The game was still in the first period, but the fans 20 rows up in Section 106 of the new, red-white-and-blue-span-gled Capital Centre were already furious. They were not angry at their Bullets, who were cruising to an early lead, and they were not complaining about the officiating, especially since the refs had just awarded the Bullets two points on a dubious call of goaltending. They were fuming about something that was not happening on the huge scoreboard suspended over center court.
"Hey, I want to see that one again," yelled one of the faithful, keeping his eyes on the board and ignoring the action on the floor. The fan to his left agreed. "It was a gift. Give us another look!"
"Would ya believe it? Those dumb mommas ain't gonna run it again?" concluded the first fan disgustedly and went back to watching the play.
All the while, the Centre's great showpiece—a revolutionary innovation, really—remained as blank as an unpainted canvas. The rest of the big new scoreboard was working just fine, flashing out point totals, the time and the team fouls in multicolored, computerstyle digits. But the 20-foot television screen mounted above the statistical readouts was not doing its thing, and that is what disturbed the fans in Section 106. They wanted, and had expected to be shown, a living-color, close-up, slow-motion, stop-action, instant replay of the alleged goaltending. They didn't get it.
The Bullets' new 19,069-seat home in Landover, Md., 15 miles from downtown Washington, is the only place in the world where fans can demand a TV replay at a basketball game—or any other kind of game. It doesn't matter that Telscreen, as the $1.25 million system is called, tends to ignore the visiting team and politely refrains from second-guessing the referee. The customers seem to love the idea of having their cake and eating it, too—of seeing a live live game and homestyle replays as well.
Since the Bullets changed their first name to Capital and moved into the Centre, they have been averaging nearly 12,000 fans a game, which may prove something about a change of scenery or our fundamental addiction to the big tube. The Bullets are almost exactly the same team that played in Baltimore, where they had a first-rate won-lost record yet were among the NBA's worst draws. This year the multitudes that have come to see them have had some superior viewing. The Bullets have pulled off some dandy replays on the way to a nine-game lead in the Central Division.
Their main problem is that although the same Bullet starters may still be on the payroll, some of them often have been off the playroll. The chief absentees have been Guard Archie (Shake 'n Bake) Clark and Center Wes Unseld, who have missed 51 games between them.
Clark, who began the season with a separated shoulder and lately has been troubled by a swollen right elbow, has been ably replaced by Kevin Porter, the 6', second-year man from St. Francis (Pa.) who has developed into a quick and courageous small guard of the Tiny Archibald-Norm Van Lier-Calvin Murphy school. Porter fearlessly penetrates to the basket, mingling with the biggest men on the floor en route. They often remove this elusive, airborne annoyance from their midst by batting him into the third row of seats, but usually only after Porter has launched one of his double-dip floaters toward the hoop or passed off to a teammate for an open shot. While Clark was missing almost all of February, Porter averaged 18 points and eight assists a game. Unfortunately, he is equally undaunted on defense, where his aggressiveness has resulted in a league-leading 14 disqualifications.
Unseld has been in absentia even more than Clark and is much tougher to replace. The very heart of past Bullet teams, he is limping through this season on a tender left knee. It is likely surgery will be tried after the playoffs—with no guarantee of success. For now, Coach K.C. Jones must continue to juggle Unseld in and out of the lineup. Some games he has started and gone nearly all the way; in others he has appeared in the second half if it was close; in a few he has stepped in during the closing seconds to help execute a specific play; and in many he has not played at all. Though he has never been a prolific scorer, the Bullets sorely miss Unseld on offense. His rebounding and quick, hard outlet passes have long been the keystone of the team's fast break, and his picks are the most massively effective in the league; they are the equivalent of being screened out by a Clydesdale.
It may well be that the Bullets will have to become permanently accustomed to doing all of these things without Unseld. In a mood of confusion and discouragement a few weeks back, he discussed with the Washington Star-News the possibility that his career may be cut short. "There are some things—basic things like jumping and moving to my left—that I can't do properly and may not be able to do again," he said. "My wife is the only one who really understands all this. She's trying to prepare me in her own subtle way. She says to me, 'Gee, Wes, what a great career you've had.' Sounds bad, doesn't it?"
For the Bullets, the season might have been much worse were it not for Elvin Hayes, who has done an extraordinary job of filling the void left by Unseld. He has played more minutes (45 per game) than any man in the NBA, his rebounding average of 18.6 is far ahead of anyone else's and, despite a wretched .413 shooting percentage, he is clearly having his most brilliant season.
Hayes had some fine years—at least statistically—with the Rockets before joining the Bullets last season. He is the only man whose name is not Russell or Chamberlain who has led the NBA in rebounding for even so much as a singgle season between 1958 and 1973. And he is one of five players in the league's history ever to win titles in both scoring and rebounding.
Yet during his four years with the Rockets, Hayes was variously considered a ball hog, a rotten apple, a dumbbell and a guaranteed loser. Each season Hayes would try to explain that he was the victim of circumstance—as the lone big-name player on a poor team he was being assessed an unfair portion of the blame. And he would promise to sweeten his often sullen demeanor. By the time he left Houston, the NBA had come to expect an annual "New Big E" to go along with the yearly "New Wilt."
As it turned out, all Hayes needed was a new team. He fit in easily with the Bullets, played excellently last season and has been even better this year, particularly in those areas only other players are likely to notice. Forward Mike Riordan points to Hayes' improvement at picking and passing, additions to his game that have helped replace Unseld's considerable expertise. Hayes also has been a human Electrolux under both backboards. In 27 games this season he has ended up with more rebounds than points, a remarkable feat for a player who regularly scores more than 20.
Along with all that, Hayes' on-court personality has improved, too, a change he credits to his conversion to fundamentalist Christianity. He was mowing the lawn at his Houston house one day last summer when, he says, "I received a prophecy. The voice of God reached me and led me to the Church of Holiness."
The genuinely "New Big E" will need all the inspiration he can get in the playoffs if the Bullets hope to defeat New York, their likely first-round opponent. Against the Knicks at the Centre last Friday, Capital won half the game—the first and third periods—but obviously felt Unseld's absence in losing the other two quarters and the game 112-103. Often firing from behind Hayes' picks, Guard Phil Chenier gave the Bullets 20 points in the opening period. And for once Porter's defense fouled up opponents, not himself, as Capital broke to its early lead. He stole the ball and drew an offensive personal from Earl Monroe and harassed The Pearl and Walt Frazier into traveling violations.
That Porter also pulled in one of his team's total of two offensive rebounds in the period was an indication of things to come. With Jerry Lucas' long bombs drawing Hayes outside to guard him, the Bullets were outrebounded 18-4 in the second quarter. New York fast-broke at will and led by nine at the half.
Hayes dominated the rebounding in the third quarter—he had 11 overall in the second half—and the Bullets briefly regained the lead. But in the fourth period Dave DeBusschere hit for 10 points, first victimizing Unseld's two subs, rookies Nick Weatherspoon and Tom Kozelko, and then Hayes, who stayed too close to the basket to stop DeBusschere's outside shots. The Knicks surged to the win.
If Unseld is unable to play effectively, the dilemma of guarding New York outside while trying to rebound inside could be one that will stymie the Bullets over and over again in the playoffs. And the result is apt to be an unpretty picture that not even the most avid Telscreen watchers are going to want to see instantly replayed very many times.