A player approached Dick Motta one season while Motta was coach of the Chicago Bulls and asked if he could, in essence, become a star the next year.
"He wanted to fill Chet Walker's role," said Motta. "He said he wanted to be the guy who took the big shots at the end of games and took over the offense when we needed somebody to take charge.
"He didn't realize that you don't nominate your pressure stars. They nominate themselves and then they do all the balloting just off how they play."
That is how Bobby Dandridge has become the player Motta's Washington Bullets, a four-point favorite to beat Seattle Thursday night in Game 2 of their NBA championship series, turn to when they've run out of winning answers. Dandridge never lobbied for the spot; it just came his way after he produced, time after time, in the clutch.
Now Dandridge is performing at a level few pro basketball players reach. It is one thing to win a regular-season game with a last-second shot. But it is quite another to pull off the same feat in the playoffs, where a caldron of pressure brews within every player and surrounds every game from the opening tap.
"The playoffs are where we earn our money," said Dandridge's teammate, Charles Johnson. "That's where we show what we are made of. The regular season is nice, but it's not the playoffs.
"If you are a true athlete, you live for playoff moments. You thrive for the chance to perform well under those circumstances. And Bobby D., well, who is any better?"
The bullets would not be in the championship series against Seattle if Dandridge had not continuually rescued them in the fourth period against both Atlanta and San Antonio.
He has gone about his lifesaving act in different ways.Sometimes he has taken over right from the start of the fourth, demanding the ball at midcourt, letting everyone else get out of the way and then scoring like a man possessed.
Other times, he has waited until the end, until the only thing that separated the Bullets from defeat or overtime was his one last shot. As San Antonio discovered, he usually does not miss under these circumstances.
"Right now, he may be the best pressure player in the league," said Bernie Bickerstaff, the Bullet assistant coach. "He is the consummate pro.He has complete faith in his ability. He knows if he does things as he usually does them, his shot will go in.
Dandridge is riding his last-period heroics to new fame. After 10 years of excellence, he suddenly is the league's newest celebrity, the one player reporters crowd around after games and practices, searching for ways to unlock the mystery of his talent.
"I'm even surprised sometimes when my shots go in," he said. "I just get into a rhythm and it flows from there. I enjoy working under stress circumstances. It's a challenge. When it works out okay, it gives you a satisfactory feeling."
Motta simply shakes his head over what Dandridge has done.
"It is," he says, "the fourth-quarter magic of Bobby D."
Ask an NBA player what it takes to perform successfully under pressure in the playoffs and he usually will give a one-word reply:
Skill can carry an athlete through the regular season, but guts are a necessary addition for the playoffs.
"You know that every shot is the most important shot, that every play can determine what happens to your team," said Bullet guard Tom Henderson.
"You can't be afraid of failing. You have to rule that out. If you think you will fail, you've cut down your chances of succeeding."
Playoffs are a world of their own. Gone are the distractions of the regular season: the horrible traveling, the one-night stands, the bad weather, the time zone changes. Teams can prepare for each other like gladiators, probing for letdowns and taking advantage of lapses. The weak are pushed aside quickly, it is a place only for the strong, both of heart and body.
"You are motivated," said Motta, "by that trophy at the end of the trek. That's behind your every move.One mistake can kill you. In the regular season, it's not like that.
"That's why even little incidents become big ones in the playoffs. Things get blown out of proportion. Your small group can get unnerved so fast. I know the two weeks of the San Antonio series were incredible; the pressure was about the worst I ever felt.
"The playoffs are both the best and worst possible worlds. You have so many distractions, yet once the games begin and you feel that excitement, the adrenaline has to start flowing."
If the playoffs are intense then the fourth quarter is more so. In those 12 minutes, the importance of every move, every shot, every rebound is magnified. None is the equivalent of its first-half counterpart, even if each looks the same on the statistic sheet.
"If a guy shies away from doing things at a critical time in life, he'll shy away in the fourth quarter," said Seattle's Paul Silas.
"It's human nature. Some guys can cope with pressure, some can't. It's no sin to recognize that you might not be to shoot well under pressure, as long as you try to do other things to compensate, like rebound or make a good pass."
Most of the time, a player is branded for his career. He either is a pressure performer or he pulls back. But Silas says there are exceptions.
"Elvin Hayes once didn't seem to like pressure; he didn't seem to want the ball. But he's changed. You can see it. He'll go after it now. He's tasted what it means to win and that can affect you."
