1977-78 Washington Bullets, NBA champions, to be honored
By Dave Sheinin,
Shortly after taking control of the Washington Wizards and Verizon Center in 2010, Ted Leonsis started asking team employees what he figured was an obvious question with an easy answer: Where’s the trophy? But instead of a simple answer, all Leonsis got in return was a lot of puzzled looks, shrugged shoulders and I-don’t-knows. Nobody, it seemed, had any clue as to the whereabouts of the 1978 Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, symbolizing the lone NBA title in Bullets/Wizards franchise history.
But then, finally, there was a breakthrough. Someone recalled someone else saying sometime awhile back that Smokey Bowie, the late building manager/head engineer/jack-of-all-trades who had been with the franchise since the old Capital Centre days until passing away a few years ago, had at some point taken it home with him for safekeeping. And sure enough, a carload of team employees dispatched to Bowie’s old house found the trophy — scuffed up, tarnished and dented — at the bottom of a closet.
“They bring it in,” Leonsis recalled this week, “and it’s got dings in it, it’s matted, not shiny. My wife [Lynn] is best friends with the woman who runs Tiffany’s in Tysons Corner, so I asked her to look at it, and I said, ‘Look at this – this is what we spend a billion dollars over our lifetime to try to win, and it’s been sitting in someone’s closet. Can you fix it?’ It took about three months, but it came back perfect.”
The trophy – which former owner Abe Pollin had famously paraded through Dulles International Airport the day after Game 7 of the NBA Finals, after the team’s flight home from Seattle was met by some 8,000 delirious fans – now resides in a setting worthy of its beauty and import: on a pedestal, in a glass case near the main entrance to the arena. It is spot-lit and surrounded by memorabilia from the greatest season in franchise history.
The story of the 1978 championship trophy, in some ways, mirrors that of the 1977-78 Bullets championship team itself. In a town where the Redskins dominate the discourse, and where many fans can still recite the starting lineups of the 1982, 1987 and 1991 Super Bowl title teams, that Bullets team — which broke what was at the time a 36-year championship drought for the city’s sports franchises — has been buried for too long in D.C.’s figurative closet of history.
But that may be changing soon, too. This weekend, the Wizards are hosting a reunion of the 1977-1978 Bullets NBA championship team, with a private cocktail party and dinner Friday night, a Q-and-A session with season-ticket holders prior to Saturday night’s game against Indiana and a halftime ceremony featuring the unveiling of a new championship banner. Among the confirmed attendees are Irene Pollin, Abe’s widow; Dick Motta, coach of the championship Bullets; general manager Bob Ferry; and at least 10 players from that team, including 100 percent of the acclaimed frontcourt of Bobby Dandridge, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld. Fans in attendance will receive a replica of the 1978 championship ring.
One of D.C.’s greatest teams
Nothing like this has ever been done for that title team, according to Kevin Grevey, the smooth, lefty shooting guard who averaged 15.5 points per game in 1977-78 and who since 1979 has run Grevey’s restaurant and sports bar in Falls Church. After the 10-year anniversary passed in 1988 without a peep from the team, Grevey took it upon himself to organize a 20th anniversary dinner at his restaurant in 1998. But it wasn’t until the 25th anniversary in 2003 that the Wizards did so much as recognize the 1978 title team at halftime of a game.
Only now, 35 years after the title run, as memories have grown dimmer and their roster of the living has been reduced by one – guard Charles Johnson passed away in 2007 of cancer at the age of 58 — are the 1977-78 Washington Bullets getting their full due. Leonsis has made it part of his mission to reestablish the connection between the modern Wizards (the name was changed in 1997) and the great Bullets teams of the past, and the time has come to put the 1978 champs on a pedestal, to shine a spotlight down on one of the greatest sports teams in the city’s history.
“My hope through this reunion,” Dandridge said this week from his home in Norfolk, “will be that everybody reflects back and appreciates that we still have 11 guys around. That in itself is special. For me, I need to see everybody. I need to know how you’re doing, how’s the family, what are you doing these days — because now, at this time in our lives, it’s an even more special bond.”
“You get a little older,” said Phil Chenier, a three-time all-star guard on those Bullets teams, now a Wizards broadcaster, “and you start to really appreciate your past. We lost Charlie Johnson since the last [reunion]. It makes you start looking at things a little differently.”
