As Phil Chenier watched his friends and teammates from the best era of Bullets basketball receive the franchise's highest honor — the retirement of their jerseys — he forced himself not to wonder if he was next. First came Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes, inarguably the greatest players in franchise history. Gus Johnson was honored in 1986, and Earl Monroe in 2007. Chenier seemed like the next logical addition — a fact sometimes hinted at by his longtime friend and broadcast partner, Steve Buckhantz. He tried not to think about it.
"You have those moments where you put yourself in that situation, and then to fend off a certain amount of disappointment, you forget about it," Chenier said this week. "You say, 'Well, if it happens, it happens.' "
Now it will finally happen. The team announced Thursday that Chenier's No. 45 jersey will join Monroe's 10, Hayes's 11, Johnson's 25 and Unseld's 41 in the rafters at Capital One Arena, and on the wall of the team's practice court. The team broke the news to Chenier in a perfectly understated way, as he filmed a casual, back-and-forth conversation with guard Bradley Beal, with whom Chenier is close.
The duo were given cards with various topics to discuss; Beal had the last card, containing a question about how it would feel to have your jersey retired. Chenier said it would be a great honor to join his ex-teammates in the rafters, but that his time with the Wizards had yielded so many friends, so much travel, so many enriching experiences that he couldn't possibly consider his career unfulfilled. It was classic Chenier. Then Beal delivered the good news.
"And I kind of didn't hear anything after that," Chenier said. "I had to stop and say, 'Are you serious? Is this real?' "
It was, and it should be. His qualifications have long been without question. A gorgeous jump shooter who played the vast majority of his career before the three-point line existed, Chenier nevertheless remains sixth in franchise history in points scored. (John Wall will likely pass him this season.) He led the team in scoring twice and made three all-star teams when the Bullets were among the NBA elite. They made the playoffs in each of his eight full seasons, and Chenier averaged more than 18 points a game in the postseason, although he was injured when the team finally won its NBA title.
His 53 points against Portland in 1972 remains the highest total in a regulation game in franchise history. He twice finished in the top 12 of MVP voting. And Chenier is the only player other than Unseld who still ranks in the franchise's all-time top 10 in games, minutes, points, field goals, free throws, assists and steals.
"One of the top guards in all of basketball, if not the greatest one," Bullets GM Bob Ferry said in 1974.
"A dominant force," Dave Bing once called him.
"One of the biggest stars the Washington Bullets have ever had," The Post's David DuPree wrote after Chenier was traded.
"The best pure two-guard that has ever played in this organization, for sure," ex-teammate Kevin Grevey once said of Chenier.
His career was cut short early due to back injuries; he bounced around briefly after leaving the Bullets, retired at the age of 30 and returned to Columbia. But his contribution to the franchise had barely started. He soon became the team's first full-time color television analyst, at Home Team Sports and then CSN, morphing into about the only reassuring constant over the next three decades of Washington pro basketball. Generations who never even saw Chenier's silky game grew up with his calm demeanor, good humor and persistent smile, even when the basketball wasn't much to smile about.
"The guy deserves to be there in so many different ways," said Buckhantz, who remains one of Chenier's closest friends. "If you're going to pick someone because of the way they played, because of how synonymous they are with the team, because of the kind of human being they are, because of the kind of broadcaster they are, because of the kind of ambassador they are for the team, nobody deserves it more than him."
The honor will come in the first season after Chenier's role has finally changed. He will no longer be the team's primary game analyst this season, although he will appear on pre- and postgame studio shows, participate in some three-person booths, appear on Monumental Network programming and serve as an alumni ambassador.
(His replacement has not yet been named, but an announcement is expected soon. CSN auditioned potential replacements over the summer, and people familiar with the process have consistently identified Kara Lawson as a leading candidate.)
The news of Chenier's changing role prompted considerable dissent in the fan base last spring, and also renewed the calls for Chenier's jersey to be retired. And when Beal broke the news this week, Chenier could at last mull over an honor he had tried to ignore.
"It's a historical kind of recognition," he said. "And for years to come, that name, that number will be up there in the rafters. The grandkids will be able to see it, see their name up there, see the number. I'm with four Hall of Famers up there that were a great part of the history of this organization. So I'm just really terribly honored and excited about that. I don't think you compare accomplishments, but if you did, this would be certainly near the top, if not the top."
Not long after he found out, Chenier was talking to Buckhantz, and he joked that his longtime partner "was almost as excited as me." It's an exaggeration. But not a big one.
"To be truthful, I'm kind of beaming," Buckhantz said. "I feel like a proud father — and I have no kids — so I feel like a proud father that he's going in. I mean, it makes me really happy. He deserves it. He needs to have his number up there."