Bob Dandridge was exactly what the Bullets needed

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In his second season in the NBA, four-time NBA All-Star Bob Dandridge won the 1970-71 NBA World Championship Series with the Milwaukee Bucks. Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Oscar Robertson, Dandridge, and the Bucks defeated the Baltimore Bullets, 4-0.

The Bullets were the winningest team of the 1970s in the NBA, but they lost their first two trips to the Finals; first to the Bucks in 1971 and then to the Golden State Warriors in 1975. The franchise would move from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. in 1973, becoming the Capital Bullets for one season and then the Washington Bullets officially in 1974-75.

The story of how Dandridge was acquired started in the vault of Capital Centre. Bullets general manager Bob Ferry routinely went downstairs in the arena to the sauna bath and read out of town newspapers. During the summer of 1977, Ferry met with majority owner Abe Pollin and executive vice president Jerry Sachs to discuss a player he had his eye on.

“I constantly read in the paper that Bobby Dandridge, who was playing for Milwaukee, really could guard Dr. J [Julius Erving],” Ferry recalled. “We had to play Philadelphia to get anywhere we wanted to go. Bobby D was going to be a free agent, and I just got on my high horses and said we needed to get him to get to the next level. I got the ball rolling, we got Abe Pollin involved and Jerry [Sachs].”

Free agency was different in that era; teams were able to sign free agents, but free agents weren’t exactly free. Players were free to sign with another team but the team that they left was in position to talk to the team that acquired the new player and they had to arrive at compensation. If the teams were unable to arrive at compensation, then it would go to the commissioner and the commissioner would decide what amount the losing team would get. It was sometimes seen as dangerous for a team that signed a free agent, because while it got the player at team wanted, teams didn’t know exactly what it would cost if a deal with another team couldn’t be reached. In this case, that team was Milwaukee.

Pollin called the Bucks owner Jim Fitzgerald and they agreed on the phone to a deal, which would bring Dandridge to the Bullets as a free agent.

“Fitzgerald called Abe on the phone and said he had another, better deal for Dandridge,” Sachs says. “But he said he was an honorable guy, Abe is an honorable guy and he would keep the deal because of his respect for Abe. That’s the way business was done among certain owners in the NBA.”

Dandridge, a native of Richmond, VA, attended Maggie Walker High School and Norfolk State University, staying in the Mid-Atlantic until he was drafted by the Bucks in 1969. Now the Bullets had their guy, successfully signing Dandridge as a free agent and giving Milwaukee the proper compensation.

“It was real special because I’d been in the Midwest for eight years and it was just special to come back as close as home as I could get to play,” Dandridge says. “And although I grew up in Virginia, I played a lot of basketball when I was young in Washington, D.C., so Washington D.C. was very special area for me knowing that I could go home and my family and fans out of Virginia could get to see me play more often.”

Dandridge proved to be the piece the Bullets were missing to finally get over the hump and win a championship. The Bullets featured future Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, three-time All-Star Phil Chenier, and tough-nosed winners like Kevin Grevey, Tom Henderson, and Mitch Kupchak. The franchise had already dominated the ‘70s, but still needed a player like Dandridge to take them all the way to the top.

“He was the last piece,” Kupchak says of Dandridge. “That was the one area that management felt we needed a veteran and bringing Bobby in was just a huge addition to the team.”

Dandridge could guard multiple positions defensively, score at will offensively, play guard and small forward, and run the floor. In that championship season, he averaged 19.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.3 steals per game. During his four-year career with the Bullets, Dandridge was named to the 1978-79 All-Star team, and scored 18.3 points per game to go along with 5.5 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game.

“Bobby Dandridge is probably one of the most unheralded players that was a part of this basketball team,” Hayes said. “He never got the accolades he so richly deserved, and after this basketball team and the people that they’re putting in Hall of Fames, I felt Bobby really needed to be there because I felt Bobby was really a tremendous leader on this basketball team. I know he didn’t want to lead sometimes, but he was a tremendous leader. Bobby could handle the basketball, he could score the basketball, he played defense; he did so many things for this basketball team and he did so many of them to set examples for us to follow.”

The Bullets specifically signed Dandridge to guard Julius Erving and beat out the Philadelphia 76ers, and they had that chance in the 1978 Eastern Conference Finals. Dandridge scored a game-high 28 points in the Bullets’ series-clinching win in Game 6, and outscored Erving 22.8 to 21.5 points per game in the series.

The four-time All-Star did not stop there. Dandridge dunked home what became the iconic, game-clinching basket in Game 7 against the Seattle SuperSonics. It was nothing short of ironic that the man that put the finishing touches on the Sonics was none other than Dandridge, forever seen as the player that brought it all together. Dandridge would finish Game 7 with 19 points, and averaged 21.2 points per game overall in the postseason.

“I would say Bobby Dandridge was the best all-around basketball player that we ever had,” Ferry says of his prized free agent signing.

“That championship was special and when the game is over, I was just numb for a little while,” Dandridge recalled. “And then maybe once we got dressed and the champagne started flowing I realized the significance of what we had achieved, especially being in the Washington, D.C. area, and that’s when I got excited thinking about the fans back here in Washington. Not only did we win it for the Washington group, but also the Baltimore group, which the team had labored in Baltimore for a number of years.”

Today, Dandridge is the Washington Bullets/Wizards Alumni Association Executive Director. Forming the group in 2011 with the Wizards, Dandridge was the organization’s first official member. Dandridge drives in from Norfolk to D.C. for countless Wizards games, autograph sessions, event appearances, and other alumni responsibilities. He works hard to serve the community and connect former players back to the Wizards organization.

Like he did with that championship team, his main role is to be the guy that makes everything come together. Dandridge is in contact with all of the franchise’s former players and communicates with them about upcoming events and happenings. He has connections with more than just that championship team, but he admits those conversations with members of the 40th anniversary team are special.

“Once you play on a championship team, you and the other team members and people affiliated with, with that team, that’s a bond that you have for the rest of your life,” Dandridge said. “Nobody else can even get in on the conversation. If I’m talking to Wes or Phil Walker or Grevey and we are talking about our world championship experience, people just can’t even get in on the conversation, only thing they can do is listen. You realize that this is a unique accomplishment achieved by a unique group of men, and the good thing was that we had had enough individuals who had achieved individual fame, but now was a time that you know you wanted - you truly had to come together as a team.”

Dandridge and the Wizards will get the gang back together for the 40th anniversary celebration weekend from March 23-25. Many are expected to attend, and there’s no doubt those that cannot make it will be missed by the rest of the championship team. Of course, Dandridge will be working the phones to make sure everyone can make it.

After all, if it wasn’t for him, there may not be a celebration at all.