Bobby D. says he's sore, too sore to play.
So Bobby D. ain't playing.
It's the right calf that's sore this time. Not the neck. Not the groin. That's what was. The calf's what is. The man needs his mobility. The man plays the fluid, graceful game, the mobile game. The man always plays both ends, and he's got to guard Walter Davis, Marques Johnson, Larry Kenon, the legendary Doctor. The man's got to have his wheels. Can't be messin' with his wheels. Twenty-two times so far this season the bell has rung and the elegant, high-precision Bobby D. has been stuck in the shop on the lift. His thrill is still.
Bobby Dandridge calls this "my stormy period."
He says. "The thing is, it's a matter of questioning whether I'm injured or not."
And people do.
Although no Bullet player will publicly accuse Dandridge of malingering -- "I don't question anyone's injury, because I don't want anyone questioning mine," is the standard line -- Kevin Grevey says, "You might have undertones on the team," and Mitch Kupchak says, "A lot of fans ask me about Bobby; there seems to be some question in their minds how badly he's injured."
One reporter who covers the team said, "If you put all the players on the Bullets together who haven't privately expressed some doubt as to the validity of Bobby's injuries, you couldn't fill a four-man bobsled -- even with Bobby in it."
The doubt creeps in on little cat's feet. Bob Ferry, the Bullets' GM, said he believes Dandridge is hurt. Asked flat out, Ferry said, "I have to say yes. I have to believe any player. His next sentence was, "Only Bobby Dandridge knows if he is hurt or not," and the tone cast a giant shadow. Hiding behind anonymity, another GM said, He's the kind of guy who has a chip on his shoulder. If he doesn't feel 100 percent, he won't play. He'll never take that extra step." A personnel director within the Bullets' conference said, "It's a consensus of opinion that he's on a sitdown strike. He misses games for ludicrous reasons. You can't count on him. Go back and trace his record. He's never been an ideal workman."
In his first three seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, Dandridge missed a total of six games. "I was the assistant to Larry Costello there in Bobby's first two years," said Tom Nissalke. "Bob never gave us a single problem." In his next five seasons there, however, Dandridge missed 43 games, routinely halfwayed practices and angered management, complaining he was unappreciated and underpaid.He says it was the low salary -- $160,000 per year -- that made him want to leave Milwaukee, but his relationship with Costello, generally considered a stern, humorless man, was never nominated for a Nobel Prize in human understanding. h"What we have here," the warden said to Cool Hand Luke, "is a failure to communicate."
Dandridge: "I came from an all-black situation both in high school and college to Milwaukee, and I didn't know much about whites. Costello never related to black players. I doubt he'd ever ridden in the same cab with one. He was a hard-core player, and I came from a different era. He had problems with everyone. He couldn't relate to the new breed of athlete, the one with God-given talent. I mean, his favorite player was Jerry Sloan . . . He just did not believe I was hurt when I said I was. He kept asking me the difference between 'sore' and 'painful'. I thought they were synonymous. He questioned my integrity right to my face. I guess I didn't do enough politicking with him."
Costello: "I have a lot of respect for the guy as a talent. Period. He missed a lot of games. Wayne Embry and I spent hours talking with him. 'Do you have any problems? 'No.' 'Are you in pain? 'I'm sore.' It was always the line between sore and pain. He went his own way, didn't want to be part of the team. He was the mystery man. (Embry, then the Buck's GM, remembered the conversations, but called Dandridge "a fine player and a fine person.") He's not an organization man. He's just out for Bobby Dandridge . . .It doesn't surprise me what's happening with him now. People don't change much."
Three years ago, he came to Washington for a reported $250,000 per year and led the Bullets to the NBA championship they were never able to win without him. Lest anyone forget, he cleaned out Kenon and the Doctor in two successive playoff series, and, as he says, "took the choke label off E by taking the weight myself down the stretch." He was not only by far the best player the Bullets had, but most people who watched him in the playoffs thought Bobby D. Was the best small forward in the game.
It didn't take him long to make his move. Soon after the champagne was drained, Dandridge announced he wanted to renegotiate his three-year contract. Up. Way up. He said it was unfair that he was being paid less than Phil Chenier, far less than Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Scott Lang, Dandridge's attorney, said, "We took the stand that he did everything and more the Bullets ever asked of him, and he should be rewarded. We weren't unreasonable. That first year we honored the contract completely, and now we felt we could start fresh." When the Bullets refused to pay him even one dollar more, Dandridge boycotted training camp, to the disgust of management. ("Let's say I don't think it helped matters any," said Ferry.)
