One of the inalienable rights of a sports columnist is telling other people how to spend their money. Some of us with not the faintest notion of whose picture graces any bill greater than $10 have no problem opening a multimillionaire owner's checkbook and draining the account.
So here it comes, Abe Pollin:
Get Moses Malone.
Appealing as the Bullets were this season--a mongrel kind of team the masses kicked around early on and then became fond of when it showed some spunk and wouldn't quit in a hopeless fight--improvement won't come without a heavy mix of imagination and money.
This is said with the knowledge that General Manager Bob Ferry and Coach Gene Shue have shown a stunning ability to win regularly with players hardly anyone else wants. They can spot an orchid where others see only weeds, virtues in basketball dead-enders.
Standing pat, with no first-round draft choice and the apparently skilled Steve Lingenfelter the only significant addition, their encore might be even more stirring. They force-fed foolish forecasters crow all season.
But one number and one player, one moment and one quote add up to the conviction that the Bullets are destined to stay among the National Basketball Association's middle class without some quick, dramatic maneuver.
The number is 15,035, the attendance in Capital Centre last Saturday for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference playoffs with the Boston Celtics. If ever a game demanded a sellout, if ever fans should have been clinging to Telscreen by their fingertips, that was it.
On the road, the Bullets had beaten Boston in as warm a way as anyone could imagine three days earlier, avoiding the four-game rout so many expected. But the sun was more compelling; the crowd was 4,000 under capacity. Which suggests that the area isn't going to fall passionately, Redskinlike, in love with the Bullets until they can whip everybody in the league.
This year they couldn't beat anybody very good very often. Still, given what we thought would happen, climbing all the way to mediocrity seemed near-miraculous. But in 28 games, regular-season and playoff, against the five teams that won more than 50 games (Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Seattle), the Bullets were losers 24 times.
Maybe this series with the Celtics has been just what the team needed to leap to a higher NBA level next season. Maybe Frank Johnson will be more consistently fabulous than frantic; maybe Kevin Porter's injured heel will mend enough for him to contribute mightily again; maybe Rick Mahorn will be less foul-prone; maybe Don Collins will become a complete guard; very likely, Jeff Ruland will slowly rise to star stature.
But maybe the elite teams were convinced, with reason, this season that they could play at cruise control most of the time and still beat Washington. And that a little more effort against a slightly better team will produce the same results. It would have been nice to have said to the Celtics before the playoffs began, "You're spotting the Bullets two games" and seen what would have happened.
An hour after the Bullets walked off Boston Garden as the losers in a thrilling night of sporting theater, Shue, upset but rational, said: "We just don't have a rebounding team."
He had watched the fourth best Celtic front-court player, Kevin McHale, outmaneuver and outhustle the best Bullets for the most important rebounds. And the biggest Celtic, Robert Parish, dwarf Mahorn and Ruland at times, soaring high enough to control the ball even when they had inside rebounding position firmly established.
During the regular season, the Bullets were in the middle of the total-rebounding pack. But they were next to last in offensive rebounds. The only team worse was the Philadelphia 76ers, which surprises only those who have not seen Darryl Dawkins duck that dirty chore. That Sixer sin did not seem so bad, because only Denver made a higher percentage of field-goal tries.
On the play that ultimately assured victory for the Celtics Wednesday night in Boston, Cedric Maxwell missed, but McHale controlled the ball. Then McHale missed, but Parish grabbed the ball. And eventually made the follow-up effort a three-point play. When they wanted, the Celtics could have tipped the ball their way all night.
Which brings us back to Moses.
The most valuable player in his sport at the moment--and a free agent--he retrieves, rejects and rams the ball home in a matchless way. His Houston team can keep him by matching another team's best offer; that offer should come from Pollin.
Let's work some money math: the Bullets usually have about 10,000 empty seats for every home game; their average ticket costs about $10. If Malone filled half those seats, that would be several pennies more than $2 million in fresh, regular-season revenue.
Granted, the area acts peculiarly about the Bullets. Even during that two-year period when they won the NBA title and followed with the best record in the league and advanced to the championship round, the rise in attendance was close to minuscule.
If Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld don't titillate the town, Moses might not, either. And a man who has lost more money on hockey than most of us can fathom should be excused for not hopping toward too questionable an investment.
Pollin already has said he cannot afford Moses. Others of us believe he cannot afford not to try for him.