Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the hotel at which former Baltimore Bullets players gathered after games. It was the Pimlico Hotel, not the Piblimo Hotel. This Version has been corrected.
Back when the Washington Wizards were called the Bullets and played in Baltimore, Phil Chenier always could tell the magnitude of the game by the way flamboyant teammate Gus Johnson chose to arrive.
Johnson, the Hall of Fame forward and one of four players in franchise history with a retired jersey hanging at Verizon Center, was a colorful character with a high-flying game, a high fashion sense and a custom black Cadillac with leather interior, a TV set, a bird hood ornament and personalized Maryland plates that simply said, “Gus.”
“He’d have somebody drive, like we were being chauffeured, and we would ride around,” Chenier, now a Wizards television broadcaster for Comcast SportsNet, said with a chuckle.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the franchise’s move from Baltimore, where it spent 10 seasons, the Wizards are returning for an exhibition game against the New York Knicks on Thursday at Baltimore Arena. The matchup is significant for many reasons, given the bitter rivalry the Bullets once shared with the Knicks and the current presence of Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony, the New York forward who has yet to play an NBA game in his home town.
But for former Bullets like Chenier and Mike Riordan, the game also will give them a chance to reminisce about a time when they wore psychedelic orange and navy uniforms with curvy, horizontal lines on the left side; hoped to get lucky enough to show up to the arena and find a parking spot nearby on the street; had to take an elevator or the stairs down from a tiny locker room with six stalls to get to the court; and were so close to the fans in the tiny gym that they routinely held conversations.
“It was always a good basketball town,” Riordan, who played two of his six seasons with the Bullets in Baltimore, said recently. “It had a small-town feel to it but a big-time basketball feel to it. It was my baptism into basketball. I just had a real good experience here in Baltimore, and I’ve never forgotten it. I still enjoy this town more than I do D.C.”
Chenier, who was drafted by the Bullets in 1971, still recalls how players used to hang out after games at the lounge of the Pimlico Hotel or ate dinner at Sabatino’s in Little Italy. Chenier recently made a return trip to the arena in advance of the Wizards’ preseason game, and a lot of his memories came rushing back.
“It was my first introduction to the NBA. We had some good times in Baltimore, with my first two years, kind of growing up in that area,” Chenier said. “It was really exciting. That’s where I had my 53-point game — in Baltimore. [There] wasn’t many people there, but it was a great thing.”
Riordan grew up in New York and played for the Knicks until he was dealt to Baltimore for Hall of Fame guard Earl Monroe in 1971. The Monroe trade intensified one of the league’s fiercest rivalries; the Knicks and Bullets met every postseason from 1969 to 1974 and played each other at least six times every regular season.
Not long after Monroe was dealt, the late Abe Pollin, who had purchased the team for $1 million in 1964, had begun to eye a move to suburban Washington, where the team would be called the Capital Bullets in its first season (1973-74). The players were informed well in advance of Pollin’s plans to take the team down the road to Landover and a new arena, which didn’t officially open until Dec. 2, 1973, with a win over the Seattle SuperSonics.
Most of the players and coaches, including K.C. Jones and Bernie Bickerstaff, took up residence in Columbia because it was in the middle and allowed them to stay in contact with the friends they had in Baltimore.
“It was kind of a natural progression, and it was very comfortable,” Chenier said of the move. “It was well planned. It was well thought out. Making the change over here was kind of natural. That’s what Abe wanted to do. That was something that you were prepared for. I think the transition was good, actually going into the District.”
For Riordan, however, the move was difficult in the beginning. “It was strange for us because we had built up such a fan base in Baltimore,” said Riordan, who averaged 18.1 points in the final season in Baltimore. “Even though it was only 40 miles down the road, we felt like we were in a different environment and we had to start all over again. Basically, it was kind of like being traded again. But we adjusted to the whole thing.”
After the move, the Bullets played a few regular season games in Baltimore, and the franchise went on to regularly play exhibition games in its second home — but the Wizards haven’t been back since 2000. To Riordan and Chenier, the return is long overdue.
“Guys that played in Baltimore always had a bond with the fans here,” Riordan said. “And guys that played here still think of themselves as part of Baltimore.”