Team Destiny

The 1978 NBA-champion Washington Bullets

IN A SEASON WHEN THE TEAM WAS SO INJURY-PLAGUED that at one point only seven players suited up for a game (Jan. 22 vs. Phoenix), one less than the league's minimum requirement, it was hard to fathom going all the way to the NBA Finals. However, they stunned everyone by not just going, but by winning as well. The 1978 Championship Washington Bullets team was a golden one, indeed, a team that many said was destined to win.

It was not evident at first, because "Team Destiny" began the season with many question marks. There was talk of Elvin Hayes being traded for youth in the form of a big center or a small forward who could score. Wes Unseld had plans to retire and Phil Chenier missed the exhibition games with back problems that never let up.

The addition of Bobby Dandridge was a perfect complement to Hayes and Unseld.

The Journey to the Top
Although the basic elements for greatness were there, there was a little mixing to be done in order to achieve it. Kevin Grevey was moved from small forward to guard opposite Tom Henderson, and perhaps the key ingredient was the addition of forward Bob Dandridge, a free agent who was released by Milwaukee. General Manager Bob Ferry saw Dandridge as the ideal player to complement Hayes and Unseld on the front line. Ferry believed the Bullets could win the Eastern Conference Championship by adding Dandridge rather than subtracting Hayes.

Never in franchise history had the Bullets "bought" a player (all others had been drafted or traded), but with Abe Pollin's decision to make Dandridge the first, everything appeared to be in place.

By mid-December, the team had five straight victories and won 11 of its 13 games to sit at the top of the Central Division. On January 13, they handed Portland -- the defending NBA champion -- just its fifth loss of the season. That might have been the regular season's peak, because things went steadily downhill from there.

Phil Chenier's year was cut short after severe lower back pains half way through the season.

Detours Along the Way
In one game against Golden State on January 15, Mitch Kupchak injured his thumb and was eventually out for 15 games; Tom Henderson sprained an ankle, keeping him out for three games; and Grevey was knocked out of 1 1/2 games after pulling a neck muscle. Then instead of joining the team on the West Coast on January 19, Chenier went to the hospital with severe lower back pains, which ended his season.

By the time Kupchak was back in the lineup, the Bullets had slipped to a record of 29-28, giving San Antonio an insurmountable lead in the race for the Central Division title.

Washington added Charles Johnson, a veteran guard cut by Golden State in early January, to replenish its dwindling supply of players. His 10-day trial that began on January 24 was extended to a three-year contract. Johnson would give the team a much-needed spark later in the season.

And They Still Play On
In mid-March the Bullets were still playing with only three guards as they continued to struggle with injuries. At one point (March 21), there were not even enough healthy bodies for a full-court scrimmage.

The one place Washington continued to see success was on their home court, Capital Centre, where the Bullets used every bit of that advantage over opponents. They were 16-0 when the attendance was over 12,000, but when interest waned as the team was struggling, even that one advantage was lost. After compiling the sixth-best home court record in the league, the Bullets collapsed, losing five of their last seven home games, including four losses to clubs that were under .500.

Wes Unseld made some uncharacteristic remarks to get his team motivated late in the season.

The Long Climb Up
At that point, a 41-36 record was not enough to clinch one of the Eastern Conference's six playoff berths. Washington had to win at least one more of its last five games or hope for an Atlanta loss. The first signs of turnaround came after Wes Unseld made a rare controversial remark to the media, saying the team was "not doing the things" it must do to win, and only one person (Coach Dick Motta) could change the bad habits.

The next day Unseld and Motta met for an hour, talking over the problems within the club. In the very next game, Unseld scored a career-high 25 points as the Bullets beat Los Angeles and went on to win three of their last four regular-season games.

With things finally beginning to turn around, the Bullets clinched third in the Eastern Conference with a win over East-leading Philadelphia.

A New Beginning
The Bullets worked out the kinks in the first-round playoff series with Atlanta, sweeping the Hawks in three games. Atlanta's tough-nosed defense prepared the Bullets for the challenges that lay ahead as they advanced to meet the Central Division champion San Antonio Spurs.

San Antonio was led by the high-scoring "Iceman," George Gervin, who finished as the league's regular-season scoring champ. It was not Motta's plan to waste time on the impossible task of containing Gervin, but to stop his teammates -- primarily Larry Kenon. The Spurs took Game 1, 114-103, at home. Then the Bullets rallied to do something they had never done before -- beat the Spurs in San Antonio, 121-117, to steal the home-court advantage. The teams had split their series during the regular season and San Antonio, in only its second year in the league, had never won on the Bullets' home court.

And they would not win there during the '78 playoff series. Washington went back home and took Game 3, 118-105, Game 4, 98-95, and the series lead at 3-1. The Spurs rallied once again on their home court in Game 5 for a 116-105 win.

Temporary Challenges
Game 6, back on the Bullets' home court, proved to be the strangest game in the series, and perhaps the entire playoffs. First Spurs guard Mike Gale lost his uniform in a bag mix-up with the airline and was forced to wear a Washington road uniform turned inside-out. Then during the third quarter, just after San Antonio had taken a 62-61 lead, the Capital Centre lights went out for eight minutes. After the lights went back on, Washington emerged with a 103-100 victory to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Enter Philadelphia, the top seed in the East and the team Washington had beat in its end-of-season turnaround. The home-court advantage went to the 76ers. Once again Washington stunned its opponent, taking Game 1, 122-117 in overtime, after blowing a four-point lead in the last nine seconds of the fourth quarter.

