Coach Gene Shue has been praised for his brilliant job of molding a collection of castoffs and rookies into a team still in contention for the National Basketball Association championship.
Two unwanted free agents, four rookies, three second-year players and two holdovers from glories past form the nucleus of a Bullet team that finished with a 43-39 record and swept New Jersey in a best-of-three miniseries.
But where did these players come from? How did they all manage to arrive here at the same time? Why were they available in the first place?
The man with many of the answers is Bob Ferry, the 44-year-old general manager of the Bullets, who has an uncanny eye for talent.
Ferry spends more time on airplanes than most pilots and visits more hotels than Bill Marriott. His life is one continual search for basketball players.
The sustained success of the Bullets since Ferry became general manager in the summer of 1973 (422-316)--three Eastern Conference titles and one NBA championship--is all the more remarkable because his budget hardly compares to those of many of his chief rivals.
For example: five teams are pursuing premier free agent Moses Malone, this season's leading rebounder (14.7 a game) and second-leading scorer (31.1) who has already turned down a $1.5 million a year contract from the Houston Rockets, who still expect to re-sign their star center. "Sure we'd like to have him," Bullets owner Abe Pollin said yesterday, "but I don't think we could afford him."
Bidding for Malone is expected to reach $2.5 million a year. "If that's true, then I know I'm not interested," said Pollin.
Jerry Buss pours millions into the Los Angeles Lakers and Gulf & Western uses its vast resources to finance the New York Knicks, both of whom are believed to be among those with the money to go after Malone. But even without such resources and with a payroll among the lowest in the league, Ferry has put together a winner.
Free agent Spencer Haywood chose the Bullets over a much more lucrative contract in Italy, gambling that he could prove himself once again in the NBA. The price came down on the team's other free agent, John Lucas, when he was ignored by every team until September. Still, neither would be with the Bullets today if Kevin Porter hadn't torn his Achilles' tendon in training camp.
"The Haywood story goes all the way back to the middle of last season," Ferry said. "An old friend of mine, Bob Mussehl, a Seattle lawyer, called me and said that Spencer was doing real well in Italy, but that he wanted to come back and play with the Bullets.
"Our team was sliding and I was looking to move Elvin (Hayes). We wanted to bring Spencer back to take his place, but at the last minute, Spencer decided he didn't want to leave his team over there in the middle of the season. This summer, we really didn't know which way we were going with the team. We didn't want to get tied down with Haywood if our young players worked out or if Mitch (Kupchak) stayed.
Porter's injury made Ferry decide to sign Haywood.
"That's as low as I've ever been," Ferry said about the day his playmaker suffered a season-ending injury. "I felt pretty good about our team by then, but without Kevin I knew we had to get a forward who could score on his own. We also decided then to go get Lucas."
Lucas had signed an offer sheet with Utah several days earlier. But it was easy for Ferry to call Golden State, which had the right of first refusal, and work out a deal. The Warriors didn't want Lucas back, but they wanted something for him; Ferry offered the Bullets' second-round draft choice.
"Everybody thinks second-round picks are worthless, but I like to stockpile them because you can always use them in trades," he said. The Bullets have three second-round choices in this year's draft: one obtained from San Diego for Steve Malovic, one from San Antonio for Dave Corzine and one from Los Angeles for Kupchak.
Ferry's selections in the second round two years ago established the foundation for this year's success and optimism for the future.
With the Bullets' choice, Ferry picked Rick Mahorn, a little-known rebounder from Hampton Institute who has developed into a defensive catalyst, one essential ingredient for a championship team.
"Right up to the last second, we were undecided between taking Mahorn or DeWayne Scales (a 6-foot-9 forward from LSU)," Ferry said. "Our scout, Bill Gardiner, liked Mahorn and so did I. Then I called one of players at LSU because I had played with his father."
The player's advice: don't count on Scales. "That's how the decision was made," said Ferry.
Obtaining Ruland, the other half of the Bullets' muscular rebounding tandem, was more complicated. Once Ruland decided to leave Iona early, Ferry spent hours on the phone with Ruland's coach, Jim Valvano (now at North Carolina State), his assistant coach and a couple of Iona players. Again it was a player's comment that sold him.
"One of the players told me 'I don't know what kind of pro Jeff will make, but I know that everybody enjoys playing with him. If you're open, he'll get you the ball and he never stops hustling.' "
Still, the Bullets had only one second-round pick and Ferry had a choice: Mahorn or Ruland.
"I was sitting in Faunsworth's (a restaurant near Capital Centre) one night just before the draft thinking about it and suddenly I realized that Golden State had four of the first 25 picks and I wondered what they would do with all of them. Larry Wright was a free agent and I knew they needed a quick guard. I called them that night and we agreed that if Ruland was available on the 25th pick, they would take him and trade him to us for either Wright or our second pick the next year."
The selection of Frank Johnson, the other rookie who has contributed so heavily, was a controversial move that brought boos from the fans at Capital Centre on draft day.
"I remember the boos," Ferry said. "I had to have a meeting with my staff after the draft to explain why we took Frank. But, in my mind, he couldn't fail as a pro and there were doubts about the others. I shudder to think now what would have happened if we had taken a forward and then Porter got hurt.
"This has just been one of those years when everything fell into place," Ferry said, leaning back in his chair and smiling.
"Going into the season we didn't know what to expect," Ferry continued. "You can't tell people you're rebuilding. We don't have a first-round pick this year, so there was no reason to go through a miserable season. We had to try to win as many games as possible.
"One of the most important things is that we've maintained our dignity and kept our respect. The Bullets have a great tradition and we didn't want to lose it. Once you get down in this league, it's tough to climb back up.
"We've got a great nucleus now with Mahorn, Ruland and Johnson. We have young players who know they can win because they didn't have to suffer through a bad season while they were learning. They have confidence now that they can win in this league. That's something you can't buy."