When the Washington Bullets defeated the SuperSonics in Seattle 105-99 to win the team's only championship 35 years ago, it was the last time an NBA team won a Finals Game 7 on the road.
The San Antonio Spurs will try to become the first team since those Bullets to accomplish that feat when they take on the Heat in Miami Thursday night in Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The home team is 14-3 in Game 7s in NBA Finals history. Since the Bullets’ win 35 years ago, home teams are 5-0 in Game 7 matchups.
With all the talk about the “Big Three” of the Heat and the Spurs, the Bullets featured a dominating trio of their own: Hall of Famers Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, and Bobby Dandridge, who won a title with two franchises and may have been the best player on the team.
Winning Game 7 on the road
Before the Redskins won their first Super Bowl, and before Maryland and Georgetown won national championships in college basketball, the Washington Bullets gave D.C. its first championship in 36 years when they won the NBA title in 1978.
Click here to see highlights and interviews from the Bullets’ championship run.
The Bullets battled through injuries during the 1977-78 regular season to finish 44-38. The underdog Bullets upset George the “Iceman” Gervin and the San Antonio Spurs and Dr. J and the Philadelphia 76ers to advance to the finals against the upstart Seattle SuperSonics. Seattle was a deep, talented team led by Gus Williams and Dennis Johnson in the backcourt and big men Marvin “the Human Eraser” Webster and Jack Sikma.
The teams alternated wins in the first five games. The Sonics led the series 3-2, but the Bullets routed Seattle in Game 6 at the Capital Centre, 117-82, for the largest margin of victory in an NBA finals game at the time.
In Game 7, the Bullets became NBA champions for the first and only time with a 105-99 victory over the Sonics in Seattle. Dandridge and Johnson each scored 19 points and the Bullets held Dennis Johnson to an 0-for-14 shooting night.
Mitch Kupchak made a key 3-point play with a minute and a half to go. Unseld sank two free throws with 12 seconds left to put the Bullets up by four. Dandridge sealed it with a dunk.
The Bullets ran of the floor, jumping up and down all the way to the locker room. Hayes and Unseld let out a decade of pent-up frustration as they celebrated their first world championship.
“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.”
Unseld had 15 points and 12 rebounds in Game 7 and was named Finals MVP.
For Unseld, the title was more relief than anything. “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.”
Hayes and Unseld were nearing the end of their illustrious careers. Hayes reflected, “For my career and Wes’ career, if we don’t win a championship, you’re always governed by that. Because they’ll say well you’re a great player like Charles Barkley or Karl Malone, but you could never win. So this really put the cherry and the cap on our careers.”
Since the Bullets’ win 35 years ago, only 10 NBA franchises have won championships. The number of current NBA teams that have never won a championship or haven’t done so since 1978 is 19.
The Bullets became only the third team ever to win the title in a Game 7 on the road. They did it with Unseld, Dandridge, and starting guard Kevin Grevey all missing time during the playoffs due to injuries.
“I would hate to play our team if I were any of the modern day teams,” said Dick Motta, the Bullets coach. “We had a lot of injuries that year. We had to open every series on the road. We were supposed to be the underdog, but you can’t be an underdog when you have a front line of Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Bobby Dandridge, Mitch Kupchak off the bench, and you have a backcourt of Tommy Henderson and Kevin Grevey and you’ve got Larry Wright waiting to get involved, so we got healthy at the right time.”
Grevey said winning on the road showed the resilience of the Bullets. “To go seven games and to win a championship on the road—nobody else has done that since—is special. It shows how tough-minded we were with all the odds against us to pull that game out.”
Washington Bullets' name meant winning
The name Bullets was synonymous with winning in the 1970s. The Bullets had winning records in nine of 10 seasons. They won more than 50 games four times, including 60 wins in 1974-75. The Bullets went to more NBA Finals (four) than any other team in that decade. They also made the playoffs 18 times in 20 seasons from 1969 to 1988.
The Bullets’ first finals appearance came in 1970-71 when they were based in Baltimore. The Bullets were swept by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Dandridge and the Milwaukee Bucks.