Dandridge had seemed to separate himself from his teammates by living in Northern Virginia and flying out of National Airport while the others flew from BWI (Except for Unseld, who lives in Baltimore, the other Bullets all live in suburban Maryland.) Then, last January, he said, "Either trade me before this season ends, or pay me more money. Otherwise, don't expect me to do more than I'm worth to this team come playoff time." The implication: Don't expect me to bail you out the last two minutes unless you fatten may wallet.
In this corner, Bobby Dandridge.
In that corner, everyone else.
When things go bad, people have a way of remembering these things.
This season, things haven't just gone bad, they have gone boom. Dandridge , who has separated "them," who has claimed in Milwaukee and Washington that management "has tried to make me the villain," who has always, No. 1, looked out for No. 1, now finds himself under a cloud that gets thicker and darker each day his high-precision machinery stays in the garage. If a hard rain's gonna fall, the droplets have already started. Tom Calahan, writing in The Washington Star, called Dandridge "a dog." Dandridge's coach, Dick Motta, sent him home from a road trip when he could not play because his calf hurt and told reporters that Dandridges's presence "was hurting morale." Dandrige's teamates are finding ways to shield their names while smearing his. Nobody seems to be rushing to Bobby D's side. "Wolf," the boy cried, but no one believed him.
Dandridge: "The problem is nobody talks to me. If you stand off from me and see me, you might develop some negatives toward me. I probably project a loner attitude. Even on road trips. I don't court the reporters like most of the other guys. I think that's my biggest problem -- I don't court the press, and I don't court management. As long as you pay me, I come to the arena and do my job. I always felt that should be it."
Standing in the stillness of the Bullet locker room, looking across at the empty locker of his teammate, Mitch Kupchak sent his eyebrows up for a jump ball and said, "If this kind of controversy is on top of Bobby. I think even he would say he brought it on himself."
He knows exactly what he is doing.
"I don't just come in and say things to be running off at the mouth," he says. "I'm no fool."
He has come to this prepared. He is highly articulate, intelligent and suspicious. Just as the reporter across the table in the Capital Club has checked out Dandridge, Dandridge has checked out him, calling one of his colleagues for a character reference, going to the library to read some of his previous articles. There is a calculation in Dandridge's eyes, one that seems to have been there all his professional career, like a second eyelid.
He is very dark, and almost delicate in the manner of Sidney Poitier. He has the lean elegance of a dancer. When he walks, his feet seem hardly to make an impression on the floor. For a man with a sore calf, he has an ucompromising stride. He is tall, but not big. There is room for another wrist inside the gold bracelet he wears. When he gets excited, his voice climbs a ladder and seems to squeak at the top.
He says that when he was younger he was "jovial and mischievous," and he smiles when he is told that his former teammates, Brian Winters and Jon McGlockin, said in Milwaukee "he was the life of the locker room." Looking inward, he says he was always conservative; "even now when I purchase anything I believe in getting quality that will last for years. If I buy furniture, I'll buy mahogany instead of something with veneer stripping, and if I buy a suit, I'll buy something conservative in blue gray or brown that I could just as easily wear to a business meeting as I could to the Capital Centre." He drives a Volvo. "These are things that are thought out." He feels some distance from his teammates, so many of them read the best selling novels and he doesn't. "It's make-believe. It's nothing that'll help me sustain my present life style." He laughs and says he has tried to read the Wall Street Journal on airplane trips but his teammates won't let him. He buys houses, renovates them and sells them. He is seriously considering getting into collectibles. His intensity suggests he cares greatly about money.
Dandridge, as a young pro, was never as comfortable with whites as he was with blacks. He still prefers the inner city to the suburbs, and one of the conclusions this fostered among white management and white reporters is that Dandgridge is hostile. When you hear people in the NBA talk about players who allegedly have "bad attitudes," they are talking, almost exclusively, about black players. The lingering level of distrust between whites and blacks in the NBA makes it easier to see why someone like Dandridge might be thought of as a malingerer. (Curiously, when Bill Walton missed many games early in his career, his political beliefs prompted many in NBA management to consider him a malingerer. Non-conformists are often judged harshly. Dandridge brings a history of contempt toward management, and management brings a history of contempt for players who refuse to take that extra step -- often a painkilling injection -- and jeopardize their bodies and thus livelihood.
