They weren’t supposed to go very far in the playoffs. They had been bounced in the first round the previous two years and had finished the regular season with 44 victories, seven fewer than their average of the previous five campaigns. What’s more, after beating Atlanta in a best-of-three mini-series, they faced the daunting task of beating the splendiferous San Antonio Spurs and the powerhouse Philadelphia 76ers just to get to their third NBA finals in eight years.
And yet, 35 years ago tonight, the Washington Bullets won the only championship of the franchise’s 52 seasons, beating the Super Sonics 105-99 in Game 7 in Seattle. Appropriately, the clinching points were scored by center Wes Unseld, the Bullets’ captain and longest-tenured player. With All-Star guard Phil Chenier injured, only Unseld and All-Star forward Elvin Hayes remained from the team that had been stunningly swept in the 1975 finals by Golden State, echoing the sweep that Unseld and Co. had suffered at Milwaukee’s hands in 1971.
“Like the Capitals now, we had had all these disappointments in the playoffs,” said Kevin Grevey, who replaced Chenier at shooting guard. “It was painful my first two years when we lost a Game 7 to Cleveland and when we should’ve gone up 2-0 on the road against Houston. Wes had gone to the [finals] twice and had been swept. Elvin really needed a championship to solidify him as the great player he was. Pretty much every guy on that team had things he had to overcome. ”
Jerry Sachs, who had been the Bullets’ general manager until moving to executive vice president in favor of Bob Ferry in 1973, said that the addition of two veteran players made all the difference.
“In the summer of ’77, Bob said, ‘In order for us to get to the finals, we’re going to have to beat Philadelphia and somehow neutralize Julius Erving and there’s one guy I know that can do this: Bobby Dandridge in Milwaukee and I think he’s available,’ ” Sachs recalled. “[Bullets owner Abe Pollin] called the owner of the Bucks, Jim Fitzgerald. They came to an agreement, but before the trade went through, Fitzgerald called back and said, ‘We’ve got a better offer for Dandridge.’ Everyone’s stomach turned over. But then he said, ‘You’re an honorable guy and I am as well and I’m going to stay with our deal.’ “
Coach Dick Motta, then in his second season in Washington after a successful but title-less run in Chicago, said that Dandridge had always been “a pain in the butt” when his Bulls had faced the Bucks.
Then, In January, with Chenier down and out and Grevey and point guard Tom Henderson also hurt, the Bullets badly needed a guard.
“Bob said there was this kid that had played for the Warriors named Charles Johnson who could do the job,” Sachs said. “CJ asked when we wanted him in Washington and Bob said, ‘Tonight. We’re desperate.’ So CJ flew to Dulles and [we borrowed] a helicopter to fly him to the parking lot at Capital Centre. He played that night and really made a tremendous difference, not only filling in on the floor, but as a great leader in the locker room. He was a really inspirational sort of guy. Those two moves were absolutely critical in us going all the way.”
Even with Dandridge joining bedrocks Unseld and Hayes up front and Johnson providing a spark behind Henderson and Grevey in the backcourt, Sachs “wasn’t confident” that the 1978 playoffs would be that special. But Motta knew his team had unusual depth, thanks in part to the injuries which had given the backups more minutes.
“Any team that had Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld had to whet anyone’s appetite,” Motta said. “If I were the [current NBA champion] Miami Heat, I wouldn’t want to play Elvin, Bobby, Wes, Mitch Kupchak, Tommy Henderson and Kevin Grevey in their primes. We were a blue-collar team. We were nine deep [with rookie forward Greg Ballard and second-year guard Larry Wright the other leading reserves]. Those guys came through [off the bench] whenever I called on them.”
Kupchak hit a big 15-footer to help tie the San Antonio series 1-1 heading back to Washington. Johnson and Wright made huge baskets to help the Bullets win both home games, but Motta cautioned, “The Opera Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Lady Sings.” That became the motto the rest of the way for the Bullets, who ousted the Spurs in six games and did the same to the Sixers after dedicating the playoffs to beloved public relations director Marc Splaver, who died of leukemia the day of Game 2 of the Philadelphia series.
The finals began in Seattle, Washington’s third straight series start on the road.
“Winning Game 1 was huge,” maintained Motta, who at 81 owns a bed and breakfast in Idaho. “The Bullets were 0-8 in championship series. There were scars in the organization. It even affected the secretaries. “
Before Game 5 in Seattle, Pollin and Sachs arranged for a 13-seat private plane to fly the team home that night so the players could sleep in their own beds. Washington lost 98-94 to fall behind 3-2 but then responded with a series-tying 117-82 rout in Game 6 at Cap Centre.
“We really felt like the series should’ve been over already,” Grevey said. “To a man, we were as angry as heck that we were gonna have to take this to seven games. We thought Atlanta, San Antonio and Philadelphia were all better than Seattle.”
Motta made sure that the Sonics knew it, too.
“We were killing ‘em by about 30 points when I called timeout with three or four minutes to go,” Motta remembered. “That’s the only time I didn’t take my starters out in that situation. I told the players, ‘Let’s send ‘em back to Seattle with their tails between their legs.’ “
The Sonics were still in that position when Washington led Game 7 by 13 points as the fourth quarter began, but they were within three when Henderson dived between Seattle big men Paul Silas and Jack Sikma and knocked a loose ball to Kupchak for a late three-point play. Having already missed five of 10 free throw attempts, Unseld – one of six Bullets in double figures — sank two with 12 seconds left to seal it.
“I never had Heineken that tasted so good,” Grevey said, recalling that the Bullets lacked champagne with which to celebrate. “I stayed up all night calling my parents, my brothers, my sister, a couple of my [ex-teammates, a couple of neighbors. I had lost a championship in high school. I had a lost a championship in college. I wanted one so bad.”
The Bullets won 54 games the following year but were injury-riddled in the finals rematch against the Sonics and lost 4-1. Washington has won just two series in the ensuing 34 seasons, missing postseason 20 times.
“It absolutely makes that championship so special,” said the 77-year-old Sachs, who lives in the area and treasures his championship ring.
Both are also true of the 60-year-old Grevey.
“It’s unbelievable that that’s the franchise’s only championship,” he lamented. “We were the standard-bearer. We raised the bar for the rest of the league. We were the best-run franchise. We had a great owner, a great general manager and unbelievable fans.”
And for one incredible spring, the NBA’s best team.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin