Two months ago, off the evidence of two entire games, the inmate in charge of this asylum wrote some really funny lines about the Bullets. He said the Bullets were so bad that by January burglars would break into your house and leave Bullet tickets. He said juries would sentence felons to the good seats at Capital Centre. The Bullets would lose 50 games because they are a ragtag collection of anonymities, castoffs and lost luggage.
Ha, ha, ha.
Ho, ho, ho.
Only one thing wrong with the funnies.
I was wrong. The point scout for Custer wasn't much more wrong. With this kind of brilliance, I could have been the watch on the Titanic. Here it is mid-January, when I said the Bullets would be dumping players, and they not only still have the 12 they wanted, they also play nice basketball.
At 17-19, the Bullets are not the Celtics nor even the old Bullets. But neither will they produce owner Abe Pollin's "longest winter," as some dummkopf wrote. Instead, and this is the most pleasantly surprising story in town for a long while, the Bullets may make this winter memorable as the start of something really big.
"We don't need a lot of changes to make this a championship team," Bob Ferry, the general manager, said two nights ago.
In November, an outpatient from The Home for Wayward Typists would have dissolved in a giggling fit at so preposterous a sentence. The Bullets dumped Elvin Hayes; Wes Unseld retired; Mitch Kupchak got rich as a Laker, and Bobby Dandridge fell off the edge of the earth. As replacements, Ferry and Coach Gene Shue hauled in guys who weren't in the league last year or would soon be unemployed.
Spencer Haywood came from Europe and defied all expectations by being a good guy and a decent spot player. Jeff Ruland, the Bullets' second draft pick two years ago, also came back from Europe. With John Lucas, a salvage experiment, and No. 1 draft pick Frank Johnson, the Bullets have four new men contributing significantly.
Besides which, the Bullets have achieved a rare virtue in the NBA. They like each other. This outrageous blend of lost luggage and young talent is working so hard and having such a good time together that Shue has said he's having the most fun in his 16-year NBA coaching career. Ferry, sitting in the locker room, kept shaking his head in wonderment.
"This," he said, "is really fun."
A general manager's job is to hire talent. For a decade, Ferry had Elvin and Wes. He just filled in the spots. But with Hayes gone, and Wes a vice president, Ferry sees in these Bullets the fruits of his hours in America's airplanes and arenas.
"On my good teams, the kids never got a chance to play," Ferry said. "But now, this is like watching your own kids grow up. Being a general manager, you live or die with them--because if they make it, you do."
Ferry won't say what changes would make the Bullets champions. General managers like secrets. If a looney-tunes columnist can make a guess, let's say this--Ferry isn't looking for a power forward to replace Jeff Ruland.
That's as brave as I will get today, which isn't brave at all, because Jeff Ruland is the single player who has made the Bullets better than I expected.
Ferry doesn't think the Bullets ever were so terrible. He liked the nucleus: Greg Ballard, Rick Mahorn, Kevin Grevey, Don Collins. "We weren't thinking championship, but we didn't feel bad about this team," Ferry said.
"But Ruland is the big difference. He gave us instant help where we needed it most, losing Elvin and Wes. In many ways, Ruland is a combination of Elvin and Wes. He's physical, he rebounds and he can score. . . And there's some of Dave Cowens in Ruland. He plays a tempo game, he gets up and down the court, he's a helluva competitor."
Midway through his rookie season, Ruland has a presence suggesting a mean, cocky veteran. There's a sneer on his lip, the right corner curling toward his mustache. He is a strongman, 6 feet 11, 250 pounds, who is ballet quick near the hoop. Working off reverse pivots and screens, Ruland uses a soft shooting touch Unseld would have killed for.
"In college, I always was a 60 percent shooter," Ruland said, "and I'm creeping up on that now."
He's at 58.5 percent. More indicative of his progress, and the team's, are statistics for the last 21 games, in which the Bullets are 13-8 (sixth best in the league). In those games, Ruland is averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 61 percent.
And this in barely 24 minutes of work a game.
Playing that little, Ruland is the team's second-leading scorer and rebounder. Projected to 48 minutes, Ruland's numbers are 28 points and 17 rebounds.
"We were all strangers early in the year," Ruland said, "but now we know our roles and are getting confidence."
Ruland said the Bullets wanted him to gain 25 pounds, up to 275, "so I would be the Incredible Hulk," he said, laughing. The weight hurt his Achilles tendons, so he went on a diet of no breakfast and salad for lunch. "It was plain murder," he said, "but I feel normal again."
Ruland likes the fun the Bullets have. "We get along on and off the court extremely well," he said. "It's almost like we're all brothers."
Ruland said the Bullets hope to shock the so-called experts (blush) by making the playoffs. "I need the money," he said, to which his buddy Rick Mahorn said, "Don't listen to that stuff. Money? He's making more money than me."
They laughed at that one.