The 1978 NBA-champion
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
The addition of Bobby
Dandridge was a perfect complement to Hayes and
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
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
Phil Chenier's year was
cut short after severe lower back pains half way through the
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
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
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
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'
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.
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
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
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
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
Team owner Abe Pollin and
the Bullets visit Jimmy Carter at the White House after their
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
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.