Five months ago, when Bullet Coach Gene Shue assembled the players at Fort Meade for the first practice of the year, he saw a group of individuals and not a team. Not even the makings of a break-even team, either, I believed.
However, the 12 players who took the court here tonight were truly a team, one that had won three of four games on the current trip, beating two of the NBA's top-percentage home teams in San Antonio and Portland, to reach .500 again for the season. They are 25-26 after tonight's loss.
"They aren't great players," said Shue. "But everyone tries to do his job. It's been a fun team to watch and coach. Any coach would enjoy it. They kind of remind me of a church league team. They go out and have fun."
Bernie Bickerstaff, the assistant coach who has been with the Bullets through the K.C. Jones and Dick Motta regimes, says: "These guys are real loose. Sometimes they're so loose you have to pull them in a bit by the collar. But they still get the job done. They genuinely like each other.
"A few years ago it was a job to go to practice. You didn't even want to get on a plane. Now it's fun. Even when a guy starts to mess up, you can pull his coat and he listens," Bickerstaff continued. "The thing you hope for with these guys is that they never change."
Most of their success has already been explained by Shue's defensive philosophy and the team's controlled offense. But basketball is a player's game, and the players on this team like the staff and each other. And it shows.
Have a look at those players, using a different kind of scouting report, the kind you wouldn't find in a locker room before a game:
Greg Ballard--The team captain, he likes to keep to himself and partake in horsing around on the fringe. He is a nice guy: friendly, sincere, never sarcastic or cynical. He leads by example. He never complains. He likes to read and has taken up needlepoint. Some teammates call him Pockets--as in pocket billiards, playing on his name--others shorten that to Bills.
Rick Mahorn--Called Leon by some of his teammates because a gap in his teeth reminds them of Leon Spinks. He likes to wear hats. Teammates often taunt him with shouts of "Hey, Leon, let me see your driver's license!" Loves his reputation as a physical player; he's the team's instigator and agitator. Don't play Pac Man against Mahorn.
Kevin Grevey--Known as Fleetwood, because of his liking for Cadillacs. Restaurateur and man about town in the Washington area, on the road Grevey is comparatively sedate. His teammates are hardly his peers anymore. At 28, he is the only player who has played for Jones, Motta and Shue; he has been on the team seven years, longer than anyone else.
Spencer Haywood--Known to teammates as Wood. He provides a great deal of entertainment on the bus and at practice, and has been a stabilizing force. Likes leather pants, which teammates accept only because he played basketball in Europe and his wife is a famous model (Iman), so they assume he knows what's fashionable.
John Lucas--Funny and exuberant. Teammates rallied around him last month after he admitted cocaine use. Fans have been supportive, too. Little-taunted in a league of taunts. Teammates have always enjoyed teasing him, though. "Hey, Luke, where'd you get that nice pleather coat?" Pleather is what the players call coats that look half plastic and half leather. A typical Lucas outfit: cream-colored shoes, maroon slacks, white shirt, green golf sweater, lavender pleather jacket.
Jeff Ruland--Called Gerry Cooney, partly because of his looks and because he is the team's great white hope. Meshes nicely with Mahorn, Lucas and the rest. A kidder. Teammates say he is unstoppable inside.
Don Collins--They call him the Devil. Maybe the only man in the NBA who has never smiled in public. Tries to look and act mean, but usually can't pull it off.
Carlos Terry--Known as "The 'Los" (as in Car-los). Another of the "just happy to be here" guys. Says he is ready to play, recovered from a serious knee injury, but patiently waits for his chance. Wears the "earphones" 24 hours a day and shakes and shimmies to the music. Goes out of his way to make sure teammates hear any detrimental remark made about them.
Frank Johnson--Kermit. If you've seen the Muppets and Kermit the Frog, you know how he got the nickname. Likes to kid around with the coaches. Teammates often hide his underwear after games and practice. In turn, he tries to pilfer and hide anything he can get his hands on, but rarely gets away with it. Teammates boo him for his failures.
Jim Chones--Wears football shoes--the kind for artificial turf--and a baseball cap on backward. Constantly shaking his head in agreement to everything, adding "Yep, dig it."
Charles Davis--A hard-working rookie still in awe of this business. He is the only player who wears a tie and jacket on planes. Not ribbed for that, though.
Garry Witts--His nickname is Weeny, because he's slight. Keeps to himself, but he has a sense of humor. Teammates feel he's earned his way on the club.
All of which may help explain how this collection of nobodies now called the Bullets can be a .500 team and a playoff contender. There's more to being a player than playing the game.