Silas if one of those rare athletes whose stature increases under stress. Unlike most of the best pressure players - Jerry West, Kareem Abdul -Jabbar, Oscar Robertson - he does not pull out games with his jump shot. But he inevitably will come up with the big rebound or the must tap-in when the Sonics need it the most.
"It's a habit of winning," said Bullet General Manager Bob Ferry. "It starts when you are young. Silas has played on a winner all his life. He knows what he has to do and how to prepare himself for a playoff game and for the last minutes.
"He doesn't think he will fail. It comes down to courage. You have to want to stand out and reach for a little more."
The clock showed two seconds remaining. Washington had the ball under the basket, the score was tied. The stage obviously was set for another spectacular, game-saving play from Bobby Dandridge.
So what was Dandridge doing tossing the inbounds pass?
"I was closest to the ball when it went out of bounds," he said after Game 1 of the championship series against Seattle. "I had no choice. The ref told me to take it out."
But that twist of fate, instead of making the Sonics' task of stopping the Bullets easier, only helped to increase what is quickly becoming the amazing fourth-period legend surrounding Dandridge.
It was Dandridge who set up Larry Wright's driving layup to the basket-and the eventual game-wining foul shots-with a simple nod of the head.
He saw that Seattle had left the middle open on the in-bounds play and he caught Wright's eye, motioning for him to go down thelane. "I moved my head a little and Larry saw me," said Dandridge. "The rest just happened from there."
Twice in less than 48 hours, Dandridge had pulled out a victory for his team. His achievements, said Bickerstaff, came because he is a good learner.
"He learned from two of the best, Robertson and Abdul-Jabbar," said the Bullet assistant. "He played in their shadow so long in Milwaukee that people always overlooked his talent. But here at Washington, he can stand out. He's an equal. This is the culmination of everything he has worked for."
Dandridge's magic wand sometimes has failed. He had a chance to send Game 2 against Atlanta into overtime with two final shots, but the first was blocked and thesecond was arched too high.
Yet his teammates still expect him to assume control. Motta says that is the ultimate compliment an NBA player can pay a peer.
"He's earned their greatest respect, through their actions, and not just words," he said. "He knows if he doesn't do it, no one is going to be pointing a finger at him."
Dandridge is the difference between the old and new Bullets. His consistency down the stretch gives them an edge over almost any other team in the league. But to him, his achievements are only proving a point.
"When I came to Washington, I felt I was as good as anyone," he said, "but I had been lost in Milwaukee. I am doing things now that I always thought I could. It's nice to see people recognize it."
When Dandridge steps on the court, he is convinced that he can score anytime he wants. He is convinced no defender can prevent him from getting off a shot. And he is convinced most of the time, that his attempt is going into the basket.
His is the ultimate pro attitude, egotistical for sure, but backed up by results. He is certain that he will succeed. He says it is a realistic appraisal of his ability.
Such frankness is an extension of his personality. Dandridge does not hide behind "no comments" or sly answers. He attacks questions head on, even to the embarrassment of management if necessary.
Says Bickerstaff: "Bobby is willing to plow head-on into things.You can't say it's just experience. It's something innate that allows him to go ahead and accept the results of whatever he does.
"It takes intestinal fortitude, no question about it. You can see it on the films. Some players in the regular season will pop out from behind a screen for a shot, but in the playoffs, they will wait a count longer, so they won't get the ball.
"He feels he has mastered his position.He feels he can do what he wants. And this is his way of showing it to the world.
"I think now he also wants to prove he could have done it all those years with Oscar and Kareem. Nobody wants to ride shirttails, even is that was a wrong impression."
But what makes Dandridge unique, differing from his teachers, is his ability to create opportunities. If one move does not work, he will try another, from a turnaround jumper to his one-handed "rider" to a layup to a hook.
"He's giving us some special moments," said Motta. "I hope the fans appreciate that. It's a rare opportunity toget a glimpse at greatness. Hey, ain't it nice?"
The Bullets hope to make a decision by mid-June on whether or not Mitch Kupchak should have back surgery. If his back starts to hurt again, he will have a myelogram, which should help the doctors determine what exactly is causing the difficulties. He worked out lightly with the team yesterday. CAPTION: Picture, Bobby Dandridge "may be best pressure player in the league"-Bernie Bickerstaff. By Richard Darcey-The Washington Post