As a sign of the NBA times at Capital Centre, the red seats at courtside will do. Where the ink-stained wretches of the press once sat, Bullets owner Abe Pollin now has rolled out a red plastic carpet and caused 70 red-cushioned chairs to sprout. For only $30, which is cheaper than a trip to Acapulco, you can sit near enough to feel the breeze as Frank Johnson flies by.
Proximity to perspiration is not the only nice thing about the up-close-and-personal luxury chairs. A courteous chap in a long-sleeved white shirt and bow tie comes by during timeouts to inquire after your thirst factor. There's a menu left on your chair: Mixed drinks $3, Wine $2, Beer $1.75, Soft Drinks $1. If you don't like what you're seeing, you now have an option: scream at the referee, or scream for the wine steward.
At 30 bucks a pop, some of us would want Ann-Margret running the middle of a fast break. But the preppy high-roller corporate types in the front row seemed well pleased last night with the Bullets, who opened their home season with a 104-85 victory over New Jersey that defies easy analysis. Were the Bullets so good they rendered the Nets gawdawful? Or were the Nets so terrible an all-star team from the $30 seats could have won?
Darryl Dawkins cost the Nets $699,970 more than a front-row seat. Trying to buy success, the Nets once spent $500,000 for guard Ray Williams (since traded for Phil Ford). They offered $600,000 for Dave Corzine (who couldn't play for the Bullets). So Dawkins is only the latest of the Nets' impulse shopping items.
What you'd expect of Darryl Dawkins, who is bigger and stronger than a locomotive, is that he'd get -- for $700,000, remember -- every rebound there is. Well, the Nets' center had exactly no rebounds in his 14 minutes' work the first half. The second half, he did better. In 18 minutes, he had three rebounds.
Meanwhile, the Bullets' Jeff Ruland, a cheap thrill at maybe $100,000, had 13 rebounds and did all the nice basketbally things that make this Bullets team so nice to watch. In a time when the NBA has lost all touch with reason, when the average salary is $218,000, when someone named James Edwards goes for $800,000 -- in these times, the Bullets are a bunch of blue-collar Joes scuffling to get by.
At a bargain-basement price of $200,000, second-year guard Frank Johnson already is the catalyst that moves the Bullets to high-energy action. The other night, he had 36 points, his career high. Last night, he had 14 assists, another career high. When the Bullets trailed by 34-26 in the early going, it was Johnson, on the fly, who turned it around. In Washington's 24-7 spurt that left New Jersey behind for good, Johnson had eight points, two assists and two steals.
It is ludicrous, of course, to call these Bullets blue-collar Joes. But until sanity returns to the NBA, that's precisely what they are. It is Abe Pollin's common sense design, for which he ought to be applauded. Of the 23 NBA teams, maybe half have lost touch with the reality of the marketplace. Pollin said exactly the right thing when, with Moses Malone up for bids, the Bullets' owner said he wouldn't pay anyone $2 million a year even if he had the money to do it.
But along comes Philadelphia with $13.2 million for Malone. The 76ers already had Julius Erving. And they are in the Bullets' division, rivals for postseason success. So is New Jersey, with its deep pockets and inexhaustible supply of loose screws. There is Boston, which went big money for Robert Parish, and sometime soon the Gulf & Western Knicks will drop a greenback bomb on the NBA.
Meanwhile, the Bullets scrape by with guys who'd have to get a loan to take the family and friends out for drinks in the $30 seats.
"We've made all the moves we're able to make, unless you want to go out and spend big money," said Bob Ferry, the general manager who was the 1982 NBA executive of the year for putting together a playoff team in theyear both Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld left town. "If you're in a market where you're grossing $10 million, it might make sense to spend $8 million to build a team. If you're grossing half that . . . "
He left the sentence unfinished. Ferry believes the Bullets are an oasis of common sense in a desert of financial foolishness. "Right now four teams--Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York--are competing at the highest financial levels. And only one of them can win the championship. So sooner or later their fans won't accept it. That's what's happened with Philadelphia, from the time they bought George McGinnis."
Unless the current labor-management negotiations find a way to cut salaries, Ferry said, "Of the 23 teams, 15 face serious problems trying to compete with the big ones . . . The way our league has gone is ridiculous. First we were forced into high salaries by the ABA and then the Robertson settlement. Now free agency can be a bigger disaster than ever because owners are competing against each other. What's a good business decision in L.A. is a disaster somewhere else.
"And a good business decision in L.A. has a ripple effect that raises salaries ridiculously everywhere."
Are the days gone when a team of blue-collar Joes can win the NBA? Is the NBA championship now up for sale?
"I would never say you can't win our way," Ferry said. "But if something isn't done in collective bargainings to save the owners from themselves, eventually it will be impossible."
By then, the $30 seats may cost $300.