MIAMI — In the 36 hours leading up to Game 7 of the 1978 NBA Finals, Washington Bullets forward Bobby Dandridge said center Wes Unseld “rode shotgun with everybody,” vowing that he would grab every rebound and loose ball that he could. He also policed the team at its hotel before the game, telling Mitch Kupchak to get his nap in when he encountered the power forward getting ice.
“Everybody sort of saw a sense of sincerity in him at practice that day,” Dandridge said of Unseld in a telephone interview on Wednesday.
The Bullets followed Unseld’s lead and responded with a thrilling 105-99 victory that brought Washington its only professional basketball title and still serves, some 35 years later, as the last time a road team has won the seventh game of the NBA Finals.
Only four players on the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat — this year’s combatants — were alive when the Bullets stunned the SuperSonics and gleefully stormed off the court to celebrate shortly after Dandridge threw down the game-clinching dunk. Since then, the NBA has had five more Game 7s in the Finals, with the home team capturing all of them.
The home team has won 14 of the 17 Game 7s in NBA history. But following Miami’s dramatic 103-100 overtime victory in Game 6 on Tuesday, Heat superstar LeBron James is taking no comfort in what his predecessors have done in his situation.
“We can’t worry about what the history books say. That’s why it’s history,” said James, who didn’t play in a Game 7 in his three previous Finals appearances. “We have to live in the present. We have to live in the moment. And have to do whatever it takes to keep that trophy here in Miami.”
The Spurs’ Tim Duncan needed seven games to defeat the Detroit Pistons in 2005 and claim his third of four NBA titles, and he said he expects teammates Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to draw on their previous experience together when they encounter the same challenge, this time on the road. After the Spurs squandered a five-point lead with just 28.2 seconds remaining and punted away an opportunity to win another title in Game 6, Duncan said the team had a dinner that was therapeutic in helping the players put the game behind them.
“We’ll be ready to rock,” Duncan said. “We feel that obviously, we like our chances, and to be in this situation, a Game 7, we’re just going to leave it all out there and see what happens.”
In 1978’s final game, the SuperSonics had cut an 11-point lead down to four with less than two minutes remaining when Kupchak converted a huge three-point play to give the Bullets a 101-94 lead.
“The thing I remember most about that play was that Tommy Henderson dove on the floor and tipped the ball to me. But that to me was the big play. Tommy wasn’t known for diving on the floor,” Kupchak said with a laugh Wednesday during a telephone interview, “and he and I kidded about it in the past. It just shows you how much that game meant to everybody.”
Seattle again got within two points when Paul Silas intentionally fouled Unseld, a woeful free throw shooter, and sent him the foul line. Unseld made both free throws, then grabbed a rebound and tossed the ball ahead to Dandridge for the finishing touches.
“Seeing Bobby make that last dunk shot and all of a sudden, waiting for that clock to run out. It seemed like it would never run out and then all of a sudden it’s over,” Elvin Hayes, who fouled out with just 12 points, said when the champion Bullets held a reunion at Verizon Center in April. “Out of all those years everything was compressed in you and compressed down, all of a sudden could be let loose and go. There was nothing like it.”
When reflecting on that title nearly two years ago, Irene Pollin remembered how her late husband, former Bullets owner Abe Pollin, was so elated with the victory that he bolted from his seat in the upper deck at to make it to the locker room and embrace his players, including Unseld, who was named Finals MVP. “He took off and left me sitting there,” Pollin said with a chuckle. “I said, ‘Abe.’ He forgot all about me.”
“You cannot underestimate how hard it is to make it to the Final. There are only two teams left and a lot of competitive owners and coaches and players and you may never do it again,” said Kupchak, now general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. “To me, I was just a young 24-year-old kid and I was beyond thrilled to be in the NBA Finals. Guys like Wes and Elvin, it was a little bit different for them.”
Dandridge, now 65, said he has had trouble staying up to watch the fourth quarters of the Spurs-Heat series with the games ending past midnight. But he is already prepared for Thursday’s Game 7: Like he did 35 years ago, Dandridge will take an afternoon nap before the game.
“I think that I’ll be up for this one,” Dandridge said, “because I think, this is probably going to be one of the best seventh games in the history of the league.”