For the past 35 years, a well-dressed, stumpy man with a full, organic mustache has owned the same model of championship ring worn by Hall of Famers Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. Gold-embossed — replete with Dick Motta’s “The Fat Lady Sings” quote engraved on one side and the NBA logo of Jerry West squeezed between 19 and 78 on the other side — the ring was given back to the man by his son last week in anticipation of the Bullets’ title reunion Saturday night.
“I really haven’t worn it over the years,” Dolph Sand said. “It didn’t feel right, you know, someone like me wearing an NBA championship ring. I mean, I was cut from my high school team my sophomore year. Hell, I’m a 5-foot-7 Jewish lawyer.”
Oh, Dolph has a much more prominent distinction: He has worked for the Bullets/Wizards for 41 years. No team employee has seen more losses, more draft busts and more basketball carnage, in general, than Dolph.
Which either makes him loyal or masochistic, we’re not sure.
“How do you say, ‘I can’t believe we haven’t been [to the NBA Finals again]?’ Because I’ve been there for the 35 years, watching,” Dolph said, a bit wistfully.
He has lived half his life since Washington was last champion of the basketball world. Dolph is now 70. Still waiting. Still echoing the credo of the beaten-down legions.
“It’s disappointing, but every year starts out and you say, ‘We’re going to be better.’
We’re going to be better. Every year since 1978 — 1,634 losses later.
“Ow,” he says.
Dolph knows pain. He has outlasted Big Wes, Susan O’Malley, two arenas, the team’s original name and your Wizards’ official 2009-10 marketing slogan, “Determined to Deliver,” which was catchy if only Gilbert Arenas and Javaris Crittenton didn’t take the “Deliver” part to mean firearms to the locker room.
Dolph survived a 23-year stretch in which the franchise either didn’t go to the playoffs or failed to win a first-round series. Don’t even get us started on the litany of bad players: LaBradford Smith, Darvin Ham, Don MacLean, Ladell Eackles and Peter “Party” John Ramos.
You probably don’t know Dolph. But you have seen him on television during a cut-away from Bernard King or Gheorghe Muresan or Wes mumbling into the microphone.
Tufted hair, eyebrows, bushy ’70s ’stache, plaid-gray designer suit over a Ralph Lauren polo, black Ferragamo loafers, Dolph could be a shorter Omar Sharif or that character actor you definitely saw on Broadway in something 20 years ago. But other than lording over the locker room during interviews or always looking busy, even Dolph is unclear of his actual job description.
When the team had just one media-relations person, Dolph was said to be the assistant to the PR director. “One year I was ‘Game Night Host.’ They just kept making stuff up,” he said.
When the late Abe Pollin asked him how many years he had worked for him seven years ago, Dolph replied, “34 years, Mr. Pollin.”
“Then I owe you 34 dollars,” Mr. P said, smiling.
The Senators inadvertently got him the job. After baseball left Washington for the second time, WWDC-AM was without a team to cover. So the station picked up the Baltimore Bullets, who were moving south the next year. Johnny Holliday and Tony Roberts asked Dolph if he could provide them with statistics like he did for baseball.
“I said, ‘I’ve never done stats for basketball.’ They both said, almost simultaneously, ‘We’ve never broadcast basketball.’ That’s how I started.” (Yes, Dolph knew Johnny Holliday before he had ever announced a hoop game.)
He didn’t actually need the job; Dolph volunteered for his own pain.
Until his retirement two years ago, he was an employment lawyer. Once, on behalf of the FAA during the air-traffic controllers’ strike, he successfully argued before the federal labor relations’ authority that the striking controllers’ union should be decertified. “1981 was the peak of my legal career and I still worked for 27 more years, so what the heck?” he says, laughing.
Mostly, at least 41 times a year (Dolph says he has missed fewer than 10 games since 1972 including the bleeding ulcer that laid him up for two games three years ago) he’s the face that welcomes every visiting team or referee to Washington’s home court.
He calls Stan Love and Unseld his favorite franchise players because “they were the best human beings,” thinks Kevin Garnett is the biggest jerk in all his days and sincerely believed the Wizards were on the championship cusp again when Chris Webber and Juwan Howard were healthy. Dolph also had his heart broken by the Arenas era and how it ended.
“If he didn’t have that much talent, I wouldn’t be so mad at him. But he was so talented,” he says, shaking his head.
No regrets, spending all those nights with a team that hasn’t come remotely close to winning a title in 34 years?
“How many people get to do something like this? Spend time getting to watch the greatest athletes in the world play at least 41 games a year? How bad is that?” Dolph says, managing to fit in a “Have a good trip” to John Wall as Wall exits the locker room.
“This was always a hobby. I never wanted to be the general manager. I never wanted to be the PR director. I don’t collect coins, paper airplanes. I like this. When the game was over, I could go home. I didn’t have to live with it. It wasn’t my fault that we lost.”
Dolph is always even keel, no matter how bad or well the team is playing. The only time friends and associates remember him speechless and almost overcome with emotion was when former coach Eddie Jordan summoned him into his office prior to the Wizards leaving for Cleveland, Dolph’s home town, for a playoff series in 2006.
“Hey, Eddie. What’s up?” he said.
“Pack your bags, you’re coming to Cleveland with us.”
Forty-one years, 35 years without being able to take a picture beside a championship trophy again. Not one regret in the time invested?
He shakes his head again, no.
“Because you can’t look back. You gotta keep going. Whatever you’re doing, you gotta keep going.”
Four decades later, Dolph says, the rationale behind such dogged perseverance amid the losing is easy:
“Because I live across the street, I’m retired and I got nothing better to do,” he says.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.