A Colorful Tradition
Their first three years were played in two cities with three nicknames, but when Abe Pollin took control, the Washington Wizards stabilized, drafted legends and won a title.
It is a franchise of distinction. No other organization in the NBA's 55-year history has reinvented itself as many times as the Washington Wizards. In its 39 years of existence, the team featured four different nicknames - Packers, Zephyrs, Bullets and Wizards - while playing in Chicago, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. suburbs before moving downtown to the MCI Center in 1997.
The Wizards' history is rich with memories of great players, including three who were named to the list of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History - Earl Monroe, Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes. The latter two led the 1978 Washington Bullets to the NBA title as the Bullets joined the most elite group of teams in the league. Washington is one of only 15 franchises in NBA history to win a title.
Chants of "E" could be heard around the arena when Elvin Hayes made a spectacular play.
The crowds were as lean as the Packers' record, with fewer than 3,000 fans in the stands on most nights. Those who did come did receive one treat in the form of rookie Walt Bellamy. The 6-11 All-Star center finished second in the league in scoring that season, averaging 31.6 points to record the second-highest rookie average in NBA history, behind Wilt Chamberlain's 37.6 in the 1959-60 season. Bellamy was named the 1962 Rookie of the Year.
Hoping to increase awareness the next season, owner Dave Trager renamed the team the Zephyrs (after the city's nickname, the Windy City), and moved the club into the renovated Chicago Coliseum downtown. Even though the club improved to 25 victories, the team still floundered at the box office.
"No one knew there was a team in Chicago," said Dallas Mavericks coach Don Nelson, who was selected by the Zephyrs in the third round of the 1962 draft. "We were on the back of the sports page every day. It didn't matter who we were playing, we never got any headlines, only a box score and a very small write-up."
The newspapers did take notice when the team drafted, however. In 1962, the Zephyrs selected Terry Dischinger in the second round (10th overall), and the 6-7 forward averaged 25.5 points in 1962-63. Dischinger was the league's top rookie, giving the club back-to-back Rookie of the Year winners. Even with two budding stars, however, the fans stayed away in droves, and Trager moved the club to Baltimore, renaming it the Bullets. It was a reunion of sorts between the NBA and Baltimore as the city was home to the original Bullets from 1947 through the first 14 games of the 1954-55 season, when the team disbanded. Those Bullets won the NBA title in 1948.
The reincarnated Bullets moved into the new Civic Auditorium, but with only a few thousand fans showing up for each game, Trager put the team up for sale. Former NBA referee Arnold Heft inquired, but unable to make inroads with Trager, Heft called his friend, real estate developer Abe Pollin, who was interested in purchasing a sports franchise. Not a man to waste time, Pollin called Trager directly.
"Mr. Trager, my name is Abe Pollin. I live in Washington and I'm going to buy your basketball team."
Trager: "You sound like a nut to me."
Pollin: "That's true, I am, but I'm still going to buy your team."
Pollin asked Trager if he would be impressed if Pollin, Heft and lawyer Earl Foreman were to arrive in Chicago in three hours. Trager said he would be, so the three flew to Chicago to start the negotiations. Finally, at 1:30 in the morning, the sale was official: Pollin and his two partners purchased the Bullets for $1.1 million.
Pollin had acquired a team that was rising on the court. The Bullets made the playoffs for the first time during Pollin's first season (1964-65). Led by bruising All-Star forward Gus Johnson, the Bullets advanced to the second round, where they fell in six games to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Division Finals. The Bullets also made the playoffs the following season, but this time were swept by the St. Louis Hawks. Yet, despite the on-court success, the team still struggled at the gate.
"We had a group of very avid fans, but they were a very small number," said Pollin.
The crowds didn't grow the next season as the team sunk to 20-61, worst in the NBA. As it turned out, that was to the Bullets' benefit because in 1967, it enabled the team to draft one of the game's true magicians, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe. The 6-3 guard, who was the second player taken in the draft, instantly became a fan favorite, dazzling crowds with his mesmerizing spin moves, unorthodox shots and electrifying ballhandling skills.
"Put a basketball in his hands and he does wondrous things with it," said Bullets coach Gene Shue, who coached Monroe during his rookie season. "He has the greatest combination of ability and showmanship."
Monroe earned NBA Rookie of the Year honors, averaging 24.3 points, but the team missed the playoffs, which again wasn't such a bad deal since it enabled the Bullets to draft Louisville's Wes Unseld with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1968 draft. That pick would forever change the direction and identity of the Bullets organization.
Wes Unseld, who now serves as the Wizards General Manager, is well remembered for his rebounding and punishing screens.
