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1978 NBA Champion Washington Bullets Honored 35 Years After Winning Title

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1978 NBA Champion Washington Bullets Honored 35 Years After Winning Title
Washington Bullets Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld talk about their 1978 NBA Championship season 35 years after the Bullets won the title. Photo by Mike Frandsen.

The 1978 NBA champion Washington Bullets were honored at the Verizon Center Saturday night, 35 years after they won the only championship in franchise history.  

The Bullets were recognized at halftime of the Wizards’ 104-85 rout of the Indiana Pacers. The Bullets were introduced by former play-by-play man Frank Herzog while highlights of the ’78 season were played on the big screen. Moments later, a larger championship banner befitting the team was raised to the rafters.

The players in attendance included Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, Bobby Dandridge, Kevin Grevey, Tom Henderson, Larry Wright, Greg Ballard, Phil Chenier, Phil Walker, and Joe Pace. Mitch Kupchak and assistant coach Bernie Bickerstaff were unable to attend because of their duties with the L.A. Lakers. Charles Johnson died of cancer in 2007.

Coach Dick Motta, general manager Bob Ferry, and Irene Pollin, the widow of former owner Abe Pollin, were also honored. During the 1978 playoffs, Motta borrowed a phrase from a San Antonio broadcaster, “The opera isn’t over til the fat lady sings,” which became the motto of the underdog Bullets.

The Bullets won more games than any NBA franchise in the 1970s and made the playoffs each season from 1969 to 1980. But it wasn’t until 1978, a season in which Washington won 44 games, that the Bullets won an NBA title. 

The Bullets advanced to the finals by beating George “Iceman” Gervin and the San Antonio Spurs and Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers—the two teams with the best records in the Eastern Conference.

Then, it was on to face the Western Conference champion Seattle SuperSonics.

Game 4 was notable as more than 39,000 fans watched at the Kingdome in Seattle—the largest crowd ever to witness an NBA playoff game.  The Bullets overcame the Sonics 120-116 in overtime to tie the series 2-2.

The Bullets were down 3-2 in the series when they exploded for 70 points in the second half for a 117-82 win at the Capital Centre.

Game 7 was close until late in the game, when Kupchak scored on a three-point play, Unseld knocked down two free throws, and Dandridge dunked with three seconds left to give the Bullets a 105-99 win. The Fat Lady had sung, and the Bullets triumphantly ran off the court.

In defeating Seattle, the Bullets became the third NBA team ever—and still the most recent—to win a Finals Game 7 on the road. 

In 1979, the Bullets won a league-best 54 games and again got to the NBA Finals but lost in five games to Seattle.

For Hayes and Unseld, the championship was a long time coming. Unseld played on the Baltimore Bullets team that got swept in the finals in 1971 by the Milwaukee Bucks, who featured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, and Dandridge.

Hayes and Unseld were on the 1975 Bullets who tied for the best record in the NBA with 60 wins but were swept by the Golden State Warriors in one of the biggest upsets in NBA history.

At a press conference after the halftime ceremony, Hayes and Unseld, the two best players in Bullets history, reflected on the championship they won 35 years ago.

The Big E talked about the moment Dandridge put Game 7 away. “Seeing Bobby make that last dunk shot and all of a sudden waiting for that clock to run out, it seemed like it would never run out and then all of a sudden it’s over,” Hayes said.

“Out of all those years everything was compressed in you and compressed down, all of a sudden could be let loose and go.”

Elvin and Wes had been labeled as great players who hadn’t yet won the “Big One.” Hayes and Unseld were both 32 when they finally won it all.  

“That’s what it’s all about,” said Hayes. “That sets you apart from every team. We were the winningest team in basketball in the 1970s. But still, if we had not have won that championship, none of that would have meant anything.” 

For Unseld, the title was more about relief than exhilaration.

“I used to see guys break champagne bottles open and throw champagne over each other after winning and I remember all I was thinking was going back to bed. We played close to 100 games,” said Unseld

“And I never realized how physically tired I was. Mr. Pollin came up to give me a hug and I grabbed him by the shoulder because I was actually getting him to hold me up because I was physically gone.”

Dandridge, who averaged 19.3 points in ’77-’78  for Washington after being acquired from Milwaukee, also helped shut down two of the best scorers in the NBA, George “Iceman” Gervin and Dr. J, helping the Bullets advance to the Finals.

“I was a good defensive player and I played well against Julius defensively,” Dandridge said. “Gervin was a task I didn’t relish but I had to get him in the fourth quarter and he must have suffered some fatigue at times, but defense was a part of my game that I enjoyed. When you get a chance to play against two Hall of Famers like Julius and the Iceman you want to rise to the occasion.” 

When Dandridge joined the Bullets, it allowed Grevey to move from small forward to shooting guard, which enabled Grevey to raise his scoring average from 6.9 the previous season to 15.5. 

When the Bullets flew home from Seattle, Grevey said the team received an incredibly enthusiastic welcome from Bullets fans.

“We couldn’t believe it. When we arrived at Dulles Airport, they were in the thousands. And that little old airport back then I don’t think ever had that many people in it at one time, said Grevey.” 

“Then we meet the President of the United States the next day at our parade. It was quite a journey and then to be finishing it that way with our fans…it never gets old.”

The Bullets are getting older. But the memories will always last. Bullets fans will always remember the 1978 champion Washington Bullets.

Article also posted at Examiner.com.

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