From the beginning it should have been obvious to everybody but a Congressman from the Cascade Mountains that in any struggle between a team that lives and dies with guards and a team dependent upon Elvin Hayes, neither candidate could possibly win the NBA championship.
And so it came to pass that the Seattle SuperSonics—crass and brassy in the backcourt but feeble up front—and the Washington Bullets—powerful and point-heavy at forward but fairly woeful nearly everywhere else—had to head back to the West Coast after four separate trips across the land in their final series, all tied up at three games apiece. In other words, all dressed up with no place to go but the steamy and savage caldron of a seventh arid deciding game. Win the world championship? they must have been asking themselves. Might as well, can't dance.
Additional things that the two combatants were unable to accomplish continued to crop up during these games, never more obviously than last Sunday afternoon in Landover, Md. when the Sonics had a chance to end the longest season in the history of civilization but instead suffered a June swoon and were blown away by the determined Bullets, 117-82.
Washington buried its guests with 70 points in the second half, but it was a 13-4 spurt at the end of the first half that broke open a tight contest and banned the Sonic Boom for the rest of the day. Seattle's Dennis Johnson, who watched the Bullet rally from the bench, said, "We were flat. I came out because I wasn't producing. It was a lack of adrenaline or something."
June 11, 1978
Perhaps the deficiency was caused by the shock of seeing 6'6" Washington Forward Bob Dandridge floating and stinging like a guard, which he once was. With Kevin Grevey sidelined by injuries and his other backcourtmen plainly horrible, Bullet Coach Dick Motta sent rookie Greg Ballard into the game with 4:20 left in the second quarter and moved Dandridge to guard. "I don't like guard, but it was an emergency," said Dandridge. The two men combined for 11 points as the Bullets rushed to a 47-35 halftime margin that was never threatened thereafter.
Seattle spent the rest of Game 6 wondering why its marvelous guard trio of Johnson, Fred Brown and Gus Williams, who had combined for 57 points a game in the series thus far, were being held to 42, and how enemy reserves such as Ballard (12 points and 12 rebounds), Mitch Kupchak (19 points) and even a couple of those beleaguered Bullet guards, Charlie Johnson (known as C.J.) and Larry Wright, could continue roaring down the floor in an avalanche of fast breaks.
Hayes and Dandridge together scored their customary 40 points, but it was the work of the Bullet bench that prolonged the series, not to mention the failure of the Sonic defenders, who kept giving away large pieces of territory.
"I saw a lot of smiling and laughing over there," said Seattle's Johnson (known as D.J.). "But we got the seventh game at home. He who laughs last, laughs best."
"This is what it's all about," said Motta, looking ahead to The Last Waltz in Sonic land. "Everybody's backs are to the wall. It should be a helluva moment."
If the preceding week had seemed extra long to the Sonics, it was possibly because the team—along with the fanatical Rainbeltians of the Pacific Northwest—had believed themselves capable of wrapping up the series in five easy pieces. They planned on a pair of blowouts back home in Seattle following their breakthrough to 2-1 in Landover.
This would have been considered appropriate timing by the assembled media, which all season had been licking its chops in expectation of another zany championship match between Portland and Philadelphia only to be confronted with two rather mediocre, rather monotonous adversaries who also seemed to be located in geographical pockets inaccessible to each other except by travel on 12 different airplanes.
Even though five of the games were close and tenaciously fought, CBS-TV was having a difficult time moving the series into ratings parity. This was not so surprising when one considered the prospect of watching Marvin Webster stand around waving at a bunch of guys named Johnson rather than, say, viewing slow-motion instant replays of The Partridge Family. The two participating communities had different feelings about the final series, of course. Bullet behavior seemed to take over Georgetown cocktail party conversation just where chatter about the SALT negotiations left off, and columnist James Reston, one of Washington's senior political pundits, called the playoffs "a sociological and psychological 'happening' that restores a sense of pride to this community."
A sports theorem of the day holds that the farther away a team is from the cold-blooded Eastern Establishment, the more likely it is to be worshiped. Thus the SuperSonics. Or the Bionic Sonics. Or the Ultra Sonics, as they had come to be known in Seattle.
On the day the series began on the West Coast a man in Seattle's Virginia Mason Hospital woke up from cardiac arrest to inquire in writing (because he couldn't speak) what the final score was in Game 1. For Game 4, a gaudy total of 39,457 outpatients—a single-game pro record—showed up in the Kingdome to make sure they would know.
