It was so amazing I made a note of this amazing development. The note read, "Hendencges." Translated, that means Tom Henderson encouraged his Bullet teammates. Right there in front of 19,035 people, a Bullet actually went to his teammates and patted them on the back and said encouraging words.Had Tiny BB, the dachshund mascot, stuffed George Gervin, I would not have been more amazed.
Now losers in five of their last eight play-off games and one loss from extinction, the Bullets have little to be encouraged about. Even so, they sometimes seem dead in their sneakers, as if they have taken a vow never to smile again. A year ago, even two months ago, the Bullets were a wonderful, inspiring team. Too often now, they are much less.
"This isn't my team," said Dick Motta, the coach. Those are the saddest words imaginable for a coach. However Motta tried to soften the impact of those words-he later said he meant theBullets weren't running his offense correctly-that little sentence is telling.
Two interpretations are possible, both melancholy. One, Motta has lost control of the players and the inmates are running the asylum. Two, the coach is washing his hands of it all. Chances are, it is a bit of both, for Motta is a cocksure battler locked in one of those battles that pro coaches always lose.
The battle is with Bobby Dandridge.
It is a silent war. No one speaks of it publicly, but it is debilitating nevertheless. In preseason, Dandridge said he wanted to re-negotiate his three-year contract, signed only a year ago. If the Bullets expected him to win games in the last two minutes, he went on, they should pay him more. Otherwise, he said, let the highest-salaried guys do it.
So it was no surprise in these playoffs with the Spurs when Dandridge refused-or wasn't asked because Motta knew he would refuse-to play defensive guard against the going-wild George Gervin.
Dandridge had done well against Gervin for brief spells in last year's conference championship round. At the time, Motta loved the stratagem because, as unexpected as it was, it seemed marked by genius. But in this playoff, the first time a reporter asked if Motta considered using Dandridge on Gervin, the coach turned ugly.
"I got me one assistant coach," Motta said. "You need a blanking job, huh?"
His tone was mean and chilling.
Al McGuire says he would coach pros only if they paid him a dollar more than the superstar. "It's a matter of authority," McGuire said. "When I tell you to jump, I expect you to jump. If I tell Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to jump and he says he doesn't want to jump, then I have to say, 'Please fake it,' because he is making four times as much as I am."
That's why Dick Motta curses a reporter instead of Dandridge. He needs Dandridge to please fake it.
Ron guidry takes his multimillion dollar arm to the bullpen. Mitch Kupchak tries to play with a back so bad he spends the next week in a hospital bed. But Dandridge won't play defensive guard because, he said, it is not his job. He finally relented of course, and worked against Gervin about three minutes in Game 5. "Do or die," Dandridge said bravely, offering to put a spiffy new lock on the barn door after the horse had been ridden away.
At this level of pro sport, little things decide the winners. Maybe Kevin Grevey has been shooting erratically because he is Motta's whipping boy, the only player the coach feels safe in criticizing. He knows Grevey won't sulk. Maybe more Bullets are inspired by Dandridge's beautiful work than are turned off by his refusal to place the team above his consuming self-interest. Who knows? Maybe, now that extinction is near, Elvin Hayes will learn the answer to his question, "How did he do it?"
Hayes asked that about his idol, Bill Russell, who in 13 seasons led the Celtics to 11 NBA championships. In the last 25 years, no team without Russell has won successive NBA championships. "How did he do it?" Hayes said over and over. The current playoffs for the defending champion Bullets are "the toughest thing I've ever done," Hayes said.
Russell said he won important games because he was scared to death of losing. He threw up in the locker room before every game.
How passe. How uncool. Today's me-generation players would never understand a Russell, who played in the dark ages, from 1957 to 1969. It never occurred to Russell, as it quickly did to Dandridge, that an NBA championship, or even the prospect of one, might be used as a blunt instrument to bludgeon a team owner into renegotiating his contract.
The Bullets are the best team in pro basketball today and Bobby Dandridge is a large reason why. Even after his jawing about renegotiation, he proved his unseemingly threats meaningless with game after game of wonderful basketball. Under the pressure of elimination, he scored 17 fourth-quarter points to win Game 7 against Atlanta two weeks ago.
But in Game 4 against San Antonio, when the Spurs won to go ahead three games to one, Dandridge made only three field goals and had Motta so cowed the coach would not try him on defense against Gervin, who made 19 field goals that night.
The Bullets' victory in Game 5 means nothing. Ahead 3-1 and playing on the other guys' floor, the Spurs figured to lose-just as the Bullets, in the same circumstances, lost to both San Antonio and Philadelphia last season.
Game 6 is the championship game. "They don't want to play a Game 7," Motta said of the Spurs, "because there's no way they can beat us here."
But can the Bullets win Game 6? Can they become enthusiastic enough that a witness won't note it as remarkable when a Tom Henderson encourages his temmates?They need a big performance from Hays or Dandridge, who in back-to-the-wall situations lately have played exceedingly well.
"A sad commentary," Motta said sadly of that back-to-the-wall mentality. If the Bullets were truly his team, they would be, like Russell, afraid to lose. But these Bullets belong to themselves and, I guess, it is only with their backs to the wall that they have a good view of dollar bills flying away. CAPTION:
Picture, George Gervin: "They can't stop me." By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post