Philadelphia came back in a very physical Game 2, tying the series with a 110-104 win. Caldwell Jones had 11 blocked shots and Darryl Dawkins grabbed 11 rebounds for the Sixers.

"You'll never hear me complain about physical play," Bullets Coach Dick Motta said afterwards. "But there were a lot of cheap shots out there that I've never had happen to one of my teams before."

The Bullets responded with some defense of their own in Game 3. Bob Dandridge held Sixers star Julius Erving to 12 points while scoring 30, and Washington had an easy 123-108 victory. Washington also won Game 4, 121-105, for a 3-1 series advantage.

The "Big E" led the Bullets in scoring and played a pivotal role in their series against the Sixers.

Center of Attention
Philadelphia won Game 5 at home, 107-94, despite Wes Unseld's first appearance in the series since suffering an ankle injury late in the fourth quarter of Game 1. Unseld proved to be the key in Game 6, rebounding his own miss at the end to sink what many called the most dramatic shot of his 10-year career. Dandridge outscored Erving 137-129 in the series, and Elvin Hayes led the team in scoring (138), rebounding (94) and blocked shots (20). The Bullets were on their way to their third NBA Finals in eight years.

A Change in Plans
The Bullets would face the Seattle SuperSonics, whom they had beat three times during the regular season after losing by two points in overtime in the first meeting in Seattle. Coach Motta had a single star or player to target in the last two series, which would not be the case with Seattle because of their great balance and the ability of all five starters to score and play defense. The Bullets were deeper than Seattle in the frontcourt, an advantage they hoped to exploit. The biggest problem would be containing the Sonics' three high-scoring guards -- Dennis Johnson, Gus Williams and Fred Brown -- who were a major factor in Seattle's season-long success and especially their Western Conference Finals victory over Denver.

This championship run would be set up differently for both teams. Seattle had the home-court advantage but because of a scheduling conflict with an "immobile" mobile-home show, after Game 1 in Seattle the series would move to the Capital Centre for two games before returning to Seattle for two games. If necessary, the Bullets would host Game 6 and Game 7 would be played in Seattle. This made the format 1-2-2-1-1 instead of the usual 2-2-1-1-1.

The Last Run
The Bullets had a chance to take Game 1, but after blowing a 19-point lead, fell 106-102. Washington was out-rebounded 57-35. Sonics forward John Johnson held Dandridge to only six points (16 below his average) while scoring 18 and grabbing 10 rebounds. "Downtown" Freddie Brown scored 16 of his 30 points in the final quarter for the Sonics.

Dandridge came back in Game 2 to score 34, and the Bullets won, 106-98. Seattle then took Game 3 and the series lead, 2-1.

In front of 39,457 spectators -- the largest crowd ever to see a NBA playoff game at the time -- Washington beat Seattle at the Kingdome, 120-116 in overtime. Charles Johnson, Larry Wright and Mitch Kupchak all played vital roles in the Bullets' comeback.

The first four games had been decided in the fourth quarter, with the last two coming down to the final shot. Motta was going with whoever had the hot hand at the moment, and the Bullets' depth was proving to be the difference.

Seattle rebounded in Game 5 to win 98-94. The series was now tied, but Coach Motta had adopted the slogan, "the opera isn't over until the Fat Lady sings." According to Washington players and fans, she wasn't singing yet. So in Game 6, with the fat lady quietly present at the Capital Centre, the Bullets cruised to a 35-point win over the Sonics, 117-82. Washington dominated the boards, out-rebounding Seattle 69-49.

With Grevey suffering a sprained wrist above his shooting hand, Dandridge was forced to see some action at guard. Despite the change in the lineup and being a 4 1/2-point underdog in Game 7, the Bullets fulfilled their destiny, bringing the championship home to Washington with a 105-99 win in Seattle.

Unseld contributed 15 points and nine rebounds, while Dandridge and Charles Johnson each scored 19 points. Hayes fouled out early with 12 points. Mitch Kupchak also played a vital role in the win, picking up a loose ball towards the end of the game and converting it into a three-point play to give the Bullets a 101-94 lead.

After a brief silence, 14,000 Sonic fans gave an ovation to the champions, who had persevered despite a season full of more downs than ups.

Team owner Abe Pollin and the Bullets visit Jimmy Carter at the White House after their Championship Season.

A True Team Effort
It was a club that thrived on bad luck, this team that beat Atlanta, San Antonio and Philadelphia with Dandridge, Grevey and Unseld out at various times. Throughout the playoffs, a different player contributed whatever it took to take them to the next level. In the San Antonio series, Charles Johnson stepped up to score 80 points in the last four games after Kevin Grevey lost his shot. Larry Wright gave a much-needed boost in the Philadelphia series, filling Tom Henderson's shoes and scoring 76 points over the final five games. The Most Valuable Player award was given to Wes Unseld, who had destroyed the Sonics in the paint throughout the final series.

Finally, Time for a Song
Often saying his 1978 Bullets were a team of destiny, Coach Dick Motta knew this was their year.

"I wore the oldest, rattiest sports coat I could find," he said after the game. "I knew we were going to win this game, and I didn't want my good coats to get beer all over them."

The jacket was eventually dispensed with, and a dress shirt ripped off, to reveal one of the T-shirts a Hyattsville, Md., company had printed up, with "The opera isn't over until the Fat Lady sings" and the coach's signature on it.

"She's singing," Motta said. "Boy, is she singing!"

It was destined to happen.

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