Just six weeks ago, they still were basically the Washington Bullets: slow, earthbound, mediocre, and decent but dull.
Now suddenly they're the Bol-ets: exciting, fast, high-flying and on the brink, perhaps, of being very good.
Amazing what one 7-foot-7 center and one little bald guard can do.
On the day Jeff Ruland broke his ankle in December, Manute Bol was just a giant curiosity, a future-file project, an NBA sideshow. And Leon Wood was a Philadelphia 76ers benchwarmer.
Now, in the words of Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry, Bol is "already the greatest shot-blocker in the history of the NBA" and "barring injury could end up the greatest defensive player who ever lived." Says Ruland: "Someday, he's going to block 1,000 shots in a year."
As for Wood, the flashy, daring former Olympian has averaged 18 points in just 24 minutes a game. He shaved his head the day his Philadelphia exile ended and has brought a smooth new look to the Bullets' back court ever since.
When Ruland left, the Bullets were struggling to be decent. "Now, there's no telling how far this team can go," says the all-star, ready to bring his 21 points, 12 rebounds and six assists a game back to the lineup.
To be a Bullet these days is to get very happy every time you imagine the future. And get very angry every time you think about the present.
The Bullets, to a man, are mad because so few folks come to see them. For instance, only 7,038 people saw Bol block 15 shots (the second-highest total in NBA history) against Atlanta. That's a pretty pathetic crowd for a Saturday night against a .600 opponent.
"My God, what are we supposed to do?" grumbled Ruland after the Bullets won their fourth straight and sixth of seven. "If this isn't an exciting team now, what do people want?
"I hear all the same reasons you used to hear for why Washington had bad baseball crowds -- stadium location, transportation, always some new excuse. It amazes me people are doing so much to try to get a baseball team back. If we could just get some of that support for a team that already exists."
The genial Bol says it more touchingly: "Right now in Washington, we don't have many friends coming to see us."
This seems to make the great Bol-Tender sad -- an unworthy sight. "Manute is so pure," says Ferry, laughing. "He makes no distinction between fans and friends."
Coach Gene Shue has the total picture in the best focus: "This whole team is making a changeover and it's happening very fast . . .
"We've gone from being maybe the worst shot-blocking team in the NBA just two years ago to being the best ever now. People just haven't caught on yet. I think the fans are missing a lot . . .
"Now, the whole team is into blocking shots, going for the steal, running, scrapping. And I'm into those things, too."
Wood epitomizes the new excitment. Freed from the prison of the pine, he's playing like a man with the chance of a lifetime. "Basically, it's just my personality to have fun and try to get the fans into it. If that means jumping up and down, I'll do it," he says. "I don't want people just to look at my talent. I want them to see a guy having a great time. Some people work 9 to 5 and don't add anything to it. So, it's boring. I want to do something interesting or exciting in that two hours."
Wood may be the new catalyst, but Bol is the new foundation. His recently discovered stamina (33 minutes a game), durability and toughness have transformed the way the Bullets conceptualize their play. "If he stays healthy, he's going to be a force in this league for at least 10 years," says Ferry. "And that's if he never gains another pound or becomes an offensive (scoring) threat."
If he does get stronger, or gets his practice-court touch going in games, "then it's all over," says Ruland.
Not long ago, the Bullets were built around the Bruise Brothers -- Ruland and Rick Mahorn. They didn't play below the rim; they played below the net as they bumped and butted for position.
Now, the Bullets seem a cinch to break the NBA record for blocks per game. Old mark: 8.5; Bullets' pace: 9.0. "We'll blow it outta the water," says Ruland, laughing. Bol alone has averaged 6.9 blocks in his 22 starts -- light-years ahead of the NBA record pace (5.56).
For comparison, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is 7-3, has blocked three shots a game in his career, and Ralph Sampson, 7-4, swatted two per game last year. Sure, Bol is taller. But he's also gifted and -- no snickering -- graceful.
"He is an athlete. Look at his footwork. It's marvelous," says Ferry. "Manute is devastating defensively in the paint, but he's also out there blocking jumpers and three-pointers. No big man has ever had his range. Everybody's looking for him every minute."
"Hell, they're still looking for him after they come out of the game," says Ruland, telling a favorite story. "You see guys back on the other team's bench still looking over their shoulder and giving head fakes."
Says Ferry: "I would pay a whole lot of money if anybody could find a man 7-foot-7 anywhere in the world who's anywhere near as good an athlete. I bet Manute's the best 7-7 athlete who ever lived."
All this Manute Madness gets Shue to giggling like a kid. "It causes a helluva lot of excitment within the team and in the crowd when you block 12 or 15 shots in one game, keep them all in bounds and run the break off 'em. Now that's got to be a fun game."
In the last two years, three huge leapers have joined the Bullets' front court -- Dan Roundfield, who once erased 176 shots in a year; Cliff Robinson, who's also gone over 100 in a season, and 6-9 Charles Jones, who's one of the best half-dozen rejecters (per minute) in the NBA. Add defensive star Dudley Bradley and the 6-10 Ruland to the pot and you have a team that might average double-figure in-your-faces.
The most delighted Bullet of all is the characteristically stoic 250-pound Ruland.
"This is the way I hoped it would work out from Day One. My forte is power forward, not center," says Ruland, who'll be delighted to step aside for Bol. "Manute and I complement each other perfectly. I can get the defensive rebounds when he roams. If I get posted down low, he can still block my man's shots behind me.
"On offense, I can still work in the low post. And I'll be looking for him. I should be able to get him some easy shots," says the slick passer.
Actually, the two played together for six games before Ruland's injury. The Bullets' only loss came in overtime to Philadelphia after Bol fouled out.
Back then, of course, one of the players deep on the 76ers' bench was Wood.
When Shue thinks of all the new substitution combos and strategies at his disposal, he says: "The next 10 games should really be interesting. We have a lot of meshing to do."
Then Shue gets that silly excited tone in his voice, the one that's been there ever since Bol blossomed, Wood arrived and Ruland said he'd return. "I think," Shue says, "that this is all going to work out just fine."