During its 51 seasons, the local NBA franchise has employed hundreds of players. Only four have had their jerseys retired. Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes, Gus Johnson and the short-tenured but supremely talented Earl Monroe deserved that honor, but there’s a major void in the Verizon Center rafters.
Phil Chenier’s No. 45 jersey should be hanging there, too. A member of the 1972 All-Rookie Team, Chenier was a three-time All-Star, one of the smoothest jump shooters in NBA history, a fine defensive performer and, most important, the only player in franchise history to rank in the top 10 in games, points, assists, steals, baskets, free throws and scoring average.
What’s more, the Bullets never missed the playoffs during his eight full seasons (1972-79), winning their lone title and reaching two of their other three finals. And Chenier, like Unseld, remained a franchise fixture after his retirement, one that happened at 31 because of a bad back that ruined his final four years. This season is Chenier’s 27th calling the team’s games on television.
“I played with each of the guys whose jerseys are up there, so it would be a tremendous honor to be included with them,” said Chenier, who had to be coaxed into discussing the topic. “When I played and I was healthy, I felt like I could play with anybody. I always felt like there was something that I could so, something that I could add, that would help impact the game.”
The 61-year-old Chenier began working on his game in his native Berkeley, Cal., often telling his university printing office employee mother and canning plant worker father that he was going to the library instead of his true destination: the park across the street, the one whose basketball courts were lit after dark.
“We’d play one-on-one full-court and I’d practice certain moves, like a strong dribble to the left or the right and then shoot the pull-up jumper,” Chenier recalled. “You had to learn how to shoot off the run and stop, plant and shoot. You’ve gotta make your moves instinctive. The first guy who I really wanted to shoot like was Jim Tolliver, who played for McClymonds High School in Oakland. Then I watched guys like (future Bullets teammate) Dave Bing and Earl and tried to incorporate some of their moves. (Hall of Famer) Jerry West was another guy who I tried to pattern my game after because we were the same height and body type.”
After starring at Cal, his hometown school which he chose over perennial national champion UCLA, Chenier left college a year early as part of the NBA’s first hardship draft class in 1971.
“I had just watched the Bullets in the finals and now I’m playing with these guys,” Chenier marveled. “They were still in double (practices) when I got to camp (after lengthy contract negotiations) and (coach) Gene Shue ran me the whole day. It was like I hit the ground running. I can’t say enough about the way the older guys looked out for me, particularly Earl and then, after he was traded, Gus. It really helped me to be around people like Wes, Gus and John Tresvant. They were professionals and I molded myself based on what I saw from them.”
Chenier was a star from the start, but he wasn’t a finished product.
“I used to shoot kind of a line drive jump shot,” Chenier said. “Gene taught me the idea of stepping into my shot, the idea of putting a little more arc on the shot because you’re playing against bigger, stronger guys.”
And despite his immediate success, Chenier often suffered from self-doubt.
Recalled Chenier, “Whenever I would go through bad stretches, (general manager Bob Ferry) would tell me, ‘You’re our guy, Phil. We trust you. We depend on you. Don’t get down on yourself. You’ve just gotta put in some extra time.’ Bob was always encouraging me.’ “
As painful as Washington being swept by the underdog Golden State Warriors in the 1975 finals was for Bay Area native Chenier, not feeling a part of the 1978 championship team because of his season-ending back injury hurt even more.
“I got a championship ring, but I felt totally separated from the rest of the team because I wasn’t out there on the floor,” lamented Chenier, who flew to Seattle for Game 7 on a fan charter instead of the team plane. “For whatever reason, I didn’t sit on the bench for that game. When I got to the locker room, the guys were all jumping up and down and hugging each other and dripping in champagne. I just didn’t feel like I belonged. I went back to the hotel, got my things and took a flight back to the Bay Area. I was happy for my teammates, but I was really crushed that my body had failed me and that I wasn’t able to be a part of that experience. I did a lot of crying, a lot of self-pitying. Then you stop and think about all the guys who tried out and got cut, the guys who played in the league and never got to the playoffs, the guys who never got to the finals so who am I to cry about this? But there’s still kind of a void for me.”
And nearly 33 years after he stroked his last jumper for Washington, it’s time to fill that void at Verizon Center by retiring Chenier’s No. 45 and hanging it alongside Unseld’s No. 41, Hayes’ No. 11, Johnson’s No. 25 and Monroe’s No. 10 so that the current Wizards and their successors don’t repeat one of their predecessors’ comment to the bald guy describing their games on television: “I didn’t realize you played here.”
Chenier played here all right. And few have played better.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March.