Irene Pollin: Changing Name of Washington Wizards Back to Bullets Would Be OK

Mike FrandsenCorrespondent IDecember 26, 2011

Washington Wizards guards Jordan Crawford and John Wall model the team's new red, white, and blue uniforms.
Washington Wizards guards Jordan Crawford and John Wall model the team's new red, white, and blue uniforms.

Irene Pollin, the widow of former Washington Bullets and Wizards owner Abe Pollin, recently told the Washington Post she wouldn’t be opposed to changing the Wizards name back to the Bullets, if that’s what the fans want. 

This is big news for longtime fans of the franchise, who remember the team's glory days of the 1970s. Most Wizards fans would like the team to go back to the Bullets name, according to online polls. 

Owner Ted Leonsis has consistently said he would not contemplate a name change, but he did change the uniform colors and design to something similar to what the Bullets used to wear.  

Pollin’s comments give old Bullets fans a glimmer of hope that someday, somehow, the team just might be called the Bullets once again. 

Don’t bet on it, but then again, the opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings.  

The Wizards open the season Monday night at home against the New Jersey Nets. When they take the Verizon Center floor, they will wear red, white, and blue uniforms, reminiscent of the ones the Bullets wore in their heyday. 

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To understand what the Bullets mean to longtime D.C. fans, Bleacher Report takes a look back at the team’s great history. 

The Wizards/Bullets have had a rough quarter century or so. But at one time, the team was known for one thing: winning.

In an interview last year, former Bullets guard Kevin Grevey discussed what it meant to be a member of the Washington Bullets 1978 NBA championship team.

The NBA Champion Washington Bullets

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.

Before the blue and bronze colors of the Washington Wizards, there was the red, white, and blue of the Washington Bullets. Local musician Nils Lofgren wrote a hit song, “Bullets Fever,” that was played over and over during the spring of 1978 on Washington radio stations.

The name Bullets was synonymous with winning, as they made the playoffs 18 times in 20 seasons from 1969 to 1988.

Grevey was selected by the Bullets in the first round of the 1975 NBA draft after a stellar career at Kentucky, where he was a two-time All-American. A 6' 5" swingman, the left-handed Grevey was an accurate long-range shooter, excellent passer, and tenacious defender who started on the Bullets championship team.

Grevey is still the fifth-leading scorer in franchise playoff history. Only Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes played more playoff games for Washington.

Kevin Grevey goes up against Chris Ford and Rick Robey of the Boston Celtics.
Kevin Grevey goes up against Chris Ford and Rick Robey of the Boston Celtics.

During the decade the Bullets played in Baltimore from 1964-’73, they had three NBA Hall of Famers for parts of that span: Gus Johnson, Walt Bellamy and Earl Monroe.

The team got even better when a couple more all-time greats, Hayes and Unseld, arrived. Unseld arrived in 1968-’69, and Hayes via trade in 1972-’73.

The Bullets were hugely successful in the 1970s, with winning records in nine of 10 seasons. They won more than 50 games four times, including 60 wins in 1974-‘75.

They made it to the NBA finals four times. The Bullets were swept in the finals by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1970-’71 when they were based in Baltimore.

After moving to Washington in 1973, the Bullets again advanced to the finals in 1974-’75. But they were swept by the Golden State Warriors.

In the final two years of the decade, the Bullets made back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals. They compiled a 54-28 record in 1978-’79 that was the best in the NBA. However, 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.

Talent, Leadership, and Depth

The championship Bullets featured one of the greatest front lines in NBA history. They had two Hall of Famers, 12-time all-star forward Elvin Hayes, and veteran center Wes Unseld, who is still the only player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season.

Wes Unseld battles Seattle's Jack Sikma for a rebound.
Wes Unseld battles Seattle's Jack Sikma for a rebound.

Hayes averaged 23 points and 13 rebounds a game in his playoff career, slightly higher than his averages for regular season games. Hayes would end his career as the NBA’s third all-time leading scorer and rebounder.

The Capital Centre crowd would ring out in choruses of “EEEEE”, as the “Big E” made his signature move, the turnaround, fadeaway jumper. It was a shot the Big E executed as well as any player in NBA history. 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 consummate team player, Unseld was known for shutting down much taller centers, setting jarring picks, and making outlet passes that sailed the length of the court.  

Unseld went on to win the 1978 finals MVP. He later became the team's coach and general manager.  

Hayes and Unseld may not have always gotten along off the court, but on the court they respected each other. The Bullets made the playoffs in eight of the nine seasons they played together.

Dandridge was a smooth-shooting small forward who could create his own shot and lock down players on defense. “Bobby D” had already won a championship in 1970-’71 with Milwaukee when the Bucks beat the Bullets.

Tom Henderson was a strong, pass-first point guard, who still averaged double figures in points. Grevey, the former All-American from Kentucky who averaged 15.5 points a game in the regular season and playoffs, rounded out the starting lineup.

Former Bullets center Mitch Kupchak at a charity golf and tennis tournament in 1980. Photo by Mike Frandsen.
Former Bullets center Mitch Kupchak at a charity golf and tennis tournament in 1980. Photo by Mike Frandsen.

The Bullets also had excellent depth in center Mitch Kupchak (16 points, seven rebounds), rookie forward Greg 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.

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.

“We had Tommy Henderson, a strong power guard that could match up well with the power guards in our division, we had more depth than any team in the NBA, and we had size going for us and that veteran leadership with Elvin and Wes,” said Grevey.

“We had all the components of a great team. It was just getting healthy, and we had a lot of injuries. We were ready when the time came in the playoffs.”

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.

In January, the Bullets signed Charles Johnson, formerly of Golden State, to a 10-day contract. Johnson arrived to a game at the Capital Centre shortly before tipoff via helicopter from Dulles Airport.

Former Bullets guard Phil Chenier scored more than 20 points a game three seasons.
Former Bullets guard Phil Chenier scored more than 20 points a game three seasons.

He became an integral part of the championship team.

“C.J. was like a locker room lawyer. He made it fun. He was such a great addition,” said Grevey.

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 Grevey knew they had the right mix of players.

“We knew we were good and we believed we had a team that could win the championship,” Grevey said.

“(General Manager) Bob Ferry and Motta put together a team they thought would be great for the playoffs, adding Bobby Dandridge, somebody who could guard George Gervin and Dr. J, an element that we never had before. Those were teams we had to get by," he added.

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.

“Everybody on the floor could shoot the ball at every position. We were a very difficult team to beat because you couldn’t just key on Elvin or Wes or Bobby Dandridge,” Grevey said.

Elvin Hayes gets in position for a rebound against Seattle's Paul Silas.
Elvin Hayes gets in position for a rebound against Seattle's Paul Silas.

“Those three were certainly our leaders and our mainstay, but on a given night anybody could go off.”

A Card, a Sock, and 43 Points

Grevey did go off in the clinching game of the first round series against the Atlanta Hawks when he scored 43 points. Back then the first round was best of three games, so each game was critical.

There’s a story on the internet about Grevey’s 43-point performance, former basketball camp guru Howie Garfinkel, a card, and a sock that Grevey says is only “half true.”

Grevey used to coach students in Garfinkel’s Five-Star basketball camps. Garfinkel was friends with Hubie Brown, the Hawks' coach at the time.

Grevey explained, “Of course he was rooting for our demise and he said, ‘Win or lose, whatever happens here, I want you to come back to my camp. Put this card in your sock. It’ll be good luck, and call me when the playoffs are over with.’

“Well we won that opening game and I scored 43 points and I went back and I’m peeling off my saturated uniform, and that card was just pulp. There was no card anymore.

“The media is all over me and they said, ‘Grevey, what a game. What got into you?’ I saw Howie walk in the locker room and I pointed to him and said, ‘That man right there, Howie Garfinkel – if he hadn’t given me that good luck card that I put in my sock, I don’t know if I would have had the great game,’ just making a joke.

The Bullets not only had great uniforms, but their warm-ups were also classic. Grevey is pictured here taking a rest.
The Bullets not only had great uniforms, but their warm-ups were also classic. Grevey is pictured here taking a rest.

