impossible practical. How else to account for-let's pick only three memorable shots.
Elvin Hayes is wonderful with that turnaround, fallaway jumper. His spot is to the left of the hoop. But late in the third quarter, he felt so omnipotent he shot the turnaround fallaway while twisted sideways at the left end of the free-throw line. The shot hit off the glass and curled around the rim. An easy two.
Bobby Dandridge walks on the sky. No other explanation will do for his basket that gave the Bullets a six-point lead at 95-89 in the last two minutes. At the free-throw line, he took one huge step past the Hawks' John Drew. Dandridge next stepped on the sky with his right foot, going uppppPPPPP. And as he came down, falling away, he put up a one-handed push shot over Drew's perfect defense. An easy two from 14 feet. "I don't know how the hell he made it," Brown said in admiration.
Wes Unseld made a fallaway jumper from 15 feet early in the third quarter. Unseld's job is janitorial. He cleans up the garbage under the basket. The last time Unseld made a fallaway jumper, U.S. Grant, not Jimmy Carter, was president. But this time he was perfect. An easy two.
"put the camera on," said Unseld, a happy imp. He had been interviewed on TV and had answered very seriously. But this day was too good to be too serious too long. So Unseld grabbed a glass of beer, ordered the TV camera turned on and said, "Riordan's Saloon. My favorite watering hole." He walked away giggling.