Listed at 6-7, which was generous, and 245 pounds, which was light, Unseld moved into the paint and refused to budge. Unseld's ability to clean the glass, set rock-solid picks and spot teammates with outlet passes helped improve the Bullets' record by 21 games that season, as the team went from last to first in the Eastern Division. Unseld, who was second behind Chamberlain with 18.2 rebounds a game, earned a rare double-double his rookie season, hauling in both Rookie of the Year and MVP honors. Chamberlain was the only other player to accomplish such a feat.
But the Bullets' title aspirations evaporated against the New York Knicks in the first round. That matchup laid the foundation for one of the league's most intense rivalries featuring intriguing subplots: Monroe vs. Walt "Clyde" Frazier, Johnson vs. Dave DeBusschere and Unseld vs. Willis Reed. The Bullets and Knicks clashed in the playoffs six consecutive years with New York holding the upper hand in five of those six series.
"It was a great rivalry," said Monroe. "New York was a team everyone wanted to beat and Clyde was the type of guy that you wanted to go out and play well against."
The Bullets finally broke the spell in 1971 when they defeated the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals.
"Beating New York was like our championship," said Monroe. "It was great getting over that hump, but that series took a lot out of us. We had guys that were hurt - Gus Johnson, Kevin Loughery and myself."
The hobbled Bullets advanced to the NBA Finals, only to get swept by the Milwaukee Bucks, who featured a pair of future Hall of Famers in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.
The Bullets wouldn't return to the Finals for another four years, and significant changes occurred during that time. Gone was Monroe, traded to the Knicks at the beginning of the 1971-72 season, and in walked Elvin Hayes, who joined the club the following season in a trade with the Houston Rockets. Pollin, who assumed sole ownership of the franchise in '68, moved the team to Landover, Md., and into the new Capital Centre, which his construction company had helped build. Pollin also renamed the club the Capital Bullets for 1973-74. They became the Washington Bullets the next season.
A mere 17 months old, the Capital Centre hosted Game 1 of the 1975 Finals between the Bullets and the Golden State Warriors. On paper, the series was a mismatch. Led by Coach K.C. Jones, the Bullets featured three All-Stars in Unseld, Hayes and guard Phil Chenier. They had won 60 regular-season games and dethroned the defending champs, the Boston Celtics, in the playoffs. Plus, they had defeated the Warriors in three of their four regular-season meetings. The Bullets and their fans were confident, perhaps too confident. Golden State stunned the basketball world and swept the Bullets in one of the greatest upset in NBA Finals history.
"I don't think there's any question we were the better team," said Unseld, the Wizards' general manager, who is in his fifth decade with the organization. "But we did not approach the series as we should have."
The Bullets would get their chance to redeem themselves in the '78 Finals. Unlike the '75 season, the Bullets, coached by Dick Motta, weren't favored to win the title, not with a 44-38 record, and certainly not after they got behind high-flying San Antonio in their second round series. Led by the fabulous Iceman George Gervin, the Spurs took a three games to one lead and the Bullets' season seemed near an end. At that moment, however, Motta uttered a phrase he had heard in the past, saying:
"The opera ain't over 'til the fat lady sings."
That began Motta's mantra throughout the playoffs as the Bullets came back to win three consecutive games over San Antonio. They went on to a six-game victory over the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and advanced to the Finals to meet the Seattle SuperSonics.
Similar to the Bullets, the Sonics were underdogs who surprised many by advancing to the Finals that season. The two teams deadlocked in the first six games, forcing a Game 7 at Seattle. The game featured stellar performances by Bullets guard Charles Johnson, forward Bobby Dandridge and Seattle center Marvin Webster, but the night belonged to Unseld. With the Bullets up 101-99, Unseld hit two free throws with 12 seconds left, which enabled the Fat Lady to warm up. Unseld's free throws sealed MVP honors for the 10-year-veteran and clinched the city's first professional sports championship since 1942, when the Redskins won the National Football League title. D.C. went crazy over their Bullets.
"The championship brought the city together unlike anything else ever," said Pollin. "Black, white, green, yellow, rich, poor - everybody came together as one to celebrate the city having a championship team."
The next season, Washington attempted to become the first team to win back-to-back titles in the '70s, but its fourth trip to the Finals that decade proved unsuccessful. In a rematch against Seattle, the Bullets lost in five games.
It has been more than two decades, a name change and a new arena since the Wizards won a title, but the memories in Washington are still vivid and powerful. Wins and losses come and go; championships are forever.
Writer JOHN HAREAS is also an Executive Editor for Hoop magazine.