Before the battle, the Capital Centre customers serenaded their heroes with the chant, "Bull-etts . . . Bull-etts." And at the end, their heroes defeated, the worshipers sent them on vacation with the sweetest sound of all. Again, in defeat, came the chant, "Bullettts . . . Bull-ettts." No anger in this defeat, nothing ugly, no recriminations. The Bullets lost with style and class.
We need here a photograph of the Bullets' bench early in the third quarter. They would lose, 97-93. They would lose their world championship, four games to one. Early in the third quarter, although they led by six points, portents of doom surrounded the Bullets.
Look at Dick Motta. He is on one knee 15 feet from the bench, his face alive with the fight. But on the bench, the Bullets are a bunch of cripples. Tom Henderson has ice taped to his ankle, the ankle propped up on an empty chair. Kelvin Grevey is in street clothes, hamstrung by that hamstring. Mitch Kupchak and Roger Phegley are in civvies, too. Three guys, then, are in street clothes; only four are in short pants. Is this a basketball team or an orthopedic ward?
"we beat the best team in basketball," said Freddie Brown, the Seattle guard. The sentiment was nice coming from the other locker room, but it was misplaced. The Seattle SuperSonics beat the Bullets for a week, not just last night, and not just because some Bullets were injured last night. They beat the Bullets because their team strength - guard offense - grew even stronger when it operated against the Bullets' team weakness - guard defense.
And just when you figure the Bullets' guard dilemma couldn't get any worse, it did. On his second shot of the game, about three minutes after tipoff, Grevey came tumbling down from a flying fast-break layup - and could barely get off the floor. The chronically sore right-hamstring muscle wasn't taking orders anymore. Pain rendered it inoperative.
So as Grevey limped off the court and into the locker room, reappearing in clothes you'd wear to a picnic, you figured the Bullets would be easy prey for Seatle's terrific triumvirate, the guards Gus Williams, Dennis Johnson and Brown.
A professional basketball game is truly a battle. The metaphor works even if no one carries a gun. These are warriors in hand-to-hand combat for superiority, their survival to fight another day dependent on their wits and courage. Most of all, the victory goes to the strongest.
And if Elvin Hayes by his first-half work - 20 points, 10 rebounds - carried the Bullets to that 55-49 lead early in the third quarter, it meant little. That's when Henderson went down with an injured ankle. On the Bullets, Henderson, an adequate defender, passes for the stopper every team needs to shut down the opponents' hot guard.
"Get in the game, Elvin," came the repeated pleadings of a front-row customer. Hayes shot only 10 times in the second half (making six). By contrast, he was six for 11 in the first quarter alone.
The pleadings were unfair to Hayes. He had done two men's work by then. But with Grevey's shooting gone, then with Henderson's defense gone, there was no way Hayes could win this one alone. The tide of battle had shifted. The Seattle guards had done nothing sensational early - they were nine for 24 the first half - but with Kupchak gone, with Motta perhaps wondering if the Fat Lady could play defense, the Seattle soldiers were the strongest at the end.
It once was 55-49, Bullets. It was 69-60, Bullets. But in the last minute and 18 seconds of the third quarter, the end ot the Bullets' happy reign was clearly visible. When Bobby Dandridge and Wes Unseld were taken out for a rest that they needed desperately, the Bullets had only one starter in the game. They missed four straight free throws as Seattle scored six straight points.
And on the first shot of the last quarter, the Bullets' Charles Johnson, in for Grevey, went up for a 19-foot jumper all alone. No one was near him. A year ago, when the Bullets came from the shadows into the unexpected sunshine of a world championship, Johnson was touched by magic, turning games with long shots under heavy pressure.
On this one, all alone, Johnson didn't even hit the rim. An air ball.
Seattle had won. Official victory was minutes away. But when Johnson missed, Seattle had won. Motta moved Dandridge to guard, teaming him with Johnson, and that was the clearest evidence of Motta's desperation. The Sonics were overrunning the Bullets, and the Bullets were out of ammo. Now they were throwing rocks at the enemy, who carried big guns.
It was 55-49, Bullets. Remember? Of the Sonics' next 48 points, the guards Williams, Johnson and Brown scored 34. Williams' domination of any Bullet guard was so complete that near game's end, when the Sonics played carefully, they simply sent everyone off to one side so that Williams could embarrass his defender by driving around him.
The Bullets didn't quit. The customers didn't quit. Seattle led, 88-85, with two minutes to play and the crowd injured eardrums with its chant, "Dee-fense . . . Dee-fense." If sound could keep the Sonics from the hoop, they had no chance. As resourceful as the Bullets were - they rallied from seven points behind with ragtag lineups instead of the precisely crafted team of role-players that had the NBA's best won-lost record this year - yet the Sonics were unflappable.
One example will do. It is 93-91, Seattle, with 50 seconds to play. Williams flies around Larry Wright, left helpless against the swift assault.As Hayes and Unseld rise to interrupt Williams' charge, he flips the ball back to Dennis Johnson. Falling down from 15 feet, Johnson makes the killing shot.
It was over, and if the city of Washington went bonkers a year ago when the Bullets astounded us all with a world championship, it seems that another celebration is in order. These guys did a wonder.
Twice they won seventh games to get into the championship round. Jimmy Carter came to see them. Hayes was grand for 101 games, Dandridge beautiful in his work, Unseld a redwood inspiring awe. Motta was never more a genius than this year when he took a team within three games of doing something that hasn't been done in 26 years: it was 1953 when any team without Bill Russell won back-to-back NBA championships.
A hell of a season, this one.