After moving to Washington in 1973, the 60-win Bullets, the best team in the NBA during the 1974-75 regular season, advanced to the finals. However, Washington was swept by the Golden State Warriors in one of the biggest upsets in NBA history.
In the final two years of the decade, the Bullets made back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals, compiling an NBA-best 54-28 record in 1978-79. But it was the 1977-78 squad that won it all with a record of 44-38 that captured the hearts of the nation’s capital.
One of the best front lines in NBA history
The Bullets featured a “Big Three” of their own—one of the greatest front lines in NBA history. They had two Hall of Famers: 12-time All-Star forward Elvin Hayes and five-time All-Star center Wes Unseld, still the only player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season. Dandridge was a four-time All-Star who helped the Milwaukee Bucks to a title over the Bullets in 1971.
“We had a front line with Wes Unseld, Elvin Hayes and Bobby Dandridge that back in the ‘70s was incomparable. There was nobody who had that,” Grevey said.
Hayes is the NBA’s eighth all-time leading scorer and fourth all-time leading rebounder behind Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Capital Centre crowd would ring out in choruses of “EEEEE” as the “Big E” made his signature move, the turnaround, fadeaway jumper, which was impossible to block. Hayes was one of the most athletic power forwards of all time. He was incredibly durable, only missing nine games in 16 seasons.
The 6'7" Unseld was the sixth leading rebounder of all time when he retired. The ultimate team player, Unseld was known for shutting down much taller centers, setting jarring picks, and making outlet passes which traveled the length of the court. Unseld was the unquestioned leader of the Bullets.
"We had some special guys on that team in Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld who had never won," said Grevey. "They were great, truly great players. We knew every day they were our leaders. There were no ifs, ands, or buts about it. And we all fell in line and had our roles.”
Hayes and Unseld may not have always gotten along off the court, but on the court they respected each other. The team had outstanding success, making the playoffs in eight of the nine seasons they played together.
Unseld said he and Hayes had no problem guarding anyone, but that adding Dandridge to the team before the 1977-78 season helped the Bullets defensively against the small forwards in the league. Dandridge was also an extra weapon on offense.
“There was not anybody that I would want to see with the ball in a critical situation than Bobby D,” said Unseld.
Dandridge was a smooth-shooting small forward who could create his own shot and lock down players on defense. He was a master of the mid-range jump shot. “Bobby D” had already won a championship in 1970 when the Bucks beat the Bullets. He was named to four all-star teams.
Rookie forward Greg Ballard looked up to the experienced front line. “It was an honor to play with these legends. One of the greatest front lines in NBA history was Wes, Elvin, and Bobby. I remember watching these guys play on television,” Ballard said.
“They taught me a lot, especially playing behind Bobby Dandridge. And up front with Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes and Mitch Kupchak. They taught me how to play. How to battle, how to compete. Get inside and mix it up as far as the physical play goes. Just all the important things it takes to win games.”
Ballard, who would go on to play 11 years in the NBA, was an understudy to Bobby D. “Dandridge taught me how to drive the ball to the basket, attacking the guys you go up against, because our position was the Cadillac position of the NBA with people like Dr. J, Adrian Dantley and Bernard King that were good offensive players. So you had to make them play on the defensive end and attack them offensively,” Ballard said.
The Bullets' great front line was more than The Big E, Unseld, and Bobby D. Hayes gave credit to Kupchak and Ballard. “Mitch came in, he could shift gears. Greg came in, he could shift gears,” Hayes said. “We could play running basketball, we could play banging basketball. We could play any kind of basketball. So it was a great team.”
Dandridge agreed: “We couldn’t have won the championship without Kupchak and Ballard, because they could come in and play any of the frontline positions.”
Hayes and Unseld are in the Basketball Hall of Fame, but Dandridge has been overlooked. Would Dandridge like to be in? “Well I’ve been shortchanged on that and surely everyone that’s in there deserves to be in there. I think it’s difficult to understand, but it is what it is and I think when the right opportunity comes along, it will come.”