The Bullets are a team of marines. Unseld plays on arthritic knees, and his choice is construed as organizational policy, although why it should be escapes logic. Hayes, who is said to privately question the depth of Dandridge's pain, thinks of himself as heroic as he says, "All I do is go out and play." Grevey, whose entire career seems to be wrapped in gauze, says, "I don't have that 'pro attitude' -- just fend for yourself, man -- I like to play at all costs. I've taken the needle, and I'd do it again." He sees nobility in the position. Kupchak, just a shell of his former self because of a severe back injury, is out there trying to play when perhaps he shouldn't be. "Maybe I'm crazy," he says. "Another injury could end my career, but I just feel I ought to play."
Dandridge, and maybe only Dandridge, acts like a draftee. You don't play 11 seasons without playing in pain. In 1978 and 1979, he played the playoffs with severe groin pulls. But what seems to isolate Dandridge from the others is an historical reluctance to put his career in jeopardy in games he considers insignificant. If he is to play in pain, he will decide when. It is said he learned this from Oscar Robertson, who, late in his career, dedicated himself to the proposition that management considered him cattle and would abuse his body, so it was his responsibility to use every ache and pain as a wedge against this malevolence. Robertson, as you might suspect, is not the most popular man in management board rooms.
"I'm hurt," Dandridge says. "You've got to trust me."
"He wants to make sure he's healthy." Grevey says. "You have to respect that."
"Better to have him 100 percent than risk injury," says Jim Cleamons.
"Nobody knows their body better than the person," says Kupchak.
This is perhaps the most controverisial issue in sports -- playing in pain, a continuing subplot, every sport season. Because all bodies are different and pain is a subjective sensation, it is impossible to determine how much pain the same rip (tear, bruise, strain, pull, break) might cause different people. Dandridge stands 6-6 and weighs 190, frail for a forward. "I hate the term 'brittle,'" he says, "because it sounds so nonathletic, but because of my size and my game under the basket, I'm susceptible to injury. Luckily, all my injuries are strains and pulls. Maybe I have a low theshold for pain, but I have to assume that the doctor (Stan Lavine, the Bullets' physician) believes me. He told me not to play if it hurts. He is paid by the team. If he didn't feel I was seriously hurt, I'm quite sure I'd have gotten the word by now. And I haven't had any pressure at all." Lavine has repeatedly refused to comment on any injury sustained by a Bullet player.
Dandridge says he has "no problem" playing in pain. What he won't do is play "if there is any risk that playing will further damage the injured area." He will not, under any circumstances, take a chance on a permanent disability.
"No, oh no," he says. When people trot out the example of Unseld, Dandridge quickly says, "Wes and I play different games. He runs straight down the court. He boxes out instead of jumping. He isn't mobile. My game is being mobile, cutting. Any time I got to mess with my wheels I'm in trouble. I don't want to have surgery. People don't understand the nature of my injuries. This calf can get worse. Look, why is it that other people can be injured and Bob Dandridge can't be injured? . . . Look at Grevey. Nobody complained at all about Grevey. In fact, they told him to take as much time as he needed."
Okay. This is what you hear:
Because other people on this club usually play if their injuries don't show up on X-rays.
Because other people on this club don't threaten to hide in the last two minutes if their contracts aren't renegotiated.
Because other people on this club don't seem to save themselves so much for the playoffs that Charles Johnson would say, "Let Bobby stay home for 82 games. Then, when the playoffs start, call him and tell him to come to work."
Because other people on this club haven't been quite as contemptuous of management and so willing to play the role of Hessian.
Because other people on this club haven't isolated themselves from their teammates by living in another state, flying from a different airport, (once) missing a trip without telling anyone and (twice) showing up at the bus and telling Motta they hurt too much to play.
Because other people on this club aren't as good, nor as absolutely necessary.
Because other people on this club -- because of all this -- aren't such easy targets.
Bobby dandridge sits and listens in silience ocassionally interrupting with, a "Yeah. Yeah. I know." He is really rather charming to talk with. He smiles easily, and he has answers. The ultimate answer is that he is hurt, legitimately hurt, and there is no deception in him. He says he cannot tell a lie and Scott Lang says, "He is truthful to the point where it sometimes hurts him."
So why doesn't everyone believe him?
"I think about having a bad reputation," he says, stretching long words as if delivering a valedictory. "When I left Milwaukee, I said, Okay, I'll come here and start anew.' I've made a concerted effort. . . . Now, people in the decision-making areas know -- or they should know -- that I'm for real. There's no reason for me to B.S. somebody. At this point of my career, bad press could end it. . . . Basketball is so important to me it's unbelievable, but becauseI don't jump up and down or dive for a loose ball every time people say I don't like the game anymore -- I love the game.
