1978 NBA Finals: Washington 4, Seattle 3
'Fat Lady' Sings Victorious Tune for Bullets
The Washington Bullets presented a head-on clash of styles in the late 1970s. There was new coach Dick Motta, a little guy with a lot of intensity -- perhaps too much, some said. Then there was Elvin Hayes, a 6-foot-9 power forward who did what he wanted, when he wanted.
The "Big E" was known for his favored spot to the left of the key. He wanted the ball there, and that was where he'd wait until he got it. When he got it, if the defense wasn't too strong, he could usually find a way to score. But whatever happened, Hayes wanted to call the shots.
Motta had been a fine college coach at Weber State in Idaho. His ideas about the game were chiseled in marble. His teams played spirit-breaking defense, and at the other end of the floor, they took their time moving through Motta's patterns, until a score was the logical conclusion.
For a while, it looked as if neither side would budge in this test of wills. But eventually both men gave in a bit and did something neither had done very often in their careers: They compromised.
The results were back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals in 1978 and 1979 and sweet memories for years to come. Hayes smiled broadly in 1990 when asked to reminisce about Motta. "Dick demanded a lot of his players," he said. "He demanded a lot of himself. He gave us a direction, and we followed it."
Fortunately, there were moderating factors, the most substantial of which was 6-foot-7, 245-pound Westley Sissel Unseld. A granite block of a man, Unseld was entering the twilight of his career with a set of bad knees. When it came to shooting, he looked to pass. Nevertheless, he was the ultimate team player. Solid at setting picks and rebounding, selfless and fierce, he was just the foundation upon which Motta could build.
Motta entered his second season with some reason for optimism. He had forged a compromise with Hayes, and the Bullets had picked up free agent Bobby Dandridge, formerly of the Bucks, to play small forward. In many ways, Dandridge was the most complete small forward in the business, which in turn meant that Kevin Grevey, average as a small forward, could move to his natural position of off guard, where he played smartly.
The final ingredient came in January with the acquisition of backup guard Charles Johnson. Hayes remembered the day clearly. "We were playing on a Sunday afternoon when Charles Johnson came to the Bullets," Hayes said. "He flew in that afternoon in a helicopter, and we won the game. That was the beginning of the coming together of the Washington Bullets. I knew then that we had a championship-caliber team. We had been struggling along, and all of a sudden, boom. It all came together."
"We had such diverse talent on that team," said Hayes. "We had Mitch Kupchak, Larry Wright, Charles Johnson and Greg Ballard -- all of them coming off the bench. Any one of those guys would have been a great starter on another team. For starters, we had Unseld, Grevey, Tommy Henderson, Bobby Dandridge and myself. From the bench to the starters, we had great balance."
The Seattle SuperSonics were terrible at first, losing 17 of their first 22 games. Then coach Bob Hopkins was fired and Lenny Wilkens, who two seasons earlier had been fired as Portland's boss, was hired. Wilkens stressed defense, and the Sonics turned their fortunes around, winning 42 of their last 60 games.
They were a good mix of rookies and veterans, and they continued their winning ways in the playoffs. Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams started in the backcourt, with "Downtown" Fred Brown standing in as a third guard-designated bomber. The frontcourt featured greybeard Paul Silas, who had just moved over from Denver, and 7-foot-1 shotblocker Marvin Webster (the Human Eraser) at center. Rookie Jack Sikma, a fresh-faced blonde giant, held down the other forward spot. With the addition of backup forward John Johnson, the fans and media took to calling them "Goldilocks and the Three Bears."
Back east, the Bullets were undergoing a similar emergence. After whipping the Atlanta Hawks and the San Antonio Spurs in the early going, Washington met the favored Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals and upset them. Along the way, Motta took to reciting a favorite phrase of his: "The opera isn't over 'til the fat lady sings." Each time things got tight and the writers predicted doom, Motta told them to wait for the fat lady.
Suddenly the NBA Finals had the most unexpected of participants. The Bullets, who had finished in third place in their conference, faced the Sonics, who had finished in fourth place in theirs. It was a series that seemed to offer little to fans across the country, but in the finalists' respective cities, the enthusiasm was tremendous.
Seattle embraced the Sonics as the city's first winning big-league team. And even stately Washington came alive, from Georgetown and the neighborhoods of the northwest to Capitol Hill and the suburbs in Virginia. The city hadn't had a championship team since the Redskins had won the NFL title way back in 1942. As the politicians took turns pointing out, the place needed something positive.
It didn't happen right away. Seattle took Game 1 at home, 106-102, when the 34-year-old Silas did a solid defensive number on Hayes. The Bullets actually led by 19 at one point, but then Brown got untracked with a 16-point binge in the last nine minutes of the fourth period.
Under the playoff schedule that had been adjusted due to building conflicts in Seattle, the Bullets returned home for the next two games, where they had to face a cynical Washington media that repeatedly reminded them about their 1975 Finals foldup.
This time, however, the Bullets answered their critics by winning Game 2, 106-98. Unseld did his best blue-collar bit, with 15 rebounds, five assists and extra body work on Marvin Webster. His bone-shattering picks in the lane on Silas freed Hayes and Dandridge for open shots on offense. They opened hot and moved the Bullets out to a 16-point lead. The Sonics cut it to four by the half, and then pulled even tighter in the third with Hayes in foul trouble. But Unseld just kept setting those wall-sized picks of his, and in the end, Goldilocks and the Three Bears looked like they needed their porridge. Dandridge got loose for 34 points and Hayes for 25. Henderson added 20, mostly on drives.
Motta was understandably pleased afterward. "That's our game," he said. "Hayes and Dandridge going off tackle. People know where we're going. They're just going to have to stop us."
