Abe Pollin may be thinking of selling the Bullets. With Wes Unseld no longer a center but a vice president in the front office, it could be time. Events have come full circle. We will never forget the majesty of Unseld. We will remember the Bullets as the last-place team of the '60s that Abe and Wes made into a champion in the '70s. And now, with the Bullets drifting in mediocrity, Pollin may want to sell.
"I get vibrations you might want to sell the Bullets," I said to Pollin at courtside Tuesday night. "Anything to that?"
Pollin is a fighter. I expected a fast and flat denial, for him to say he was in this thing until the bullets made it back to the top.
Instead, he said, "I haven't made any decision on that."
"So you're thinking about it?"
Pollin was uncomfortable. He edged away. I said, "I just wanted to write something about the Bullets' future, and if you're thinking of selling . . ."
I'll talk about the future, but I'd rather wait," Pollin said, interrupting, "and see what happens in a couple weeks, after the season is over." Then, walking off to see his Bullets in the dressing room, Pollin said, again, "I haven't made any decision at all."
So Pollin won't say he wants to sell, but neither will he deny it. Pollin may be losing $2 million a year on his Bullets, Caps and Capital Centre. Because the Bullets are in shambles with no hope of new glory except by spending big money to buy players, it is natural to wonder if Pollin wants out. So I wanted to ask him.
Pollin is a fighter. I once wrote a column saying the Bullets did their customers wrong. He complained bitterly that the column was an attack on his personal integrity. "Abe," I said, "I never once mentioned your name."
"You wrote about the Bullets," he said, "and I an the Bullets."
Abe and the Bullets, one and indistinguishable, later won the NBA championship in 1978. They were runners-up the next season. Then Pollin underwent open-heart surgery. He came back fighting. At his home after the operation, I asked him about his basketball team, which by then was floundering in the two-seasons later decline that historically strikes every NBA champion. "We will make the playoffs," Pollin said firmly.
In that offseason, Pollin put out big money to get Kevin Porter, the apple of Dick Motta's covetous eye. Shortly after our conversation, Pollin ordered the trade of Roger Phegley for John Williamson. The Bullets had made the NBA playoffs 11 straight years, the only team in the league to do it, and Pollin, fighting, wanted to make it 12.
Even on a losing record of 39-43, the Bullets did make it, as Pollin promised. But they clearly were a team that had stood still too long in a league in which two seasons can turn gold into dross. Whether because of contractual or emotional ties, Pollin held on to Bobby Dandridge and Elvin Hayes when he should have dumped them. This season was time to start over, time to let Unseld retire, time to make the Bullets anew.
It has been a wasted season. The Bullets won't win even 39 games this time. They have developed no new players. They won't make the playoffs. Unseld is retired. Bobby Dandridge has lost it for good. Hayes still can play, but the money paid him would be better spent on two or three rookies.
Next season promises little fun. Pollin will need to spend big money to keep Mitch Kupchak and Kevin Grevey, who will be free agents. With Unseld gone, the Bullets will be forced to use kids at center, where they always have had a man.
Is there nothing but trouble ahead? Would Pollin want to put up the long and hard, and costly, fight to make the Bullets a team he might love again? Or would he get out? Someone always wants to buy a pro basketball team. So I told Pollin's secretary I wanted to talk to him "about the future of the Bullets."
After two days in which Pollin wouldn't come to the phone -- he usually is accessible -- I found him at courtside shortly before the Boston game Tuesday night. If our little talk did nothing but reinforce a newspaperman's hunch, one thing yet reremains certain.
Whatever happens, the Bullets next season will be a new team.Grevey said, "This team will never be a team next year. This team won't make the Hall of Fame, for sure. It has been very depressing. And next year the Bullets might want to get different faces in here. Bobby Dandridge (whose contract is up) probably won't be here. Mitch and I might not be here. And Wes won't be here."
Grevey looked at Unseld, who was unwrapping a bandage from his right knee. That used to be his good knee. The left knee, an orthopedic man once said, "is so ugly inside you wouldn't want to look." The right knee carried Unseld's tank of a body through 80 or 90 games each winter for 13 years. The Celtics' Larry Bird and Rick Robey, fifth graders when Wes was the NBA's MVP, ran a two-on-one break against Unseld the other night, and Wes couldn't move to stop either man. The right knee, hurt this season, refused the order.
"Wes' injury hurt us," Grevey said. "It put confusion in the club. You talk about stability. That's Wes. He's been fantastic forever."
Greg Ballard: "For those who are smart and those who want to go a long way in life, those who want to be decent human beings, Wes Unseld left it out there for you to see how it's done. He left it there to be picked up." i
At 6-foot-6, Unseld was a short center. At 265 pounds, he was as strong as anyone. With a subtle move of his forearm, he tilted giants. He reached over Dan Roundfield's shoulder once, locked his hands around the ball and wrenched the 6-9, 225-pounder to the floor. Unseld did it, it seemed, effortlessly. Roundfield nearly dislocated his shoulder when he crashed against the floor.
Unseld anticipated play, both defensively and offensively. He had hands so good and so strong that once they touched a ball, it was his forever. He could throw a chest pass 40 feet. Try it sometime, to see how strong you must be to do it. He played hurt, on knees so ugly you wouldn't want to see the X-rays, and he played every game of every season as if he owed the customers their money's worth. With 300 Wes Unselds, the NBA would have no attendance problem.
I had heard that the Bullets asked Unseld to play this season when, in fact, he wanted to retire.
"That's not right," he said. "I was close to doing it last year. And they did talk to me, about a lot of things, about the team, yes, but also about what I would get out of playing another year."
"Didn't they tell you they needed you because they had no center?"
Unseld, the team man to the end, said, "I don't want to say anything that makes me sound important."
In 1968, the French department of the University of Louisville put on a play about good and evil. It came to pass that on opening night, speaking his lines in memorized French, the all-America basketball player. Wes Unseld, wore the the white robes of God.
"Type-casting," the director said.
At the cast party, the Devil jumped onto a table and shouted, "Let's hear it: three cheers for God!"