“And he yelled across the room, ‘I’ve got a whole box of them coming to you Kevin. You guys are going to win the championship. Keep putting that card in your sock, Grevey.’ Well, he believes I put that card in my sock every game from then on. I didn’t. I’m not that superstitious.”

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.

Dandridge played tough defense on Gervin with help from Grevey as the Bullets outlasted the Spurs four games to two.

With the Bullets leading the Spurs three games to one, a San Antonio sportscaster uttered a line that would become famous: “The opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings.”

Bullets coach Dick 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. Bullets' fans made t-shirts, signs, and even wore wigs as the “Fat Lady” slogan became the Bullets’ rallying cry.

Bobby Dandridge outplayed superstar Dr. J in the 1978 playoffs as the Bullets upset the Sixers.
Bobby Dandridge outplayed superstar Dr. J in the 1978 playoffs as the Bullets upset the Sixers.

Grevey set the tone for the Bullets in Game one as he led the Bullets with 26 points in a 122-117 win, outplaying Doug Collins.

After the Sixers took Game two, 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.

The Fat Lady sings

The Bullets were headed to the NBA finals in Seattle against the Supersonics, who featured Gus Williams, “Downtown” Freddy Brown, Marvin “the Human Eraser” Webster, Jack Sikma, Paul Silas, and future Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson.

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 one in Seattle, Grevey came through for the Bullets with 27 points on a variety of jump shots and drives to the basket. However, the Sonics outlasted Washington 106-102 behind 16 points in the last nine minutes from Brown.

In Game two at the Capital Centre, Dandridge scored 34, Hayes had 25, and Henderson added 20, as Washington won 106-98.

The 1978 NBA Champion Washington Bullets.
The 1978 NBA Champion Washington Bullets.

In the next game, Henderson hit a layup with five seconds left 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 two, 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 five, 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 six, 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. The 35-point margin set an NBA championship record as the Bullets out-rebounded the Sonics, 69-49.

“Going into Game seven, I prayed that I could feel a championship once,” Grevey remembered. “I lost the state finals in high school, NCAA finals in college and I didn’t want to come up in second place again, never knowing if I’d ever have that opportunity again.”

In Game seven, the Bullets became NBA champions for the first time with a 105-99 victory over the Sonics. Dandridge and Johnson each scored 19 points. Unseld had 15 points and 12 rebounds, and made two late free throws to seal the win. Charles Johnson averaged 20 points a game over the final four games of the series.

Dandridge, Grevey, and C.J. held Dennis Johnson to a zero for 14 shooting night. Kupchak made a key three-point play with just over a minute to go, and Webster scored 27 to lead the Sonics.

The Bullets ran off the floor, jumping up and down all the way to the locker room. Hayes and Unseld let out more than a decade of pent up frustration as they celebrated their first world championship. 

The Bullets became only the third team ever to win the title in a seventh game on the road. They did it with Unseld, Dandridge, and Grevey all missing time during the playoffs due to injuries.

Bullets Fever

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.

Nils Lofgren’s “Bullets Fever” could be heard on radios throughout D.C., inside and outside the beltway, 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.

Elvin Hayes outraces Seattle's Downtown Freddy Brown to the ball.
Elvin Hayes outraces Seattle's Downtown Freddy Brown to the ball.

Bullets Fever! Seattle was stunned.

Grevey said the excitement surrounding the Bullets’ win was “unlike anything I’d ever seen in this town. At that time there hadn’t been a championship since the ‘40s. This was a very hungry city for something to sink your teeth into.”

Grevey had planned to return to Kentucky like he did the previous two summers.

“But after we won the championship I just tore up those plans and said I’m staying here,” remembered Grevey. “And I never left.”

Grevey bought a house and opened his restaurant, Grevey’s. “I also met my wife the year after we won the championship so it was smart for me to stay here,” he said.

During the 1978-’79 season the Bullets led the NBA 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, 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 matchups in later years, such as the Lakers-Celtics rivalry involving Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, or the titles in the ‘90s involving Michael Jordan. But in Washington and Seattle, fans were rabid over the finals.