That pretty much summed up the series. There was no way the Sonics could avoid such a direct challenge, so they answered in Game 3, again in the Capital Centre. The intensity, already high, increased noticeably. Dennis Johnson and Silas led the Seattle charge. Silas closed down the holes in the Bullets' offensive line.
Dandridge and Hayes still had decent games, but they weren't able to break loose down the stretch with the game on the line. Meanwhile, the 23-year-old Johnson was a force on the perimeter. He blocked seven shots and limited Grevey to a 1-for-14 shooting day.
Even with this effort, the Sonics almost blew it in the last 10 seconds. They were leading 93-90 and had the ball, but Johnson sent the inbounds pass to Henderson, who happily popped in a layup to bring it to 93-92 with five seconds on the clock. Then it was Silas' turn to goof. He stepped on the line trying to make the inbounds pass, turning the ball over to the Bullets. The Sonics fell back on defense, however, and forced Dandridge into lofting a long shot from the side. It rimmed out, and Seattle was homeward bound, leading the series, 2-1.
In the Northwest, it was record-setting time. Game 4 was held in the Kingdome because the Seattle Coliseum, where the Sonics usually played, was tied up with a mobile-home show. Thus, 39,457 Sonics fans helped fill the vast domed stadium, a record for an NBA Finals, which only heightened their disappointment when Seattle lost.
The Sonics began well enough and even had a 15-point lead with about two minutes left in the third quarter. It was about then that the much-maligned Washington guards began to earn their respect. They had been outscored 43-15 in the first half, not to mention similar difficulties earlier in the series.
The Sonics' problems began when Dennis Johnson took an elbow to the ribs that sent him to the bench for nearly six minutes. With Charles Johnson, Wright, Kupchak and Dandridge in the lineup, the Bullets reversed the momentum and took the lead, 103-101, with about 3½ minutes left in the game. Dennis Johnson had returned by then and was well on his way to 33 points, seven rebounds and three blocks. He went crazy in those final three minutes, scoring first to tie the game, then picking up loose balls, blocking a Dandridge shot, getting an offensive rebound, and pushing the Sonics to a 104-103 lead with a foul shot.
Dandridge answered this outburst with a three-point play that returned the lead to Washington, 106-104. Seattle got the ball back and tied it with one of Brown's custom-made downtowners. With two seconds left, Dandridge got a good shot in the lane, only to have Dennis Johnson block it, thus treating the record crowd to an extra period.
The treats ended there, however. Charles Johnson hit three quick shots in overtime to give the Bullets a 120-116 win. As improbable as it had seemed considering the record Seattle crowd, the Bullets had tied the series at two wins apiece.
"We could have lain down like puppy dogs with our stomachs in the air," Charles Johnson allowed afterward, "but we're made of more than that."
The Bullets had to wait a few days for the next test. For Game 5, the Sonics were allowed to return to their familiar Coliseum, and there they got the job done, although the Bullets didn't make it easy. Brown had 26 points and DJ 24 to carry Seattle to a 98-94 win and the series lead. The Bullets lost it at the line, making only 9 of 20 free throws in the second half. Even so, they cut Seattle's 11-point lead to two with less than two minutes to go before Sikma hit three free throws down the stretch.
Then it was back to Washington for Game 6 on Sunday. There, it was all Bullets, 117-82. At first, the Sonics seemed to possess the edge. Grevey was injured, and the Washington backcourt was struggling. So Motta inserted Greg Ballard at forward and moved Dandridge to guard. (He had little experience at the position.) They produced a run that gave the Bullets a 12-point lead at the half. Washington scored 70 points in the second half, and the Sonics weren't up to that pace. It was something to see, these old men of basketball doing repeated weave drills down the floor. The young Bullets didn't do badly, either. Kupchak finished with 19 points, and Ballard had 12 points and 12 rebounds.
"I saw a lot of smiling and laughing over there," DJ said of the Washington bench. "But we've got the seventh game at home."
More than a decade later Hayes still savored the memory of that flight back to Seattle. "I remember flying out to Seattle," he said, "thinking about all the things that had gone through all the years that I had played in the NBA. All of that was coming down to one game, a championship game, and after that game, I remember feeling a joy over the next 48 hours, just a spring of joy, a feeling of great accomplishment. Out of my 16 years of playing, I had waited for that moment, and that moment came, and it was just tremendous."
For the Sonics, it was a drop into bottomless anguish, particularly for Dennis Johnson, who missed each and every one of his 14 shots from the floor. Gus Williams was a bit more accurate, shooting 4-for-12. But the Sonics' frontcourt came through, as Webster scored 27 points and Sikma 21, and that kept it close.
With 90 seconds left, Seattle whittled the lead from 11 points down to four, but Kupchak came up with a three-point play. Brown, who finished with 21 points, wasn't through, however. He hit a short jumper, then Silas got a tip-in to cut it to 101-99. Silas then fouled Unseld, a 55-percent shooter from the line during the playoffs. He hit two free throws, and moments later Washington sealed it, 105-99.
The Bullets became only the third team ever to win the title in a seventh game on the road. They did it with everybody contributing. Charles Johnson and Dandridge each scored 19 points, while Kupchak, Unseld and Henderson all played well. Hayes fouled out with 12 points, a development that brought a couple of needling questions from the writers.
"They can say whatever they want," Hayes replied with a smile. "But they gotta say one thing: E's a world champion. He wears the ring."
Motta, too, was a world champion, wearing his "The Opera Isn't Over 'Til The Fat Lady Sings" T-shirt, which his players soaked in beer. This time, she had belted out a sweet one for the Bullets, especially the older players. Unseld was voted the Finals MVP, a vote for the work ethic if there ever was one.
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