"Is there a game tonight?" asked the woman behind the popcorn stand at Capital Centre. She was addressing the man across the concourse selling novelties.
"They tell me there is," he replied.
Neither had a customer. They didn't even have to raise their voices. This was 30 minutes before tipoff between the Washington Bullets and Kansas City Kings last week and hardly anyone was around. Eventually, only 4,862 showed up.
Which brings up a question: Can the Bullets again capture the Washington fans' minds and hearts?
Do the two 14,000-plus crowds of the past week signal a return of the faithful?
Once, the team was widely loved, especially on the evening of June 7, 1978, when it won its only National Basketball Association championship in a game at Seattle. In a display of transcontinental spirit, celebrations broke out all over the Washington area. The next season, the Bullets' attendance shot up to 524,356, an average of 12,789. Those were the days when former coach Dick Motta said, "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings."
It's been progressively more quiet since. This season's average, despite the team's revamped lineup and good start and two recent large crowds for Detroit and Philadelphia, is only 8,774.
So where are the fans?
Upstairs at Capital Centre, Abe Pollin, the Bullets' owner, has his office. On the way up are photos and paintings of the good times: Bullets dribbling and soaring; Bullets and SuperSonics jumping for a loose ball; Pollin hugging Wes Unseld, Pollin's head dug in against Unseld's massive chest.
"Once the fans realize the kind of product we're putting on the floor, not only winning but the excitement we're creating, I think the fans will definitely come back and come back in droves," Pollin said.
Obviously, Pollin was disappointed with the gate until the last two games. "It's a carryover from last year," he said. "It was a disappointing season. We lost some ground last year, and it's always difficult to make up for lost ground. But (General Manager Bob) Ferry has done an excellent job of putting this new team together that's exciting to watch.
"Just today on my walk -- I walk two miles every day -- these two guys in a car stopped. I'd never seen them before. They said, 'Thanks for bringing us these two superstars (Gus Williams and Cliff Robinson).' That was just two guys but . . . "
As a visitor walked around the concourse, turning over another thing Pollin had said -- "Basketball the way they're playing now is like watching a beautiful ballet" -- he wondered about things cultural: What ever happened to all those "Fat Ladies"?
Betty Clark of Gaithersburg came to the phone right away. "I went to a lot of the games through the end of the '78 season and the playoffs, and I started off going in '79," she said. "Then I tailed off."
"Tailed off" meant she hasn't been back since.
And she was the legendary "Fat Lady" who helped greet the Bullets at Dulles International Airport when they came back from Seattle, and starred in the next day's parade from Capital Centre to the White House.
"I almost died in the crush at the (RFK) stadium," she recalled.
The "Fat Lady" had her sword taken from her by a security guard at Dulles, and when she accompanied the Bullets to the White House to meet the president, a security man tried to stop her because "my horns were so pointy."
Although the "Fat Lady" may never sing again, Clark says she's aware that the Bullets have added Williams and Robinson and that "it wouldn't take much" to get her back to a Bullets game, merely disguised as an ordinary customer.
And what happened to Dennis Vala of Bristow, Va., a 300-pound insurance agent whose "Fat Lady" get-up included a yellow wig, lime-green gown, a viking helmet and two Volkswagen hubcaps on his chest?
Vala led the Bullets to a 35-point victory over Seattle in Game 6 of the '78 championship series.
"I don't go out as much," he said, and certainly not in his "Fat Lady" outfit. But Tuesday night, when the 76ers played, Vala was back for his first Bullets game this season. Typical of many Bullets fans, he says he's weathered the dreary years. "Now they've got something to offer," Vala said.
Similarly, a local lawyer and longtime season-ticket holder, who asked not to be identified, said, "We've been through some tough times the last five years. It's good to see things improving."
But he does not anticipate fans returning in the same numbers as '77-79. "Not yet, anyway. I think they're finicky. You've got to have a track record."
Bruce Volat, for one, thinks that soon there will be a track record. Volat, of Silver Spring, is a sort of spiritual force for the Bullets. He's the "Madd Hatter." For the Kansas City game, he wore a red wig, but it's hard even for a "Madd Hatter" to get on his best duds for Kansas City. Usually, Volat wears white tails and top hat; red, white and blue bow tie; blue nylon baseball shirt with red and white piping; blue warmup pants with red and white piping, and white sneakers with red and blue piping. He's color-coordinated with the Bullets themselves.
"Between you, me and the fence post, and you can quote me, this team is much more exciting than the '78 team," said Volat, excitedly. "Back then, you knew Elvin (Hayes) was going to bank it in off the window. You knew what Wes was going to do. But it's nice to have Cliff Robinson jam it behind his head. We haven't had that before."
In 1979, Volat went to the playoffs in Seattle as his own version of the "Fat Lady," but that was a losing cause. He saw the Bullets lose twice. And he got thrown out of the Kingdome on his drum.
Still a presence -- he's not saying exactly how much of a presence except that "I was thinner as the 'Fat Lady' " -- Volat has been a season-ticket holder for six years. He may not be your average one since he carries a duffel bag with hats and wigs, partly because he believes that "even if you lose, it's nice to enjoy yourself at a basketball game. And I think this team can have a 50-win season. And you can take this to the bank, I think this team is good enough and deep enough to win the championship, barring major injuries."
Joe Haardt is another who still comes almost every time the Bullets play. He's had a season ticket for 22 years, back to when the Bullets weren't even the Bullets but the Chicago Packers and Chicago Zephyrs and he was at Notre Dame. Haardt has been an NBA fan since the days when "the Syracuse Nats used to be on TV every Saturday afternoon."
Although he's lived in Virginia for years, Haardt always went to Baltimore to see the Bullets. In 1968-69, he saw every game. Earl Monroe is one of his heroes. Some Joe Haardt highlights: "The night Earl Monroe got 56 points. He was phenomenal. Then there was the '75 playoff series with the Buffalo Braves. I went to work hoarse for a week."
And this year's highlight? "The Boston win. They beat them so decisively. That was fun . . . I don't know if the fans will be back like '79, but I know I'll be there."
And Doug Hinds?
The front-row-behind-the-bench, season-ticket holder Hinds?
He's the fellow back in '78 who gave his heart to the team -- he was wired to an electrocardiograph during a playoff victory over San Antonio. His heart registered 90 beats a minute before the National Anthem and was up to 130 in the final minute.
Hinds moved to San Francisco early in 1979, "the day after the ACC tournament." But his heart is still with the Bullets. Shortly after relocating, he flew up to Seattle for a playoff game with the Bullets, the season when they finished as NBA runners-up.
"I still have my season tickets," said Hinds. "When you're working for the government you never know when you'll be back. I'll tell you, if it weren't for cable TV I'd be dead out here, basketball-wise."
One thing that sustains him is the clear memory of Unseld setting picks on those good late-'70s teams. From his choice seat, Hinds had a perfect view of Unseld's artful work.
"I'm sorry I'm not back there this year," he said. "I have to admit the last two years, not for me but for the casual fan, the Bullets were boring. But they're certainly not this year.
"A running team is going to draw. But it could take a couple of years. The Bullets' pattern has always been that attendance picks up after football season. So in January they should pick up. I don't want to say the casual fan, but the more-than-casual and less-than-nuts fan."
Hinds is already awaiting Feb. 17, when the Bullets make their only appearance at Golden State. But, he added, "I'll probably be back in Washington and see them there before I see them out here."
His wish is shared by Pollin and Clark and Vala and Volat and Haardt: if only the Bullets could hit those high notes again.