A mix of youth, experience and depth
Tom Henderson was a strong, pass-first point guard who still averaged double figures in points. Kevin Grevey, the former All-American from Kentucky rounded out the starting lineup. Grevey had an excellent jump shot, could pump fake and drive to the basket, and rebounded well for a shooting guard. 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.
The Bullets also had excellent depth at center with Kupchak (16 points, 7 rebounds), rookie forward Ballard, slashing guard Larry Wright and sharpshooter Charles Johnson, who arrived in the middle of the season. Standout guard Phil Chenier, a three-time All-Star who scored more than 20 points a game the previous season, was sidelined for the year after 36 games because of a back injury.
Grevey said after the front line of Hayes, Unseld and Dandridge, “We had a great bench with Greg Ballard and Larry Wright and Mitch Kupchak providing leadership and youth and energy, and C.J. came in in the middle of the year, a veteran player to come and spell me, and of course Tommy Henderson starting at point. That was quite a team.”
With established stars in Hayes, Unseld and Dandridge, solid role players in Henderson, and Johnson, and young talents in Grevey, Kupchak, Ballard and Wright, the Bullets had the right mix of scorers, leaders, and defenders to win it all.
Built for the playoffs
At one point during the 1977-78 season, the Bullets were so thin at guard with Chenier out for the year and Grevey and Henderson hurt, they suited up only seven players for a game.
The Bullets signed Charles Johnson, formerly of Golden State, to a 10-day contract. C.J. arrived to a game at the Capital Centre shortly before tipoff via helicopter from Dulles Airport, and he became an integral part of the championship team.
The Bullets were a balanced team, with six players averaging double figures. Hayes led the team in scoring with 19.7 points per game and in rebounding with 13.3. The Bullets won 44 games, fewer than in previous seasons, but they had the right mix of players.
Acquiring Dandridge from the Milwaukee Bucks gave the Bullets someone who could guard George Gervin, the NBA’s leading scorer, and Dr. J, the best player of the 1970s.
Motta said Dandridge was a huge addition to the Bullets. “Bobby came in, he knew the offense, he had already won a championship, he was experienced. It was always nice when we had Bobby Dandridge and we were going to play Dr. J or George Gervin. He basically neutralized all of the small forwards in the league.”
Hayes and Dandridge led the Bullets in the playoffs, each averaging more than 21 points per game. Johnson also came up big during the playoffs, as did Grevey, and Unseld would go on to win the NBA Finals MVP.
Grevey went off in the clinching game of the first round series against the Atlanta Hawks as he scored 43 points. Back then, the first round was best of three games, so each game was critical.
The Doctor and the Iceman
After defeating Atlanta, Washington would go on to face George “Iceman” Gervin and the San Antonio Spurs in the second round of the playoffs. The Spurs had won 52 games and were led by Gervin, the NBA scoring leader. That year, Gervin scored 63 points in the final game of the regular season to edge David Thompson by .07 points to win the NBA scoring title. But Dandridge played tough defense on Gervin and held him in check as the Bullets outlasted the Spurs 4 games to 2.
With the Bullets leading the Spurs 3 games to 1, a San Antonio sportscaster said of the series, “The opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings.” Motta picked up on the phrase to warn against overconfidence. Later in the playoffs, Motta used it to inspire the Bullets, who were underdogs to Julius Erving and the Philadelphia 76ers.
The Sixers had won 55 games, most in the Eastern Conference, and made it to the NBA finals the year before. They had a talented lineup that included Dr. J, George McGinnis, Darryl Dawkins, Doug Collins, and World B. Free. Bullets fans made t-shirts, signs, and even wore wigs as the “Fat Lady” slogan became the Bullets’ rallying cry.
Grevey set the tone for the Bullets in Game 1 as he led the Bullets with 26 points in a 122-117 win, outplaying Collins.
After the Sixers took Game 2, Washington beat the 76ers 123-108 to take a 2-1 series lead.
