Two seasons ago, they were the defending champions of the National Basketball Association and boasted the best regular-season record in the league. Large, loud crowds flocked to Capital Centre. The chant of "BULLets" was a familiar refrain.
It had all come together: The Fat Lady and 19,035 playoff followers; Dick Motta prowling the side of the court, pulling all the right strings; E turning and scoring; Bobby D. asking for the ball in the clutch and delivering; Ballard from the top of the key; Mitch on the floor; CEEEEEEjay from anywhere; and, of course, Wes everywhere.
It was a championship basketball team, a winner of 54 games in 1978-79, before losing in the finals to Seattle after two dramatic playoff triumphs over Atlanta and San Antonio. The town loved this team, and when it left the court for the final time that season, defeated by the Sonics, there were cheers and tears.
These Bullets owned the town . . . but these Bullets never came back onto the court.
Where have you gone, Ceeeeeejay?
These days, the Bullets draw an average of 7,454 per game at Capital Centre, an attendance level 19th out of 23 NBA teams. These are not likely to be any big games for a while. The Bullets are 16-24, the seventh worst record in the league. Their future does not appear bright, no matter what happens in this year's draft.
When a team wins the title in the NBA, it is not unusual for it to hit bottom three years later. The Celtics tumbled, and so did the Warriors. But who says you're supposed to enjoy the fall or applaud the landing?
"We just aren't the same team we used to be," said captain Wes Unseld. "Those years we got to the finals and the year we won, everything just fell into place. Whatever deficiencies we had we made up for.
"Now we just don't play smart basketball. The guys aren't doing it on purpose. A lot of them just don't know any better.
"We also have to face the fact that a lot of teams are just better than we are and no matter how well we play, there's nothing we can do about that."
Except for Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff, the current Bullet team bears little resemblance to the championship squads of the late '70s.
Two coaches, K.C. Jones and Dick Motta, have come and gone in the last five years. There has been a revolving door for players, too: Truck Robinson, Tom Henderson, Nick Weatherspoon, Larry Wright, Joe Pace, Jimmy Jones and Clem Haskins.
They were all little pieces, but they helped make the Bullets the most feared team in the league.
No one fears the Bullets anymore. Their two main players, Hayes, 35, and Unseld, 34, are the two oldest players in the league. They are not what they used to be. Unseld has few 20-rebound games now and Hayes has scored more than 30 points only once this season.
Bullet point production ranks 2ust out of 23 teams in the league: 102 points a game. They are 19th in field goal percentage (46.5), 22nd in free throws attempted and last in free throws made. They can't shoot from the outside, and they don't drive to the basket well enough to draw fouls.
In the last month, in a desperate attempt to find anyone who might help, they have brought in four players from the Continental League -- rookies David Britton and Keith McCord, NBA retreads Andre McCarter and Anthony Roberts. Britton and McCord were released at the end of their 10-day contracts. Their replacements, McCarter and Roberts, are not the answer.
The past has caught up with this team. It needs quality players, draft choices and miracles. None are currently available.
"Bob Ferry is a good general manager, but this is a tough year for him because nobody wants anybody he has," said one NBA executive. "A couple of years ago, Greg Ballard and Mitch Kupchak were hot properties, but not so anymore. It's doubtful they could get a first-round draft choice or a front-line player for anyone on their current roster."
"We don't have any offense," said Coach Gene Shue, who returned to the team after a seven-year absence. "We don't have enough people who can score. We've been playing great defense, but you still have to score to win."
Owner Abe Pollin rehired Shue this season in hopes he would bring some excitement to the team. He forgot one thing: players make teams exciting, not coaches. The Bullets have three regular-roster players they didn't have a year age: Wes Matthews, Ricky Mahorn and Carlos Terry.
Matthews has been a part-time starter at guard. Around the league he is considered the team's most valuable trade bait. Mahorn is the backup center and shows flashes of promise. Terry was a free agent who beat long odds to make the team and was becoming one of the team's most valuable players before he tore ligaments in his knee last most. He is not expected to play again this season.
