The Seattle Supersonics and Washington Bullets share a special niche in the history of the NBA Finals
Like Frazier and Ali, Superman and Lex Luther, the Washington Bullets and Seattle SuperSonics will forever be linked in opposition – at least until the two teams win another title with someone else as the opponent.
In the 1977-78 and ’78-79 seasons, they met in the NBA Finals. The Bullets won the first year and the Sonics the second, giving each franchise its first and only NBA championship.
The story begins with a coaching change.
K.C. Jones, one of the most popular coaches in the history of the Washington franchise, was known for trusting players, giving them a lot of freedom and never embarrassing them. That style got the Bullets to the NBA Finals in 1975, but, after his third season in 1975-76, the easygoing Jones was replaced by the man with the iron fist – Dick Motta.
The move signaled a new era in Bullets basketball.
It was a new day in the nation’s capital and the players, standoffish at first, slowly adapted to Motta’s style and won the NBA championship in only his second season with the team. However, it wasn’t the smoothest of transitions for the new coach.
The Bullets were comfortable doing things in Jones’ system, and star Elvin Hayes even threatened to retire rather than play for Motta. Motta demanded a lot from all of his players, but respect grew and they adjusted. He was able to convince center Wes Unseld from the start that he knew the way to win. Together, they were able to convince Hayes that if he wanted to be known as a great player, he had to win a championship and Motta’s way was the best way to accomplish that task.
The fact that the Bullets retained Bernie Bickerstaff as an assistant coach also was key. At first, the players felt betrayed by management because the popular Jones had been replaced. But, keeping Bickerstaff meant the players were able to stomach the change more easily. Motta also incorporated some of Jones’ old plays into his offense and, seeing his willingness to adapt, the players were able to meet him halfway.
In the ’77-78 season, Motta made two moves that proved critical to the team’s success. Having already successfully built the team around Unseld’s crunching picks and Hayes’ ability to score against anyone, Motta knew some things were missing. He needed a couple more players to tie it all together.
One of those players was Bob Dandridge, one of the wiliest and most underrated players in NBA history. Motta had coveted him for a long time, so when he signed the Milwaukee Bucks’ high scorer as a free agent, it was a major coup.
“He was so smart it was ridiculous,” said Motta. “He was a coach on the floor. He knew the game at both ends of the floor and he always made the right decisions. You just felt confident and comfortable with him on the floor.”
With Dandridge at small forward, Motta moved Kevin Grevey, who was playing out of position at small forward, to shooting guard. Everything jelled. Well, almost everything. The last player missing was a veteran guard to provide a little more leadership and to anchor the bench. The man chosen was Charles Johnson. He had been the starting point guard on the 1975 Golden State Warriors championship team and was also one of those players whom everyone loved having as a teammate.
The Bullets finished the regular season with only a 44-38 record, third best in the Eastern Conference. There was hardly any indication that they were a championship team. They got by the Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs in the first two rounds, but were overwhelming underdogs against the mighty Philadelphia 76ers in the Conference Finals.
The 76ers, with Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Darryl Dawkins, World B. Free and Doug Collins, had all of the individual talent in the world, but the undaunted Bullets beat them with guile.
It was during this title run that Motta popularized the phrase, "The opera ain’t over ‘til the fat lady sings.” Every time the experts predicted doom for his Bullets, Motta wheeled out the fat lady phrase and his Bullets responded.
Washington just took the ball right at the Sonics in the Finals. Unseld would set those massive picks and Dandridge, Hayes and Tom Henderson would slash to the basket.
“That’s our game,” said Motta. “Hayes and Dandridge going off tackle. People know where we’re going. They’re just going to have to stop us.”
The Bullets won the first game and felt immediate relief.
“I played on the team that was swept in the Finals by Milwaukee in 1971 and the team that was swept by Golden State in 1975, so my experiences in the Finals weren’t that memorable,” said Unseld. “Shoot, I was glad when we won one game. That was a first for me. The rest was easy compared to that, because that monkey was off our backs.”
Dandridge knew why the Bullets wanted him in the first pace and he fit the role perfectly.
“We were a smart team and we never got flustered or frustrated,” said Dandridge, who played on the 1971 Bucks team that had beaten the Bullets. “We were on a mission and we knew what we had to do and we knew how to do it.”
Phil Chenier, currently the television broadcaster for the Wizards (as the Bullets are called now), also played on the two Bullets teams that were swept by the Bucks and Warriors.
“Nobody wants to lose, but when you get swept, it really leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” he said. “It took us a couple of years to get back to the Finals, but we were determined not to let what had happened the two previous times affect us.”