Dandridge outplayed Dr. J during the series, and the Bullets would go on to beat Philadelphia in six games despite losing Unseld to an ankle injury for games 2-4.
Hayes remembered a particular moment during Game 6 against the Sixers, which the Bullets won 101-99 to close out the series.
“I had stolen the basketball, a pass from Doug Collins to George McGinnis, went down and dunked the ball, and I turned around and everyone was hollering, ‘E!’ and that was one of the greatest moments of my life,” said the Big E.
While Hayes and Unseld are remembered more, Dandridge was critical in stopping players like Gervin and Dr. J, two of the best offensive players in the NBA. Dandridge made them work on defense, and played tough defense on the stars.
“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 may 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.”
The Fat Lady sings
The Bullets were headed to the NBA finals against the SuperSonics, a team featuring six players who averaged double figures in scoring. The deep Sonics also had five players who would make at least one NBA all-star team: leading scorer Gus Williams (18 points a game), “Downtown” Freddy Brown, Jack Sikma, Paul Silas, and future Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson. In the middle was the intimidating 7'1" center Marvin “the Human Eraser” Webster who averaged 14 points, 12.6 rebounds and two blocks. The Sonics finished the season on a 42-18 roll after future Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens was hired.
The series followed an unusual 1-2-2-1-1 format because of a scheduling conflict in Seattle.
In Game 1 in Seattle, Grevey came through for the Bullets with 27 points on a variety of jump shots and drives to the basket, but the Sonics outlasted Washington 106-102 behind 16 points in the last nine minutes from Brown.
In Game 2 at the Capital Centre, Dandridge scored 34, Hayes had 25, and Henderson added 20 as Washington won 106-98.
Henderson hit a layup with five seconds left in Game 3 to cut the Sonics' lead to one. Silas stepped on the out of bounds line, giving the ball back to the Bullets. Bobby D missed a shot at the buzzer as the Sonics held off a late comeback by Washington, and won 93-92 to take a 2-1 series lead.
The Bullets evened the series at 2 with a thrilling 120-116 overtime win behind six points each in the extra period from Charles Johnson and Henderson. The Bullets overcame a 15-point deficit despite 33 points from Dennis Johnson.
The Sonics then won Game 5, 98-94 to take a 3-2 lead behind 26 points from Brown and 24 from D.J.
With their backs against the wall in Game 6, the Bullets scored 70 points in the second half to rout Seattle 117-82 for the largest margin of victory in an NBA finals game as the Bullets outrebounded the Sonics, 69-49. “We were home and we wanted to make a statement and let them know, hey, that this wasn’t over,” said Henderson. The 35-point margin was the largest in an NBA Finals game until 1998.
In Game 7, the Bullets held off a late rally by the Sonics to win 105-99 to take home their first and only NBA championship.
In the book, “The Bullets, the Wizards, and Washington, D.C. Basketball,” Brett L. Abrams and Raphael Mazzone recount a critical play at the end of Game 7. “Webster and Sikma led the SuperSonics on a 12-4 run to narrow the lead to 98-94. Johnson came down the court and fired up a jumper that fell short of the rim. Henderson dove on the ground, knocking the ball between Webster’s legs. Kupchak grabbed the loose ball and made a layup as Webster fouled him. After putting in the free throw, the Bullets led by seven with 90 seconds remaining.”
Then in the final seconds, a pair of late free throws by Unseld and a dunk by Dandridge put the Sonics away on their home court, and jubilation ensued for the Bullets.
“When we were warming up in Seattle in Game 7, their announcer said there would be a victory parade for the world champion Seattle SuperSonics. I went by the scorer’s table and said, ‘You can’t play this game for them,’” Henderson remembered.
“We scored in the last five seconds of every quarter. In the third quarter Charlie Johnson hit a three-quarter shot. Lights out. That was our night. We were ready.”
Wright recalled his feelings after Game 7. “It was just elation. You could see it in Wes’ eyes, Elvin’s eyes – they had been in this situation before and came up empty, and I think we were more happy for Elvin and Wes than we were for anybody," Wright said.
