Basketball by the barbecue: Looking back at the Bullets in the NBA Finals

Basketball in June.

Only two teams have the honor of playing meaningful games in the month of graduations, weddings and backyard barbecues.

Those teams get to play for the NBA championship. In the second half of this decade, the Golden State Warriors have had a standing reservation for the finals. They’re in for the fifth straight year, trying to make it four titles over the stretch. The last team to do that was the Boston Celtics from 1957 to 1961. And that team was so good, it won seven of the next eight — 1962-69. Only the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 interrupted the streak.

What these Warriors are doing in the age of free agency may be equally amazing. Imagine being a kid growing up the in Bay Area and only knowing championship runs for the local pro hoops team. You know it’s probably a routine: open Christmas presents in December, watch the local hoops team play for the title in June.

The last time our local hoops team — known back then as the Bullets — played a game in June was over 40 years ago. On June 1, 1979, the Bullets were beaten four games to one in the NBA Finals by the Seattle Supersonics at the old Capital Centre. Since then, the NBA has witnessed the entire careers of Magic Johnson; Larry Bird; Isiah Thomas and the “Bad Boys” Pistons; Michael Jordan; Shaquille O’Neal; and Kobe Bryant. It’s probably seen almost all of LeBron James’ career as well.

You have to be middle-aged at least to remember D.C.’s basketball team to be one of the last two standing.

Well, I am middle-aged — actually the high end of that group — and I do remember the ’70s, when the Bullets were a finals participant four times! Once they got there, it wasn’t always a pleasant experience, but it beats packing up the season in April as the local hoopsters did this year and too many other years over the last 40.

So if you’re too young to remember (or old enough to enjoy a blast from the past), here’s how it went down during the days of disco in D.C. — when the Bullets were regulars in the NBA Finals.

1971

The Bullets were actually still based in Baltimore and were in the finals for the first time. The 1967 and ’68 drafts had given them a superstar duo of Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Wes Unseld. And after coming up short in the playoffs against the New York Knicks the previous two years, the Bullets had finally broken through, beating the Knicks in a rough-and-tumble seven-game series in the Eastern Conference finals.

The problem they faced in the finals was that the other team’s superstar duo was even better. A trade before the season brought Oscar Robertson from Cincinnati to Milwaukee to team up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And Bobby Dandridge wasn’t far behind on the talent scale. Those Bucks easily swept the Bullets in four lopsided games.

1975

While David Bowie was singing about ch-ch-changes, the Bullets had undergone plenty of them since being swept in ’71. The franchise had moved to D.C. to play at the brand-spanking new Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. (It had a Telscreen: “Watch instant replay at the game!”) Earl “The Pearl” was gone, and Elvin Hayes had teamed up with Unseld to become the new dynamic duo. These Bullets had been the best team in the NBA that season, winning 60 games.

Their finals opponent, the Warriors, had Rick Barry and a bunch of relative unknowns. And while the Bullets had taken out the defending champion Celtics in six games to get to the finals, the Warriors barely got by the Chicago Bulls in seven. It had been more than 30 years since the Redskins had delivered D.C.’s last pro championship. The Bullets were favored to end that drought. They didn’t help themselves with a scheduling mistake.

The Warriors’ home court and backup home court were both booked for other events. Because the Bullets had the home court advantage, they were offered a deal. Play the first game of the series on the road and then get the next three at home or play game one at home, schlep to California for Games 2 and 3 and then come back to Landover for Game 4.

Foolishly, they took option two. After the Warriors won the opener, at least a split on the road was a necessity. To this day, no NBA team has ever come back from a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series. Sure enough, the Bullets lost both on the road and were swept at home in Game 4. Barry was named Most Valuable Player in the series, averaging 29.5 points a game. But the depth of his team proved to be the real difference. The Bullets had leads in all four games and couldn’t finish any of them.

1978

Heading into their third finals in eight years, the Bullets still hadn’t won a finals game — 0 for 8. Unseld and Hayes were 10-year veterans, and the clock was ticking. On top of that, Phil Chenier, the team’s best shooter, had gone down with a back injury during the season. And with a regular season record of 44-38, these Bullets didn’t look like championship contenders. However, something clicked in the postseason.

The opening rounds of the playoffs in those days were a best-of-three series. Down went Atlanta in two. Then came San Antonio, a refugee from the folded American Basketball Association that was parked in the Eastern Conference. After taking a three-games-to-one lead, Bullets coach Dick Motta was asked for reaction to being on the brink of moving into the conference finals. That’s when Motta uttered the touchstone phrase that lives on to this day. Having watched local sportscaster Dan Cook in his San Antonio hotel room the night before, Motta quoted Cook, who had told his audience, “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”

The Bullets would indeed need two more games to knock out the Spurs and then, as underdogs, beat Philadelphia to reach the finals. Their finals opponent was a bigger surprise. The Seattle Supersonics had started the season 5-17 before firing coach Bob Hopkins and replacing him with Lenny Wilkins. With the future Hall of Famer in charge, Seattle finished the year on a tear and got through Los Angeles, Portland and Denver to match up with the Bullets.

As in 1975, scheduling issues for the Sonics’ home court caused adjustments. This time though, the Bullets opened on the road, and when they lost Game 1, the needed split could be had at home. They were able to get that done eventually and wrapped up their one and only championship on June 7, 1978, exactly 40 years to the day before the Capitals won their first one. As radio announcer Frank Herzog counted down the final seconds of the deciding game on WTOP, he said, “Warm up the fat lady. The Washington Bullets are going to win the NBA championship!”

1979

As defending champions, the Bullets finished with the league’s best regular season record at 54-28. However, although Unseld, Hayes and Dandridge, who’d been key in helping the Bullets win the championship as an addition, held up, the team’s young stars were hurt when it mattered most. Kevin Grevey was banged up, and Mitch Kupchak couldn’t play at all in the playoffs.

It took a pair of seven-game series with Atlanta and San Antonio to get back to the finals. Again Seattle was the opponent, but the Sonics were ready this time. The Bullets blew an 18-point lead at home in the opening game, but managed to win when Larry Wright was fouled by Dennis Johnson in the final seconds of a tied game. Wright hit two free throws to lock it up — the last time the Bullets won a finals game. Seattle took the next four and rode into the sunset.

Before the end of the month, Magic and Bird were in the NBA. Since then, like Moses, the Bullets have wandered in the desert for 40 years.

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