Column: Looking back on the championship run of the ’78 Bullets

It’s not that we don’t look for better days ahead, but in our quest for simple joy right now, it’s comforting to turn to memories.

As part of its “Greatest Hits Series” featuring broadcasts of classic Capitals and Wizards games, NBC Sports Washington on Thursday showcased game seven of the 1978 NBA Finals when the Washington Bullets defeated the Seattle SuperSonics to win their first championship.

That game was over four decades ago, but to me, it might as well have been yesterday.

It only takes a mention of that memorable night in Bullets/Wizards franchise history, and suddenly, I am 14 years old again.

I had just secured a date to the middle school prom and all I needed was a Bullets title to make life seem complete.

The Bullets win over the Sonics that night also brings my dad back to life in my mind’s eye.

As hard as it might be to believe now, the NBA Finals were not televised live back in 1978.

Instead, I joined my dad in the kitchen with the black radio perched on top of the lime green refrigerator and we paced together back on fourth on the linoleum floor while listening to Frank Herzog’s wonderful call of D.C. sports history on WTOP.

Washington Bullets Bob Dandridge (right) tries to keep the ball from the grasp of Seattle Supersonics Gus Williams (left) and John Johnson (27) during NBA Championship Game at Seattle at night on Wednesday, June 7, 1978. (AP Photo)

“That team was a bunch of rascals,” said Herzog, who was finishing his third season as radio voice of the Bullets.

“They were delightful. It was a funny team. Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes seemed to be fighting all the time and to the point where it got to be fisticuffs, and they didn’t like each other. They had all these personalities and so it was a wild makeup but they just seemed to put it all together.”

Before the season, Herzog predicted the Bullets and Sonics would meet in the NBA Finals.

As games were actually played it seemed less and less likely.

The Bullets were a hard team to figure out in 1978. Encouraging wins were often followed by maddening losses, and by season’s end the Bullets record was only 43-39.

Then a magical run through the 1978 NBA playoffs captivated the District and the entire region.

Nils Lofgren, of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, grew up in Bethesda and was a Bullets fan.

He came up with the song “Bullets Fever” and I can still remember it being cranked up on school bus rides as it blared out over the Top 40 radio station, which was then WPGC.

The championship series against the Sonics went much like the Bullets regular season, unpredictable. The Bullets lost game one at home, but then evened the series with a road win in game two in Seattle.

Even the ever-optimistic Herzog began to have his doubts as the Bullets trailed in the best-of-seven series, three games to two.

True, the Bullets of 1978 were unpredictable, but they were nothing if not resilient.

At the Bullets home, Capital Centre, they decidedly beat the Sonics 117-82 to force a winner-take-all game seven in Seattle.

“Wes and I became friends over three years and we would go out on the road — we go out to dinner together, keep each other out of trouble,” Herzog said.

“So the night before the seventh game in Seattle, we go to this restaurant and he orders liver smothered in mushrooms.”

“And I made a face, and he said ‘what’s the matter’ and I said, ‘I’m sorry, Wes. I can’t stand liver’ and he said, ‘I can’t either. Why do you think I had it smothered in mushrooms?’ Herzog continued.

“And I said, ‘Well, if you can’t stand it, why are you eating it?’ He said ‘Frank, ever since I was a kid, people have told me if you’ve got a big game, eat liver,’ I said my mom used to say before a big game, eat liver, I think of this is the biggest game of my life. So I’m going to eat liver.”

While my dad and I listened on the radio to Herzog’s calls on WTOP, Unseld came through in the biggest game of his life.

The future Hall of Famer grabbed nine rebounds and nine assists and the Bullets prevailed 105-99 over the Sonics to win game seven and deliver D.C. its first major sports title in 36 years — since the Redskins NFL championship in 1942.

Herzog went on to broadcast the Redskins on radio including three Super Bowl wins, but he breaks into a big smile when he thinks about his days with the Bullets, especially that wild 1978 championship season.

“There were times when you just look at them and you said ‘What is going on?’” Herzog said.

“How could you win the other game so big and lose this win so badly, but that’s the way they were all year long. I mean they used to drive (head coach) Dick Motta nuts because they would do things and he would go ‘What is going on? I thought these were All-Stars.’”

In the end, the Bullets were champions. I know I can still feel my dad’s hug and the sound of that black radio as we danced on the linoleum.

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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