"I'm catching all kinds of heat now because of some other folks' deficiencies, because other players won't take the weight. I've been tempted to blast some people, but I've been quiet all year. I'll just keep on walking. . . . I know the speculation. 'He ain't playing 'cause the money's not right.' Well, it so happens that I haven't mentioned contract all year because the contracts set. (Dandridge and the Bullets have agreed on terms for his option year. If the Bullets don't exercise it, he's a free agent.) I have no contractual problems at all. I plan on playing two more years, finishing my career here, but if a guy feels I'm not injured -- nothing I can do. . . I know what E thinks. He's insecure. Before, he took the heat, and now he's comfortable switching it to me. that 's okay. He and I can still talk. You tell me it comes from others too, okay. In certain instances I've had doubts whether players on this team have been injured or just afraid of the competition. But I've never approached someone in the media about it."
He pours a glass of water.
He understands pacing. He has been in control of this conversation for more than an hour, and he is getting to the moral. This is what he has come for. He has stored this away like a squirrel stores an acorn, for the moment of need.
"I can see how someone looking at my situation might think I was faking," he says. "But I've got too much to lose. I realize now my salary structure is set. I know that by being out now the only thing it can do is hurt me. What I'm saying is, I'm playing craps, but I don't have the dice."
The dice, Mr. Dandridge.
Place your bets, ladies and gentlemen. Shooter coming out. Needs a seven.
His eyes are searching.
"Just think about what you're accusing the man of."
He was born 32 years ago, the eldest child and only son of a railroad laborer in Richmond. In a household where academics were stressed he was a diligent student until seventh grade, when he changed priority from books to ball. "My mother hated the idea of me becoming an athlete," he says, laughing loudly. "She couldn't see it. She wanted me to be a professional, a teacher or a doctor. She didn't think athletics was a meaningful profession."
But by the time he was a senior, Dandridge wanted his profession to be basketball. His English teacher tried to dissuade him. Her son-in-law has Hal Greer, and she had Greer come to the school. "She told me," Dandridge says. "'You are not gonna make any money playing basketball because you are not that good.' I could see Greer was much better than me, but he came with Ira Harge, who was the 76ers' top draft choice, and Harge's game didn't impress me at all. I said to myself if this guy can earn a living playing ball, so can I. And I vowed to become a pro, though I never told anyone about it all through college."
Dandridge was the best player on his high school team. But then, as now, "my game wasn't flashy; it never called for an exclusive news story," And Norfolk State was one of the few schools to offer him a scholarship. There he came under the coaching of Ernie Fears. Fears had the training methods of a Spartan; he often told his players, "You are not tired yet. When the body is tired, it will collapse." Dandridge learned that he "could endure the pain of getting in shape." Even with his disdain for practice, Dandridge remains one of the few NBA who can dominate a fourth quarter not just on talent but on conditioning.
But because Dandridge knew that the basketball worl was bigger than Virginia and that conditioning alone would not get him to the NBA, at 19 he began seeking out tougher competition. Because his father worked for the railroad. Dandridge could travel for free, and he became a roundball hobo, testing his game in places like Washington, Philadelphia and New York. The highlight of his itinerant career came in D.C. one day when he "busted" Jerry Chambers, a first-round NBA draft choice, in Kelly Miller Park. Usually, he had to come to a park by 9 in the morning and sometimes wouldn't get to play until 2 or 3. But after busting Chambers he was accepted as a stud and he could arrive at 10 with the other studs and get chosen immediately. A 10. Nirvana.
"All I was interested in was to play against the best players I could," he says.
It was a calculation, as was his decision to stick with fundamentals rather than showboat on the court like so many of his peers.
It was always his choice to husband his talent, and it led to his always being underrated and underpublicized, so much so that he is now overpublicized for being underpublicized.
"Even now," he say, "when you pick an All Star team you say Erving Kenon, Walter Davis. But I know when it comes to winning games or being on a championship team, the things I do are more pronounced. . . I could 'freak' if I had to, just like everyone else, but it always seemed such a waste of energy. You take practice -- practices to me where always a way of refining my game. Once I got into shape, I felt practices were just an extra way of getting injured. I practice as I need to; Dick Motta understands that."
From Norfolk State he went to the Bucks as a fourth-round choice. Nissalke scouted him accidentally; he was sent to a Norfolk State -- Grambling game to see Dandridge's teammate, Charlie Bonaparte. Dandridge, wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans, signed with the Bucks in the Norfolk president's office, for a $2,500 bonus (he gave it to his parents) and a $16,000 salary.
