When Washington Went to the Opera
Elvin Hayes holds the NBA Finals trophy in the locker room following the Game 7 105-99 win over Seattle.
With such hits as "I’m Your Boogie Man," "Dancing Queen," and "Stayin’ Alive," disco was the music of choice for most Americans in 1978, but for Washingtonians and their Washington Bullets, it was the opera that provided sweet music to their ears.
For it was in that year that the Bullets and their fans became the unlikely stars of such an elite affair. The Bullets run in the 1978 NBA Playoffs was likened to the opera by a sports reporter at the time; "It won't be over until the fat lady sang," he prophesized.
With that, head coach Dick Motta used that premise to caution his team and Washington fans of overconfidence. "The opera ain't over 'till the fat lady sings," Motta said, creating the motto every Bullets fan would use throughout the playoffs. As history shows, that lady did sing-a song of victory, loud and clear.
The Bullets were the self-proclaimed underdogs of the 1977-78 playoffs. They had never won an NBA Championship and had recently lost twice in the Finals series; 1971 to Milwaukee and in 1975 to Golden State.
The Bullets entered the playoffs with the third best record in the Eastern Conference, 44-38. They finished the season eight games behind Central Division leaders San Antonio which forced Washington to play most of the playoffs without home court advantage.
Although the Bullets roster sported some incredible talent such as Wes Unseld, Bob Dandridge and Elvin Hayes, the entire league featured renowned competitors and future NBA legends including Bill Walton, Julius Erving, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Despite the challenges facing the team, the Bullets never stopped fighting.
"What made the championship so great was that we weren’t supposed to win it,” said Motta at the time. “We came a long way. Most people didn’t give us a chance, but I felt all along we could. I really did."
Wes Unseld was a crucial part of the championship run.
The Bullets won the championship by outlasting some of the toughest teams in the league. Washington played 21 games to capture the trophy sweeping the Atlanta Hawks in the first round (2-0), taking out Central Division leaders San Antonio in the Eastern Conference Semifinals (4-2), defeating the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals (4-2) and conquering the Seattle Supersonics in seven games (4-3) for the NBA crown.
Hayes, Dandridge, Kevin Grevey, Charles Johnson and Mitch Kupchak were key players for Washington, putting up double-figure scoring averages throughout the playoffs. The hero, however, was undoubtedly legendary center Wes Unseld.
Unseld averaged 9.4 points 12 boards in 18 playoff games. He was responsible for two of the most crucial plays in the Bullets championship run. In game six of the Eastern Conference Finals against Philadelphia, Unseld tipped in his own missed shot with 12 seconds left in the game to give the Bullets the 101-99 victory and Eastern Conference crown. And in the final game of the NBA Finals against Seattle, he made two free throws with 12 seconds left in the fourth quarter to seal the Bullets' 105-99 win and the team’s first title. Unseld's play earned him the 1978 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award.
The Bullets returned to Washington having captured the first professional sports title for a Washington based team since the Redskins' NFL Championship in 1942. Washington fans showed an incredible amount of support as 8,000 people packed Dulles Airport in Virginia to greet the team when they arrived home from Seattle.
The victory was a dream come true for team owner Abe Pollin who just five years earlier had brought professional basketball to the Washington-Metropolitan area when he moved the team from Baltimore. The 1978 Bullets showed that nothing is impossible and that sometimes supporting characters can steal the show. Now 25 years later, the symbolic opera that was the 1978 NBA Championship continues to provide inspiration and cherished memories for many in the Washington, DC area.