“This was a team that wasn’t picked to win the NBA championship. And the road that we took, through Atlanta, San Antonio, Philadelphia, to Seattle where we won the final game on the road, I can’t explain to you in words how we felt."
“To beat the teams that had those types of stars on their team, and we had stars but they weren’t flamboyant. Dr. J and Philadelphia, they were a flamboyant team. And they had spent a lot of money for that team. And to beat them is to say that we were absolutely the best team in basketball in 1978.”
Wright’s sentiments were echoed by Grevey: “We were able to prove it against really, really good teams back then. Let’s face it, the 76ers with Dr. J and the Iceman in San Antonio. And Atlanta had a great team coached by Hubie Brown with all this young talent. It was no fluke. We had to go through the best and it made us the best. And beating Seattle, they were just like us. A lot of veteran players blended with youth.”
When the team returned to Dulles Airport, nearly 10,000 cheering fans were waiting for them. The Bullets later rode in a victory parade from the Capital Centre to the District Building.
In reflecting back on the fan reaction in D.C., Bullets players said it was something they will never forget.
Grevey remembered the moment: “When we got on the bus we went back to the Capital Centre where our cars were. I hadn’t slept in almost two days and I remember Mitch Kupchak and I – I owned a home and he was renting from me – I said, ‘Mitch let’s get some rest.’ I turned the corner in Crofton, Maryland and there were about 500 people in my front yard. They had decorated my house – all my neighbors. I’m like, ‘Mitch, we’re not going to be sleeping there, pal.’
“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 and share it with our fans…it doesn’t get old. I never get tired of talking about it, and there aren’t too many days that go by that someone doesn’t mention to me that championship. I happen to live here in town and it’s a lot of fun. It’s my identity now. I get introduced, ‘This is Kevin Grevey, former Washington Bullet World Champion.’”
Ballard said of winning the title and seeing the fan reaction, “That was an extremely wonderful feeling. I wish everyone could experience that because it was a thing where we rallied the city around the basketball team and that was one of Mr. Pollin’s dreams that he wanted to win a championship for the city. And to see a lot of the fans there at the airport and at the parade and at different venues, RFK stadium, downtown at City Hall, it was a tremendous feeling to be part of that and bring that championship to D.C.”
Nils Lofgren’s “Bullets Fever” could be heard on radio stations from Manassas to Annapolis, and from Frederick to Fredericksburg:
Bullets Fever! Happens to me every year
Bullets Fever! And this year’s the one
Bullets Fever! Got the Doctor and the Iceman
Bullets Fever! Seattle was stunned
C.J. Tom and Larry are fast as light
Kevin, Bobby and Elvin they shoot out of sight
Now every Bullet wears a champion’s ring
They’ve got our town screaming and stompin’
It was the one and only NBA championship for owner Abe Pollin, who would later finance the Verizon Center, revitalizing much of the city’s downtown area.
During the 1978-79 season the Bullets led the league with 54 wins and made it to the finals once again, defeating Atlanta and San Antonio en route to a rematch with Seattle. This time, though, the SuperSonics, winners of 52 games, won the series 4-1.
The Bullets-Sonics back-to-back championship series didn’t attract as much attention as some finals matchups in later years, such as the Lakers-Celtics rivalry involving Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, or the titles in the ‘90s won by Michael Jordan. But in Washington and Seattle, fans were rabid over the finals.
Game 4 in 1978 was played before 39,457 at the Kingdome, the largest crowd ever to watch a single professional basketball game. Game 3 in 1979 was held in the Kingdome in front of 35,928.
In fact, the 1977-78 Bullets-Sonics finals received higher TV ratings than both the 1979-80 finals, which featured Magic Johnson’s Lakers against Dr. J’s 76ers, and the 1980-81 finals, which pitted Bird and the Celtics vs. the Rockets. The 9.9 Nielsen rating the Bullets-Sonics series garnered was also higher than ratings for each of the finals from 2005 to 2009, which had stars such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal. The 1978 finals also got better ratings than the Spurs’ appearances in ’03, ’05, and ’07.