Short shorts, tall afros
The spring of 1978 was the spring of “Bullets Fever” — the tune, penned by local musician Nils Lofgren, that became a ubiquitous presence on radio stations area-wide. It was the spring of “the opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings” – the phrase Motta borrowed from a San Antonio broadcaster and turned into a team slogan. It was the spring of bleary-eyed mornings – since most playoff games in that era were tape-delayed until 11:30 p.m. local time.
It was an era when the shorts were short and the afros were tall, when $5 could get a cash-strapped Georgetown student (such as a young Ted Leonsis) a round-trip bus ride to the Capital Centre in Landover, a ticket to the game and a hot dog.
The 1970s Bullets – who began the decade as the Baltimore Bullets, before being moved to Landover in 1973 — were one of the great teams of that era, having made the playoffs each season starting in 1968-69, with a pair of Finals appearances, both four-game losses, in 1971 and 1975. (They would lose in the finals yet again in 1979.) That 1977-78 team was supposed to have been built to win it all, after the signing of free agent Dandridge — who had won a title in Milwaukee in 1971, with the Oscar Robertson — and Lew Alcindor-led Bucks — but injuries at times left Motta with just seven healthy bodies and ultimately limited the Bullets to just 44 regular season wins.
“We all wanted it so badly,” Grevey recalled. “Wes had always come up short. Elvin had come up short. You can’t be considered a great player unless you win a championship . . . We talked about it all the time. Dick Motta talked about it. He knew this might have been the best assembled talent he’d ever had. We had a lot of belief, but not a lot of other people did.”
And then the Bullets, the third seed in the Eastern Conference, swept a best-of-three “mini-series” against Atlanta, and took down both the San Antonio Spurs (led by George “The Iceman” Gervin) and Philadelphia 76ers (led by Julius “Dr. J” Erving) in six games apiece. The NBA Finals against the Seattle Supersonics took a whopping 17 days to complete, start to finish --thanks to a scheduling conflict in Seattle with a mobile-home show that necessitated a bizarre 1-2-2-1-1 format, and a back-and-forth battle that pushed the series to a Game 7, on June 7, 1978 in Seattle.
In the locker room before Game 7, Hayes and Unseld, the Bullets’ veterans, called a team meeting. They were both 32 years old, looking out at a locker room in which seven of the other 10 players were 25 or younger. “We said, ‘We don’t have four or five more years – we have to do this now,’” Hayes recalled. “I think the guys looked into their hearts and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The tunnel from the locker room to the court at the Seattle Center Coliseum was unusually long, and Motta, now 81 and living in Idaho, can still feel the tension building with each step as the teams prepared to take the court. “I said to someone, ‘We should get some bottles with corks on them, capture the atmosphere in this building and sell it for five dollars a bottle.’”
The game was as tight as you might expect, ultimately turning on a three-point play by Bullets forward Mitch Kupchak with just under a minute to play. Unseld, a 53.8 percent free-throw shooter that season, nailed a pair of free throws to clinch the victory – still the last time a team has won Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the road – and set off a wild celebration that stretched from the court in Seattle to the streets of D.C.
“I know for myself, it’s a vivid picture in my mind,” said Hayes, the Hall-of-Fame forward now living outside of Houston. “I can constantly close my eyes and see it. I can see Kevin Grevey running off the court at the end of Game 7, and I can see Wes, after so many years of coming up short – I can see that great weight lifted off his shoulders. Just moments that will never part from your memory.”
Back in their victorious locker room, the Bullets players were disappointed to find no champagne, only beer and soda, waiting for them. So they made do with the beer and soda until it was time to head back to the hotel, whereupon a group of players demanded the bus stop at a liquor store. Out of the bus and into the store went Grevey and a half-dozen teammates, armed with Abe Pollin’s credit card.
“The guy at the liquor store is looking at us like we’re crazy,” Grevey recalled. “He says, ‘Are you guys that basketball team?’ I said, ‘Yes, we are – and we want all your champagne.’”
Suitably prepared to party, the Bullets did so through the night, then the next morning boarded their plane to Dulles – their sixth cross-country flight in 17 days.
The championship trophy got its own seat, as well as a starring role in the parade from Landover to the Capitol two days later, gleaming in the sun as if its shine would never fade.