Game four in 1978 was played before 39,457 spectators at the Kingdome, the largest crowd ever to watch a single professional basketball game. Game three in 1979 was held in the Kingdome in front of 35,928.

In fact, the 1978 Bullets-Sonics finals received higher TV ratings than both the 1980 finals with Magic Johnson’s Lakers against Dr. J’s 76ers, and the 1981 finals featuring Larry Bird and the Celtics vs. the Rockets.

The 9.9 Nielsen rating the 1978 Bullets-Sonics series garnered was also better than ratings for each of the finals from 2005 to 2009, which featured stars such as LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal.

End of an Era

The Bullets’ age caught up with them the next two seasons, as they lost in the first round and then failed to make the playoffs. After the 1980-’81 season, Unseld retired and Hayes was traded to Houston.

It was the end of an era for the Bullets, who said goodbye to two of the NBA’s greatest players.

Grevey performed admirably in the 1981-’82 playoffs. He led Washington with 23 points in a win against the New Jersey Nets in 1982. He made all four of his three-point shots, as the Bullets swept the first round playoff series. Washington lost in the second round against Boston.

The next year the Bullets didn’t make the playoffs. Grevey missed half the season with injuries and his scoring average fell to 7.2. He was traded in October 1983 to the Milwaukee Bucks for a second round draft choice, where he played the final two seasons of his NBA career.

A new generation of fans has embraced Bullets tradition. Photo by Mike Frandsen.
A new generation of fans has embraced Bullets tradition. Photo by Mike Frandsen.

From Bullets to Wizards

The Bullets made the playoffs five straight times between 1984 and 1988, but never won more than 42 games. Then the team missed the playoffs for eight straight seasons.

In 1996-’97, the Bullets made the playoffs with a lineup including Chris Webber and Juwan Howard, but their success was short-lived.

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.

The team also stood to benefit financially from the change. It came at a time when the franchise moved from the U.S. Air Arena, formerly called the Capital Centre, to the downtown Verizon Center (called MCI Center at the time).

The name Bullets, once synonymous with winning, had become known for mediocrity, and finally futility. Merchandise sales were also near the bottom of the league. The team had gone away from its stars and stripes uniform to a plainer version in recent seasons.

Grevey, other ex-Bullets, and legions of fans disagreed vehemently with the name change.

“I don’t think there’s anything we can relate to in the name Wizards in Washington. Could you imagine them changing the name of the Redskins? It would be horrible,” Grevey said.

Washington, D.C. sportscaster George Michael interviews Ted Leonsis when he was Caps owner and held a minority share in the Wizards. Leonsis took over ownership of the Wizards in 2010.
Washington, D.C. sportscaster George Michael interviews Ted Leonsis when he was Caps owner and held a minority share in the Wizards. Leonsis took over ownership of the Wizards in 2010.Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

“Never once did I wear a Bullets uniform and feel embarrassed about it being used in a way other than players running down the floor speeding like a bullet. I think it was a stretch.

“But it was also a smart business decision, making the move to the arena almost like an expansion team. New coach, new players, new colors, new name, new city…so it was a windfall financially to change the name.”

The area around seventh and F Streets NW at the Verizon Center has been revitalized in the last decade. An area that once was filled with abandoned buildings is now teaming with nightclubs, restaurants, and retailers. Pollin financed the arena with $200 million of his own money. Pollin also gave back to the community through numerous charities.

Pollin died at the age of 85 in November 2009. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis took over as Wizards owner in 2010. 

The Wizards have now failed to make the playoffs in 10 of their 14 seasons. The big three, Gilbert Arenas, Antawn Jamison, and Caron Butler, helped the team to four straight playoff berths from 2005 to 2008, but only made it past the first round once.

The Wizards name, logo, and colors never caught on. Wizards merchandise sales rank well below that of most other NBA teams. Meanwhile, retro versions of old Bullets uniforms have become huge sellers.

Would Grevey like the Wizards to someday change their name back to the Bullets?