Pollin, who has not been available for comment, pledged at the end of last season "to do everything in my power to improve the team." But the only significant move he made was to replace Motta with Shue.
The Bullets tried to trade Hayes, as he requested, to either Dallas, Houston or San Antonio. No takers.
They also tried to improve their position in the draft. They had nothing to give in exchange.
So Shue inherited the same team Motta couldn't bear to be around. "We have more problems than you could imagine." Shue said. "I would rather not go into them for obvious reasons, but if you've watched any of our games, you know what they are."
Shue has yet to find the right combination of players, especially on the front line. For example, he can't play Kupchak, Ballard and Hayes together because that combination is too slow and has defensive problems. He can't play Kupchak, Ballard and Mahorn together because they simply have difficulty executing the offense. Shue says Unseld is the only front-court player he can team with anyone, but Unseld can't be on the court all 48 minutes. There are similar problems in the back court. It goes on and on.
"We're working hard and doing the best we can. We're just coming up short a lot of the time," said guard Kevin Grevey.
"I don't know what the problem is, but obviously we have one," said forward Ballard. "Something always seems to happen to us at the wrong time."
When he is healthy and playing the way he did during the championship season, Dandridge is the Bullets' best player. But Dandridge has a leg injury and the Bullets aren't counting on his playing again.
Shue has done his best to help the Bullets win without much player turnover. Now, he is convinced they cannot win without significant changes.
"I didn't want to come in the make a lot of changes," he said. "I wanted to see firsthand what we had and how things would work. I know now. We need help. I just don't know where we're going to get it from."
The Bullets need a ball-handling guard who can shoot, a big guard who can score and play defense and a young forward who can rebound and shoot.
"We know what we need, but you can't just go out and make players," said Ferry. "We're doing everything possible to try and improve this team, but our options are so limited. What am I going to give to get a player like we need in return? The teams who have players who will make a difference aren't going to give them up.
"What we're doing is paying the price for having been so good for so long. We made the playoffs for 13 straight years and because of that we haven't had very good places in the draft."
The draft and the free agent market are now the team's major hope, and that takes time.
Pollin has long been an advocate of controlled salaries. When Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were rookies, he said he would not have drafted them even if they were available. He said he didn't believe any rookie was worth what they asked for and got from their respective teams (upward of $600,000 a year each).
Johnson and Coach Paul Westhead were the only major changes the Lakers made last year, and they won the league championship. Bird and Coach Bill Fitch were the major newcomers in Boston last year and the Celtics went from 29 victories to 61.
That same year, the Bullets went from 54 victories to 39, the second biggest drop of any team in the league.
That leaves the draft.
The Bullets have their No. 1 pick in this year's draft, but don't own one next season, having given it to Detroit in the Kevin Porter deal. As bad as they are this season, they probably won't finish in position to draft Ralph Sampson, Albert King or Mark Aguirre.
"Sure we're trying to improve our position in the draft, but it's the same problem with trying to get players," Ferry said. "You have to give something to get something and we don't have anything to give."
Ferry certainly can't be faulted for not trying to make a deal. Over the last two years, he has had discussions about acquiring George Gervin, Lloyd Free, Bernard King, Marvin Webster, Campy Russell, Freeman Williams, Gus Williams and Maurice Lucas. But nothing happened.
The only Bullets other teams are interested in are Kupchak, Ballard, Grevey, Matthews and Mahorn.
Kupchak has overcome a serious back operation and is playing well, but he is still limited in talent in what he can do. It is doubtful he will bring a first-round draft choice or a front line player in return.
Ballard was an untouchable a year ago, but now if the right deal comes along, the Bullets will jump at it. However, they may have waited too long. At 6-foot-7, Ballard is too slow and doesn't have the moves to be a first-rate small forward. And he isn't a strong enough rebounder to be a big forward.
"If the right move comes along, we'll make it," Ferry said. "But we aren't going to panic."
"Patience is going to be a big word around here for awhile," said Shue. "It may take a while for us to get back to where we want to be."