Professional basketball was still relatively new to Washington in 1978, following the team’s relocation from Baltimore five years earlier. The NBA wasn’t yet an entertainment behemoth, two years removed from its merger with the ABA, one year away from Magic Johnson and Larry Bird beginning to “save” the league and six years before the drafting of Michael Jordan, who helped establish the NBA globally.
The Bullets played their home games in Landover; the team wouldn’t move to the District until 1997. Nevertheless, the city was thirsty for a winner: The Bullets had been swept in the NBA Finals in 1971 and 1975, and Washington hadn’t celebrated a title in a major sport since the Redskins won the NFL championship in 1942. Two Major League Baseball teams had abandoned the city in that time. Naturally, Pollin aimed to capitalize on the NBA Finals glory.
“This is what we needed to put us over the top,” Pollin said shortly after Washington’s Game 7 triumph at Seattle Center Coliseum. “We’ve brought the fans a championship, the first for Washington in 36 years. We’ve earned our credibility. I see nothing but good days ahead.”
A moment in the sun
Though the 40 years since that title have shown that nothing gold can stay, especially when it comes to Washington sports, the first few days after the Bullets returned from Seattle were indeed pretty darn good.
An estimated 8,000 fans greeted the team at Dulles, many of them in “Fat Lady” T-shirts and wigs, based on the proverb often recited by the team’s coach, Dick Motta, during the championship run. A day later, about 100,000 fans lined the team’s 11-mile parade route from Capital Centre in Landover to the District Building, the White House, the Capitol and RFK Stadium.
“The true Washingtonians, people who had lived there all their lives, they finally had something sports-wise to really be excited about,” Bob Dandridge said in March when his former teammates gathered for the 40th anniversary and Phil Chenier’s jersey retirement ceremony. “We went through very diverse neighborhoods. About every eight blocks, everybody had the opportunity to get a feel. No social group in the city was left out of feeling an active part of that championship, and I felt that was real special and unique planning. Before it was termed the DMV, that was our fan base. I feel like everybody felt a part of our championship.”
The Post’s Ken Denlinger wrote that, “Washington reacted just as expected to its first championship in 36 years, with the same small-townish enthusiasm and political overkill we see from a Portland or Milwaukee.”
“On every street, people just lined up, showing great love,” leading scorer Elvin Hayes recalled in March. “It was just really, truly amazing. Any time you close your eyes, you can see it.”
During the parade, the Bullets praised their fans.
“You pushed us,” Hayes said. “You people made us what we are.”
“We couldn’t have done this in an empty building,” Charles Johnson added.
Bullets President Jerry Sachs, addressing the crowd from the steps of the District Building, said: “This is the most exhilarating experience of our lives. Black, white, old, young, fat, skinny . . . everyone was along that ride. The Bullets are both proud and privileged that we can be a unifying force in the community.”
The Post’s editorial board agreed that the impact extended beyond sports:
The championship is a gift of particular value to a diverse, often divided community with not all that many recent triumphs to celebrate. . . . For the last couple of weeks, [the Bullets] have been giving cab drivers and politicians, bankers and government workers, and suburban and inner-city youths something nice to share. In a sprawling metropolitan area where there is so little sense of connection — Metro is almost the only other tie that binds — that is no small accomplishment.
“Coming back home as champions seemed to enlighten the people who followed the sport,” Finals MVP Wes Unseld said in March. “They seemed to be really hyped about what had just happened. It was a big thing in that I think the city needed it. I know we needed it as far as the organization was concerned.”
Credit had to go to the man atop that organization, the owner who helped transform the Washington sports scene, as Post sports columnist Thomas Boswell wrote after Pollin’s death in 2009.
“In the wake of the 1968 riots, and the District’s history of lost teams, you fled this city. You didn’t move to Washington,” wrote Boswell, who covered the Bullets’ championship parade. “But Abe Pollin did.”
‘Still a Redskins town’
While there have been plenty of memorable moments since 1978 and current Wizards cornerstone John Wall has praised Washington’s “amazing” home fans, some of the loudest cheers at Capital One Arena these days are reserved for opposing stars and free chicken sandwiches. Sellouts remain rare, which is nothing new. The Bullets averaged 10,891 fans at Capital Centre during their championship season, ranking in the middle of the then-22-team NBA.