Kevin Grevey outside his restaurant
Kevin Grevey outside his restaurant

“Of course I would. Everybody who played for the Bullets was disappointed to see the Bullets change the name. It was Abe Pollin’s team and he deserved to do whatever he wanted to, and he did it for an admirable reason because of the political correctness. I just wish they were called the Bullets.”

Leonsis has a well-deserved reputation for listening to fans, and switching back to the familiar red, white, and blue colors for the team’s uniforms pleased longtime fans of the franchise.

The Caps have become one of the most fan-friendly franchises in the NHL, and Leonsis answers all email from fans. Is it possible that Leonsis might change the name back to the Bullets someday?

“I hope he does,” said Grevey. “I think Ted will hear from the fans and I think a lot of fans would love to get back to the great history that we have.”

A Great Man

As for Pollin, Grevey said he was a down to earth owner who communicated well with players. Grevey noted that Pollin was frugal, but was also a smart businessman.

“I couldn’t have had a better owner. He was hands-on. He was at our practices, at every game. When things were going well he would call. He had your back. He was almost like a father figure to young players,” said Grevey.

The classic Wes Unseld Bullets retro jersey is a big seller on the internet. Photo by Mike Frandsen.
The classic Wes Unseld Bullets retro jersey is a big seller on the internet. Photo by Mike Frandsen.

“I was just in my early 20s, buying my first house, investing in my first business, and he was somebody you could talk to about other things besides basketball. He would always offer advice on things. When my parents would come to town he would always ask for them to sit in a skybox. He wanted to personally get to know you. He was a real life hero for all of us. Never once did you ever feel like he was big-timing you.”

Teammates for Life

Grevey still keeps in touch with old teammates. He says that chemistry was part of what made the team great. There was less player movement between teams than there is today, so players got to know each other.

“We were always laughing, going out to dinner, having a good time, and to this day, those teammates from that championship team are still my best friends.”

Grevey’s Bullets teammates showed their loyalty two years ago when his wife became sick from a bacterial infection after a knee replacement surgery. The infection spread to her brain before she recovered.

“I must have had six or seven of my teammates from that championship team reach out to me, gave me some of the most heartfelt messages anyone could ever have. ‘Teammates for life’ is what we call ourselves.”

In his restaurant, Grevey has large, framed photos of Hayes, Unseld, and other Bullets teammates in action.

The Bullets’ success can also partly be attributed to their work ethic, Grevey said. Salaries were lower and players had jobs in the offseason.

“Dave Bing started his own steel company in Detroit. Mike Riordan was opening up his restaurant. Hayes was a rancher. Unseld had his school. I had my restaurant. Kupchak was getting his MBA. Dandridge was working at a bank,” said Grevey.

“When I got there my rookie year and saw the kind of people I was playing with, I said I’ve got to be a better person. I’ve got to not only prepare for basketball but prepare for my career if I get hurt. Look at my teammates. So that was an era when these guys were such wonderful people.”

Because of the money involved in today’s pro game, many of today’s players leave college early, which doesn’t help fundamentals or the teamwork aspect of the game. Grevey says when he played, from 1975-1985, players played for the love of the game.

“I was in a wonderful era. You weren’t doing it for the money or the fame. Agents weren’t prominent,” said Grevey. It was a basketball league. Now it’s entertainment. These guys are big time showmen.”

However, basketball is still basketball, a game that Grevey loves. He does color commentary on college basketball and NBA games on TV and radio. He also finds time to scout for the Los Angeles Lakers, where his friend and old teammate Mitch Kupchak is the general manager, and of course, run Grevey’s.

As for a potential name change back to Bullets, it seems unlikely. But one thing is certain, Bullets fans will always remember not only the Bullets’ big three of Hayes, Unseld, and Dandridge, but true professionals like Chenier, Kupchak, Ballard, and Grevey.  

They will continue to remember the 1978 NBA champs, and all the other great players who have played for the Bullets.

As Nils Lofgren once sung, "You've gotta be a fan of ol' D.C. to know what the Bullets mean to me."

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