A team of many personalities
It has long been reported that Hayes and Unseld didn’t get along, although they are friends today.
“There are truths to that. It’s not being embellished,” Grevey said.
“In every family or business, there are personalities and sometimes you have rifts. We had ours, there’s no question about it. But there was great respect for one another. When you put a lot of players together, there are egos, not in a bad way, it’s just, they may have a certain way of wanting to have them play. We ended up realizing, if we’re going to win a championship, we have to collectively come together as a team. And do what’s best for the team. And we had a strong coach in Dick Motta who painted that picture for us.”
Grevey described the roles of the front line: “There was only one captain, and he was Wes Unseld and he had a stern voice. And he didn’t speak a lot, but man, when he did, you stopped, and you listened.
“Elvin Hayes was the freak of all freak athletes. No one ever ran the court like he did and he was a great player. We had to yield and make him happy.
“And there was Bobby Dandridge who stirred the drink, man. He was a maestro. He knew how to get the ball into the right people, and then everybody else’s roles filled in. So that great front line found a way to coexist.”
Hayes and Grevey each credited Johnson with bringing the various personalities of the team together. “Charles Johnson just molded this team and brought it together,” said the Big E. Grevey called C.J. a “locker room lawyer” who made it fun.
Henderson admitted the team clashed at times. “We kind of had five guys who started who really didn’t kind of like each other but on that floor we were all business. We had mutual respect for each other. We had to get the job done and that’s what we did,” Henderson said.
Wright said of the championship, “This is something that we’ll carry to our grave together. We knew our jobs. We were pros. We respected each other. And for the most part all of us liked each other. And when we went out to play, we felt like from one through 10, we were as good as anyone in basketball, and that’s the way we played.”
In 1997, the Bullets changed their name to the Wizards. Owner Abe Pollin decided that the name "Bullets" was inappropriate for a city that had suffered so much gun violence over the years. Pollin said that "Bullets" originally meant “faster than a speeding bullet” but said that the connotation had changed.
However, legions of old Bullets fans remain nostalgic about the old Bullets and the name. The name “Wizards” never really stuck with most fans.
The SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City in 2009 for financial reasons. It was a major blow to a city that has always supported its sports teams.
Partly for those reasons, the championships won by the Bullets in 1978 and the Sonics in 1979 are underappreciated. Seattle came close to getting a team back when the Sacramento Kings threatened to move earlier this year but the Kings stayed put.
When Grevey was asked if he would like to see Seattle get a team again, he answered before the question was finished, “You’ve got that right. I’d love to see Seattle get a team back. That would be really cool. The Washington-Seattle rivalry was long-lasting, with great traditional teams. I was hurt when Seattle left and went to Oklahoma City. I would love to see them back. I love that town. It’s a fabulous city. We spent a lot of time there, and we really enjoyed it. In the northwest, those fans were so respectful. They were great fans.
“They had great players in Gus Williams, Jack Sikma, Freddy Brown and Dennis Johnson, Marvin Webster, Johnny Johnson. What a heck of a team they had. So much respect that we had for those guys.”
Like many great players, the Big E and Unseld were labeled as stars who couldn’t win the big one – until they won the big one and shook those labels.
“Whenever you have won, that’s something that no one can ever take away from you. Because now that’s what every player from high school on through, you want to be on a championship basketball team.
“Football, baseball…everybody talks about getting that ring—winning that championship. Because that’s what it’s all about. That sets you apart from every other team,” Hayes said.
“So many great players play this game and never really get there, but then all of a sudden, it just happens. It’s magical, the way this team came together.”
All quotes from this article came from interviews conducted at the 35th anniversary celebration of the 1978 NBA Champion Washington Bullets April 5-6. All members of the championship team were in attendance except for Charles Johnson, who died of cancer in 2007, and Mitch Kupchak, who is the general manager of the Los Angeles Lakers.
Article also posted at Examiner.com.