It was obvious from day one of camp that Dandridge was better than some of his more publicized teammates. After three days of busting Len Chappel in practice, the veteran turned to Dandridge and said, "Stop overplaying me already. You've got the team made. Now leave me alone and let me get my shots off." Jon McGlocklin, who was on the Bucks before Dandridge got there (the same year as Lew Alcindor), remembered Dandridge as "quiet, shy, almost scared, but when he found out he could be the player he wanted to be, he blossomed."
McGlocklin also said, "Bobby was never much of a systems guys," and Brian Winters remembered that Dandridge "never believed he needed practice once he got to a certain state in his career. It never bothered me. Bobby, Kareem and Oscar were great players, but I think it may have bothered Costello."
Soon after Kareem was traded to L. A., Dandridge wanted to leave also. The Bullets had tried to trade for him in 1976, and the next year they were happy to sign him as a free Agent. Dandridge refused offers from Golden State and Houston to sign with Washington primarily because he felt there was a championship squad here, and also because he was a Virginian and thought business opportunities might be better here; those close to Dandridge say he is intent on securing the best possible lifestyle for his wife and young daughter, that he is a devoted family man.
The Bullets wanted him because of his reputation as a gamer. He is one of those rare NBA players whose career playoff scoring average is higher than his regular-season average, 20.1 to 19.0.
Dandridge: "I love the playoffs. I love the crowds, the excitment, the head-to-head confrontations with the best players in the league. I just love to play during a tough situation. Sometimes I glide through on probably just gifted talent, especially early in the season. But once the playoffs start, I'm right there. To me, this demonstrates the character of the individual."
The Bullets knew all about his reputation for missing games and being contemptuous of managment. "But the bottom line," said Ferry, "was that we have never won a championship, and we felt Bobby was the guy we needed." Thus are marriages made.
For better or worse. And Certainly there has been both.
Dandridge took the best package available. "All the others were basically in the same range," he says. "I felt the owners had gotten together and attempted to set a ceiling, since it was the first year of free agency, but it was already into training camp and I didn't have a job. I signed thinking, I might be able to renegotiate. It occurs in this league all the time. You have to try." Larry Fleisher, head of the NBA Players Association and a supporter of Dandridge, said that by Current NBA standards Dandridge is underpaid relative to his talent.
After the Bullets won the championship -- a championship they never could have won without him -- he did attempt to renegotiate.
The Bullets said, see you later, Jim.
"We never renegotiate," said Ferry. "Especially a contract we just negotiated the year before."
Dandridge held out. The Bullets fined him $3,200 and never changed a comma in the contract. He may have had right on his side, but they had his name on paper. With one week left in camp, Dandridge came back, showing absolutely no remorse. Now he looks at the holdout from a cost-effective standpoint. "We had just finished playing on June 7," he says. "My body didn't feel normal until the first of August. I wasn't ready to get into that basketball mood until I went back, and I had some minor business matters to take care of. The trade-off for what I accomplished in business and rest was reflected in my performance on the court last season." No, he wouldn't take it back, even though his attorney concedes that "from a public relations standpoint we probably haven't done as good a job as we should have."
Dandridge isn't the kind of man to apologize to manangement. Management hates arrogance; Dandridge respects it. "Some players have nice attitudes," he says. "Some have shaky attitudes, but they are great players. You give me that guy. In order to win games and be a champion you got to have a certain arrogance."
The conflicts are so raw, they seem almost ulcerous. Management seems to be going out of its way to non-defend Dandridge against innuendo -- sometimes provide it. Teammates are one step away from openly calling him a malingerer. Dandridge feels that Ferry hates him. He feel the Bullets have gone overboard to promote others, specifically Unseld, Hayes and Kupchak. He has his back up so straight you could fly a flag from it.
The Bullets have always chosen to cast themselves as a family. Dandridge has never wanted to be treated as one of the boys. He put the Bullets over the top even after compromising his game to accommodate the giant Elvinian ego, and still the family wouldn't raise his allowance. "I have to make sacrifices in my game for E and I fo it," he says. "I have the talent but I forsake it for the team effort."
Now that he is sore physically, perhaps mentally too, he seems unwilling too sacrifice his standards for an organization that refused to stroke him. Throughout the league, most people think he's waiting for the playoffs. It has become fashionable to doubt Dandridge.
It's a pothole threatening to become a mine shaft.
"With a basketball team you try at least to create the mirage of a family setting," says Ferry. "When things pull apart, things are said that are based on emotion rather than fact. All of a sudden that mirage is tarnished."
Dandridge seems composed. He is almost laughing at the overblown sound and fury around him. A person who grows up jovial and mischievous doesn't turn into Chicken Little. He remains convinced that once he starts playing in a week or two everything will be forgotten. This, he thinks, is the storm before the calm.