The most impressive team accomplishment of their professional careers, the championship that put the 1978 Washington Bullets in select company among the all-time greats, was recognized 35 years later and fellow Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes were asked to reflect on its significance for a franchise that has since experienced a few lean decades.
“I got to sit here next to him,” Unseld said with a grin, extending his cane to take a step toward a lectern where Hayes was already seated. “We do not like each other.”
Hayes cracked a smile. Unseld later discussed the magical season in which the duo led the Bullets to the NBA title and gave him a memory that was nothing close to what he had envisioned for a championship celebration.
Unseld always assumed that the champagne shower would be overwhelming, the party unforgettable. But after the Bullets defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in Game 7, all Unseld wanted to do was sleep. The late Abe Pollin had come to give him a hug but Unseld grabbed the giddy team owner by shoulders, and used him as a prop to simply stay upright.
“I was physically gone,” Unseld recalled on the night that the Washington Wizards recognized the only team in franchise history to bring a championship title to the city. “My wife told me, I went back to the bed and that was it. I don’t remember anything until the next morning.”
Unseld got a chance to relive that feeling Saturday, when images of that incredible run through San Antonio, Philadelphia and Seattle were flashed on the high-definition jumbo screen and fans had a chance to pay homage to the team, which was reunited and honored over two nights of festivities.
A new, larger championship banner was lifted at halftime of a game that the current Wizards won easily, 104-85, over the visiting Indiana Pacers, as John Wall scored a game-high 37 points. Unseld was the last player to enter the court to a standing ovation during the halftime ceremony and fans had the chance to applaud Irene Pollin, Abe’s widow, and their sons, Robert and Jim; former coach Dick Motta, former general manager Bob Ferry, and players Elvin Hayes, Bobby Dandridge, Phil Chenier, Phil Walker, Greg Ballard, Joe Pace, Larry Wright, Kevin Grevey, Tom Henderson, former trainer John Lally, and former executive vice president Jerry Sachs.
“When you look at it, there haven’t been many teams that have won an NBA championship,” Hayes said. “So whenever you have won one of those championships, that’s something no one can take away from you. . . . That sets you apart.”
The Bullets reached the NBA Finals the next season, but have won just two playoff series since. Wall played Saturday night as if he were keenly aware of this fact, and though it’s too late for a postseason this season, he was nothing short of spectacular against the playoff-bound Pancers.
He dominated with blazing speed and athleticism, scoring 26 points in the first half on 12-of-15 shooting, making shots from almost every angle – over the shoulder, off the wrong foot, fadeaways – and even recording a blocked shot on Pacers 7-foot-2 center and former Georgetown star Roy Hibbert.
The importance of the evening was not lost on Wall before the game.
“It’s a big honor. The only championship that this organization has won, so you’ve got to give a lot of respect to those guys,” said Wall, who got to meet with Hayes before the game. “You don’t want to lose on this type of night, when a team like that is getting recognized. You got to show a lot of love and support.”
The Wizards (29-47) improved to 24-19 since Wall returned from a stress injury in his left knee and have now won nine consecutive home games. They avoided a sweep against the Pacers, who rank third in the Eastern Conference and are competing with the New York Knicks for the second seed. Coach Randy Wittman has encouraged his players to push for a ninth-place finish — they trail Philadelphia by two games for the spot with six to play.
Hayes and Unseld had differing opinions on what the late run means.
“In the long run, what good does it do you?” Hayes asked at halftime.
Said Unseld: “This is where he and I disagree. Always try to win. They’ve got a few players back. Winning breeds an atmosphere that they’re going to need come next year. ”