Just because the Sonics had never been to the Finals before didn’t mean they weren’t just as motivated as the Bullets.
“We wanted to win so badly and got so swept up in the whole thing that we didn’t always do what we were supposed to do,” said Sonics guard Slick Watts.
The teams alternated wins the first six games and Game 7 was played in Seattle. Dennis Johnson had a nightmarish 0-for-14 shooting effort and Gus Williams missed 8-of-12 shots as the Bullets capitalized to win their first title, 105-99, with Unseld voted as the Finals MVP.
Things were different the following season, however.
The Bullets had basically the same team both years. The veteran frontline of Hayes, Unseld and Dandridge, guards Henderson, Johnson and Larry Wright, forward Greg Ballard, swingman Grevey and center/power forward Mitch Kupchak were all on the team again.
The Sonics were still led by their three-guard rotation of Dennis Johnson, Gus Williams and Fred Brown, with Jack Sikma as the main man inside. However, there was a key addition for ’78-79 – muscle man Lonnie Shelton.
The Sonics certainly didn’t like the way the previous season had ended – especially Johnson. They felt that they got no respect in 1978 and they were determined to get it in 1979.
Even before the playoffs started, Brown made this colorful prediction: “It all boils down to us against Washington one more time … I think it will be wild and picturesque all over again.”
Indeed, it was.
The Bullets rolled to an NBA-best 54-28 regular season record and felt they had a strong chance to become the first team to repeat as NBA champions since the Celtics had done it 10 years earlier.
“Everyone says it’s harder to repeat as champion than it is to win it for the first time. That’s right, but you also go into the season after you won it with a lot of confidence. You know you’re the best team and you know that everybody else knows it, too,” said Dandridge.
Seattle coach Lenny Wilkens knew he had to do something different to compete with the Bullets the second time around.
Prior to the ’78-79 season, Wilkens had brought in Paul Silas and his championship attitude – Silas had won championships with the Boston Celtics in ’74 and ’76 – and his determination had a positive effect on the Sonics.
“Look anywhere on our team and you’ll see Paul’s influence,” said Wilkens.
But the Sonics lost center Marvin Webster to the New York Knicks as a free agent prior to ’78-79 and his back up, Tom LaGarde, was injured most of the season, so Wilkens made two key moves. He moved Sikma from the power forward slot to center and brought in the burly Shelton to offset Unseld inside.
Both teams had first-round byes. In the second round, the Sonics beat the Lakers in five games and were pushed to seven by Phoenix before getting back to the NBA Finals.
The Bullets, meanwhile, looked old and tired and were pushed to seven games by both Atlanta and San Antonio.
“I know what Vince Lombardi meant when he said to get there is tough; to stay there is tougher,” said Motta.
Hayes agreed. “It was all so different than it had been the previous time,” he said. “The mental part got to us. Everyone was after us. Trying to defend the title was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
The Bullets won Game 1, 99-97 at home, when Wright made a pair of free throws with no time left on the clock after he was fouled by Dennis Johnson. Was it going to be another nightmare NBA Finals for Johnson?
No way. This wound up as Johnson’s series. He scored 19 points and had nine rebounds and two blocked shots in a 10-point Game 2 win and the Sonics went on to win four in a row to clinch their first NBA title. Johnson had 32 points and four blocked shots – the last one with three seconds left – in a 114-112 overtime win in Game 4. The Sonics wrapped up the series with a 97-93 win in Game 5.
“That first year we were just overmatched,” said Wilkens. “Washington was big, strong and smart and they wore us down. The next year, however, we learned how to play them and had the type of team that could better deal with the things they did.”
“Our two Bullets teams were solid veteran units that played very well as a team,” said Bickerstaff, now the head coach of the Charlotte Bobcats. “They were just better than we were the second time. They were hungry and they played like it.”
Williams averaged 29 points in the series, but Johnson’s all-around play earned him the MVP award. He averaged 22.6 points, 6.0 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 1.8 steals. The guards got the glory, but the inside play of Silas, Sikma and Shelton opened things up for the shooters.
“Championship games are won in the trenches,” said Silas. “Every possession is valuable and you have to believe that every loose ball belongs to you and that every rebound is yours.”
When it was over, Wilkens – now the winningest coach in NBA history – knew he had a special team for a special time and he savored it.
“I loved that team,” he said. “We believed in ourselves and knew we would find a way to win, no matter what. That was special.”
It was also a special two years for Seattle and Washington.
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