It was their fourth game of the year, and the Baltimore Bullets had just shown their new coach, Paul Seymour, another interesting way to lose. Mildly put, this was on Seymour's mind, as well as on almost everyone else's in the Baltimore locker room. But suddenly, skittering through the quiet, someone's whistle began running merrily up and down the scale. Losing, thought Seymour, was bad enough; he had suffered that condition often as a player himself, though he was never indifferent to it. But this was too much. He did not have to look far for the whistler. Walt Bellamy, usually about as cheering a sight as a hearse and nearly as big, was just beginning another trill.
"Walt!" snapped Seymour. "Lay off the birdseed! If you want to perform, just ask. There's the table, and we can always get a spotlight."
Bellamy being Bellamy, he received this advice with a customary loud and inexpressive silence. But Seymour has become impervious to vocal or implied disaccord from his players. By last weekend he seemed already beyond his capacity to endure the antics of the most unpredictable team in sports. During the week the Bullets split two games with the Detroit Pistons, a hustling but inept gang of track stars who collaborated with Baltimore in horrendous exhibitions of church-basement basketball, and lost to Cincinnati and Boston. After the loss to Detroit, Seymour was stunned. Detroit's Bill Buntin, a flabby, wheezing 6-foot-7 rookie and a "mark" for the league's pivotmen, had scored 25 points in 27 minutes. "We made All-League out of Buntin," said Seymour. "But if he's not that good—where does it leave us?"
Where indeed? Where have the brightest prospects for an NBA team in years flown to, leaving the dry, bitter taste of ashes in the mouth of Paul Seymour? Only a few weeks ago, after an era of constant change in ownership, coaching and player personnel, the Bullet franchise appeared secure in these and other areas. The Baltimore Civic Center, garishly futuristic from the outside, is a fine and comfortable place to play, no small asset to any NBA team, and especially one trying to create new fans in competition with popular professional baseball and football clubs. The Baltimore press has been perhaps the most generous and uncritical in the league, eschewing the sniping attacks repeatedly launched on the world champions in Boston or the silent treatment endured by the 76ers in Philadelphia. The new owners—Earl Foreman (a partner of Philadelphia Eagles' boss Jerry Wolman), Abe Pollin and Arnie Heft (a former NBA official)—are knowledgeable about the game, determined to produce a winner and not reluctant to pay the necessary price. They pushed another experienced basketball man, Buddy Jeannette, up to general manager when they made their best move to date, the hiring of Paul Seymour.
Even as a player, Seymour was marked with the intelligence, tactical skill and strong-mindedness characteristic of potential coaching material. And he was a competitor—"the toughest, meanest guy I ever played against," says Bill Sharman, for years the Celtics' All-Pro guard opposite Cousy. A tenacious, nonstop defender against the fearful firepower that the Celtics threw at his Syracuse team, Seymour was a key participant in the often rough playoff games between these two clubs. NBA Sportscaster Buddy Blattner characterizes him aptly as "a backroom brawler with polish." The Baltimore Bullets, everyone agreed, would play for Paul Seymour.
The team Seymour inherited seemed to have every ingredient for championship contention. First, considering the most relentless strategic factor in the professional game—the necessity to counter Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell-there was the 6-foot-11 Bellamy, remarkably mobile and strong enough to give any team he played for an even chance against Philadelphia and Boston. And he could overpower the smaller or less aggressive pivotmen he faced. With him on the front line were two excellent shooters, Gus Johnson and Bailey Howell, the former fast and quickly acquiring finesse, the latter slower but smart. Backing them up, more than adequately, were Wayne Hightower and the recently acquired Johnny Kerr. Guard Don Ohl was one of the best shooters in uniform anywhere, Kevin Loughery was rapidly improving in backcourt judgment, and along came rangy Jerry Sloan to run the whole show, as he had shown he could do so well at Evansville. Sloan, not opposed to floor burns when a loose ball is at stake, was Seymour's kind of player—a rugged defender, an unselfish playmaker.
Then the roof of every arena the Bullets played in fell on Paul Seymour. The disaster began when Johnson injured his left wrist and was lost for six weeks. Sloan acquired a badly jammed thumb. And the rest of the first-stringers appeared deaf to Seymour's instructions, pleas, shouts and even his rages. On offense they barely ran, and the defense was painful to watch. No one but Kerr or Hightower reached for a defensive rebound. Each player seemed to require a basketball of his own, he gave it up that reluctantly. Seymour was aware that last season Johnson and Bellamy whined constantly because Ohl, Howell and Loughery allegedly refused to move the ball their way. He was unable to change the situation. For their part, Johnson and Bellamy acted as if "assist" were a dirty word. They carried this silly affair a ludicrous step further by severing their own alliance and did not even pass the ball to each other. Hightower had something to say on the subject when he began playing in Johnson's place: he never saw the ball, apparently because the others thought Johnson was still there. "Man!" he screamed during one period of inactivity, "there's two sides to this court!"
With all this. Seymour's biggest problem was the personality of Walt Bellamy. Thinking of it brought to his face the expression of a man who has just gulped a hemlock malted. When the effort of watching Bellamy's laggard behavior on the court became too much for him, he surveyed the stands as if looking for a place to hide. (Jeannette vainly looked for customers; thanks to the team's nonperformance, Stripper Blaze Starr was drawing more patrons at the 2 O'Clock Club just a few blocks away.)
Seymour is by no means the first coach to find it impossible to reach Bellamy. Jack McMahon had him in Chicago and abhorred him. Bob Leonard once wanted to throw him out of a hotel window but settled for fining him $400 for his indolence. Jeannette still rolls his eyes at the mention of the name.
By last weekend everyone in Baltimore had had enough. Jeannette arranged a trade with New York that took Bellamy off Seymour's back. In return the Bullets got a center in Bad News Barnes, a reserve guard in Johnny Egan and a forward in Johnny Green, who will help out until Gus Johnson is again available.
Jeannette called Seymour in and told him the good news. After they exchanged expressions of relief and congratulated each other, Seymour asked who would tell Walt Bellamy.
"This one," said Jeannette, who had suffered longer than Seymour, "is mine. I claim the privilege."