I have this Bullets season ticket for Section 123, Row M. But last fall, I knew that even if I got to every game at Capital Centre, I wouldn't see Kevin Porter; he had snapped his Achilles' tendon. Or Elvin Hayes; he had been traded. Wes Unseld had retired and Bobby Dandridge was off somewhere grousing about money. And I couldn't spend enough on popcorn or tickets to keep Mitch Kupchak in town.
The replacements didn't look immediately impressive. One of them, for example, basically had been let go by the Golden State Warriors because of malingering. He seemed like an appropriate partner for this other fellow who had been sent home by a championship team because he fell asleep during practice. There was also Rick Mahorn, coming off an okay rookie season, and a rookie who had played in Spain the year before, Jeff Ruland. Then there was Frank Johnson, the first-round draft pick who wasn't the big man we needed and wasn't flashy. Plus two castoffs from the Lakers who arrived in the Kupchak deal--Brad Holland and Jim Chones.
Still, I bought season tickets. It's my money. It's my team.
So it went out and lost. First to Philadelphia. Then to Boston. Inelegantly if not unexpectedly. But from where I sat in misery in Section 123, Row M, it looked like disaster. After they lost to great teams, they'd lose to teams that seemed to have rosters made up of their cousins and uncles.
But things could have been worse. If I had to suffer, at least I would not have to endure my torment and humiliation in public. I could undergo my agony where there was hardly anybody there to see me--at Capital Centre. Those of us who did show up didn't want to look at one another, whether out of shame or embarrassment I could not be sure. The handful of us who furtively entered the giant arena managed to find seats out of sight and earshot of our neighbors.
At the game, that part was okay. But the next morning, after my friends had read the score in the morning paper, I felt sure they were looking at me and wondering. I knew what they were thinking. It was hard.
Then the little team that tried started coming close to respectable teams like the Pacers. I started reading the papers again to see the latest dispatch on the Bullets' travail. The problem was they couldn't score. When they won, it was because they had stopped the opponent from scoring, too.
Offense for the Bullets was drudgery. No fast breaks. Set up a play. Run the play. But sometimes they would score off it.
By Christmas, though, the winning came in painful spurts. And off in the haze, the grail could be seen: .500 basketball.
They were stacking up pretty well against the likes of the Knicks, the Bulls and the SuperSonics. They'd win some--huffing and puffing--and sure enough they finally made the playoffs.
This was getting good. I didn't even mind that I had to start holding my coat some nights because people were actually sitting in the seats around me, and around the arena.
After the first playoff game, when they beat New Jersey at the Meadowlands, the whole place sold out. We were all standing and applauding when the Bullets came on the court. It might have bewildered the little guys who until now had won more often on the road than at home.
Finally, electricity. As the Bullets rally, Frank Johnson leaves the foul line with the ball in hand. He glides, slides and strides in air to jam it through the hoop over a very big 6 foot 9 James Bailey. They win.
A sweep, no less, of the best-of-three series.
Then they had to play the toughest team, last year's champs, the Celtics. So what? In the last minutes of the New Jersey game we were boldly shouting, "We want Boston." The Celtics didn't scare us.
The referees did.
The Bullets could beat the Celtics, I'm convinced, but they couldn't beat the Celtics and the refs. Look at this:
Frank Johnson, standing still, is run over by Tiny Archibald. Blocking called on Johnson. Back on the other end, Ruland goes up and Robert Parish, Cedric Maxwell and Kevin McHale do a 14th-and-U mugging routine on him. No call. No nothing.
I'm not being unreasonable. In one game both coaches got technical fouls for what they said about the refs. At least one had to be right.
Because they're only human, and not as fast as NBA players, the referees don't get into position in time to see Parish come running down the court on offense and swing his elbow.
But because they're trying, they get downcourt eventually, just in time to see poor Jeff Ruland push back in retaliation for what was done to him. Foul on Ruland. Sure.
Players and coaches are fined for untoward words about the officials, so they avoid the truth. I am under no such constraint. Bad calls and "makeup" calls to "make up" for the original sin would cause me to jump out of my seat and start screaming. Little kids would look back at me like I was part of the show.
Okay. At least the Bullets know how to win. Next year they can work on beating the refs. If they need any suggestions, I'll be in Section 123, Row M.