The Bullets were aware of their standing in the D.C. sports hierarchy. Like the Senators and fledgling Capitals, they were almost always gazing up at the Redskins.
“[Before Game 7,] we said, ‘You know, guys, if we win this game, we can take over this town from the Redskins,’ ” Hayes said. “Because the Redskins were everything. Everyone loved ’em. I loved ’em. But it was our moment in the sun.”
“The true basketball fans were the ones that were excited, the people who had followed the Bullets for years,” Dandridge added. “For that moment, we had broken the hold that the Redskins had and even the politicians had. We were the toast of the town at the time.”
The moment wouldn’t last.
“A lot of our fans became fans on June 7, when we won the title,” one player told The Post in September 1978. “They got on the bandwagon, and they will get off it the first chance they have. This is still a Redskins town.”
Indeed, the turnout at Dulles Airport after Game 7 was a stark contrast to the scene at BWI five days earlier, after the Bullets returned from Seattle trailing three games to two.
“We figured the [Game 5] loss would cut the crowd from 2,000 to 200,” Emmett Dye, a fan who made the trek from Annandale, Va., told The Post in 1978. “We got up at 4 a.m. and got to the airport at 5:30. Well, the crowd wasn’t 2,000. Or 200. It was two: my son and I.”
Pollin didn’t raise ticket prices the year after the championship, and the season ticket-holder base jumped from about 4,000 to 6,000.
“Things are better than they have ever been, but not as good as I had hoped,” Pollin said before the 1978-79 season. “Am I frustrated? No, I think ‘disappointed’ is a better word. . . . From what happened to us after the title — the parades, the celebrations, the awards — I thought we had won over the town. I don’t know what else we can do. We won a title for them but, so far, the enthusiasm has not turned into concrete examples of support. Others in the league are shocked and astounded at our situation.”
Washington posted the best record in the league in 1978-79, and attendance picked up in the second half of the season. The Bullets averaged 12,789 fans at Capital Centre, the most in the six-year history of the arena. By the 1980-81 season, they were averaging fewer than 10,000 fans.
Playoff success was elusive. After losing in the NBA Finals in five games in 1979, the franchise advanced to the second round of the playoffs only once more before 2005. During the lean years, Pollin marketed the opportunity to see stars from opposing teams in an effort to sell tickets, which contributed to Washington-area fans growing up cheering for the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics or Chicago Bulls.
To those involved, it was a surprising turn after the 1978 title run.
“It was always a Redskins town, but I think there was a better reception of the team after 1978,” said Chenier, who spent 33 years as the team’s primary TV analyst beginning in 1984. “This was a championship squad. It definitely had a carry over, and I think the fans and the players had an extra urge and feeling of confidence.”
For Kevin Grevey, who started in place of the injured Chenier during the Bullets’ title run, the reception from Bullets fans in the weeks after Washington returned from Seattle was life-altering. The former Kentucky standout originally had plans to return to Lexington, Ky., to take classes and work out with the Wildcats, as he had every summer of his NBA career.
“After we won a championship, that changed everything,” Grevey said in March. “I never saw the city embrace us the way they did that summer. Going around town and being an NBA world champion, I said, ‘Well, I don’t think I’m going back to Kentucky now.’ ”
Grevey stuck around and met his wife that summer. He opened his eponymous restaurant in Merrifield, Va., in 1979. Over the past four decades, Grevey, who retired from the NBA in 1985, has watched the Bullets and then the Wizards, as well as the Capitals and Nationals, fail in pursuit of their sport’s ultimate prize.
“I’m just waiting for one more of these championships,” said Grevey, whose restaurant closed in December 2016. “I was waiting for a championship run. I’d get a playoff share if any one of those damn teams would win because my restaurant would thrive.”
Grevey eventually made a similar decision to Pollin’s choice to market other team’s stars.
“We had to adopt other teams kind of like what these Washington fans would do,” he said. “We had the Bills in the NFL. We had a big Pittsburgh Penguins crowd come to Grevey’s. It’s business. I hate the Penguins, but I had to do it. We have great fans, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes they root for the other team.”
The same could be said of Washington basketball fans since that 1978 moment in the sun.
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