Whenever the Jimmy Carter Library, Museum and Peanut Gallery is set up on the town square of Plains, Ga., most folks will know the importance of the working papers from the 1978 Camp David meeting with Begin and Sadat. But what about that T-shirt? It's over there by the Billy Beer cans. On the T-shirt are the words, "The opera's not over 'til the fat lady sings."

It's a nice line, full of cocky defiance or anxious caution, depending, but tourists may wonder how a president of the United States came to own a T-shirt decorated with a drawing of a fat lady who looks like a Mack truck in drag. So the curators of the museum likely will put a plaque beside the shirt reading, "Presented by the Washington Bullets, 1978."

What you should do, if you plan to visit Plains, is clip out this story and keep it in your shirt pocket until the museum opens. On that glorious day, you can whip out the yellowed clipping and dazzle everyone with your knowledge of ancient history. There won't be another person on your bus who knows that in 1978 the capital of the free world was in love with a fat lady who wore two Volkswagen hubcaps on her chest.

On his chest, actually. The Fat Lady was a man that summery June day in '78 when the Bullets began the NBA championship series against Seattle. Dennis Vala said he was 32 and weighed about 300. He showed up at Capital Centre in a yellow wig, lime green gown and a Viking helmet with those little horns.


"The hubcaps are off my VW," the Fat Lady said, thrusting chest forward. A woman reached over with a handkerchief to polish the hubcaps. "I found this gown."

"Your hair, Fat Lady, it looks like it's fresh off a dog's back," someone said.

"Ol' Yeller," the Fat Lady said.

It has been five years since the Bullets won the NBA championship, but every so often you'll hear someone say, "The opera ain't over 'til the fat lady sings." It ought to be in Bartlett's, with royalties going to the old Bullets coach, Dick Motta, who made the line memorable after borrowing it from a San Antonio sportscaster.

When the San Antonio Spurs beat the Bullets in the first game of a playoff series, the sportscaster used the line. Motta repeated it when the Bullets were ahead of the Spurs three games to one. From there, the line became the Bullets' theme until, with this city's first pro championship in 36 years, owner Abe Pollin presented a fat lady T-shirt to Jimmy and Rosalynn.

"All the fat ladies came out of the closet," Kevin Grevey says now with a laugh born of nostalgia.

Grevey was a starting guard on that championship team. Only 30 now, he played so little for the Bullets last season that he figures his time is up. He says he'll go to the Bullets' front office in the next two weeks to ask how he fits into their plans.

"From a starting job, I went to being hurt to getting no time at all last season. That tells me the Bullets don't think I can contribute anymore. I think I can, but I wasn't given a chance," Grevey said.

"I've known players who've bitched, cried and sulked. I won't do that. I have good feelings about the Bullets' management. There were a lot of times when I played ugly and they could have pointed fingers at me, but they didn't. Nothing would suit me better than to play 12 or 13 years with the Bullets, but if they don't think I can contribute, I want to go to another team.

"There's no question about that. My career--I have two years left on this contract and I think I can play a couple more beyond that--is more important to me than my house here or my friends or my restaurant. If the Bullets make a move right now, maybe they can trade me for somebody they think can help them."

Kevin Grevey, 15.5 points a game, 1978.

Grevey, gone in '83?

He remembers the magic of '78. "We were only 44-38 for the season and we were underdogs in every series. It was a struggle. That brought us closer together, with Dick Motta being the fiery kind of guy whose attitude rubbed off on all of us. Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes--in the twilight of their careers, they played like young guys.

"Wes was diving on the floor for loose balls against Philadelphia. Elvin was out running the court like a kid. Bobby Dandridge put his personal complaints aside. It was a matter of chemistry. The young guys got the bandwagon going and the old guys jumped on. Larry Wright came off the bench. Charlie Johnson, Mitch Kupchack and Greg Ballard--they played with an abandon that made the old guys loose.

"Dick Motta was ranting and raving like a banty rooster the whole time. It was just a magnificent year. I'll never forget it."

Only Grevey and Ballard are left from that '78 team. If Hayes and Tom Henderson, both now with Houston, retire as indications suggest, then Grevey and Ballard will be the only '78 Bullets still working in the NBA. Motta now coaches the Dallas Mavericks, who in his three seasons have improved from 15-67 to 28-54 to 38-44 (the Bullets under Gene Shue went 39-43, 43-39, 42-40).

"They even put the fat lady on our championship rings," Grevey said. "On the side there's a picture of a little fat lady. It's inscribed, 'The Fat Lady Sings.' "

For those who wonder what she sings, Washington Post music critic Paul Hume once wrote that the fat lady, Brunnhilde in Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelungen," closed the opera with the line, "Siegfried, Siegfried, sieh! Selig gruss dich dein Weib."

Which means, Give the damn ball to E.