In anticipation of the event, the Bullets' Hayes, who had played before American basketball's two largest throngs—the 52,693 present for UCLA-Houston in the Astrodome in 1968 and the 41,165 who attended an NBA doubleheader in the same building in 1969—waxed philosophical. "The UCLA game made me known around the world," said the Big E. "They won the NCAA but we won history. This game will be for history, too."
Unfortunately for Hayes, the grade-school "I before E" rule applied again, when Individualism overcame Elvin in yet another big contest. He was not around at the end, having fouled out after making no decisive impression on the outcome of his team's stunning 120-116 victory in overtime.
What made the Bullets' series-tying win impressive was not merely that they managed it on a foreign court and without much help from Hayes, but that they were strong-willed enough and sufficiently gutsy to come from 15 points behind in the third quarter; to withstand a remarkable individual performance by the Sonics' emerging star, Dennis Johnson; to take a late lead and then survive still another tied-up-maiden-on-the-railroad-tracks rescue basket by Fred Brown at the end of regulation; and to get three quick-kill hoops in the extra period from Charlie Johnson that clinched the game.
While it is true that the Sonics were not really "at home" in the Kingdome—the Seattle Coliseum, where the team had a 21-game winning streak, had been committed to a mobile-home show long before anyone realized that Coach Lenny Wilkens was Mandrake the Magician in disguise—the floor and backboards and rims were all trucked over from their more familiar arena. The carnival atmosphere also tended to favor the Sonics, as it would any team whose red-haired, freckle-faced young leader—D.J.—tended to resemble Howdy Doody.
Before Hayes and Webster tapped off at center court, which was situated about where somebody named Dan Meyer normally patrols first base for something called the Seattle Mariners, an alleged baseball team, some fascinating sights greeted visitors to the NBA's first domed playoff game. There were Sonic banners and Sonic buttons and Sonic "commemorative" T shirts and Sonicsteria in full cry. HOONAH, ALASKA SAYS GO SONICS read one sign. There was the University of Washington band and cheerleaders dancing their hearts out just as if this was a Pac-8 festival. There were mobs of fans lined up ready to storm the gates and mobs of ushers and usherettes in brown suits and berets ready to repel the invasion.
When they got down to the game itself, the difference between the two teams was the play of the Bullet guards, who had been chewed up and spit out in the previous two contests (99-64 in points) by their Sonic counterparts. Through a good part of Game 4 that trend continued as D.J., Brown and Gus Williams scored 43 points (to the Bullet backcourt's 15) in the first half, helping Seattle to a 56-48 lead at the break. In fact, up to the point when Seattle led by 15 at 85-70 with two-minutes-plus remaining in the third quarter and the Bullets collapsing the way their reputation says they always will, the Sonic trio had scored 55 to their rivals' 23.
About this time, however, D.J., who was in the midst of a 33-point, seven-rebound, three-block and three-assist evening, went to the bench with sore ribs courtesy of a Bullet elbow. The visitors took his 5½-minute absence as an occasion to get back in the game, not to mention the series. Dandridge scored 10 points, C.J. and Wright combined for five more baskets and Kupchak contributed his characteristic manic hustle—once diving headlong across the floor as if he were Jacques Cousteau homing in on the elusive sockeye salmon. With 3:30 left in the game, the Bullets were up by 103-101.
This was nothing but a signal for D.J. to return and take command of the Sonics. Over the next few astonishing minutes, with all hell breaking loose, he made no fewer than six great...big...plays: 1) a banked jumper to tie the game; 2) a block on Dandridge; 3) a loose-ball retrieve; 4) an offensive rebound and free throw to give the Sonics back the lead, 104-103; 5) after Dandridge's three-point play, a control-the-dribble, pass and strong screen for Brown's tying missile from the corner (106-all); and, finally, 6) a game-saving second block on Dandridge in the lane with two seconds to go in regulation.
The overtime turned out to be anticlimactic, as overtimes often do. The Bullets' C.J. and Tom Henderson split 12 points and the visitors swept away to a victory they could not have imagined a few minutes before, when D.J. was acting like a chubby version of Jerry West.
"We could have lain down like puppy dogs with our stomachs in the air," said C.J. in the Bullet dressing room, "but we're made of more than that. Everybody keeps knocking our guards, but their guards died tonight."
Or at least took ill. And the men from D.C. contributed to that in almost knocking off the Sonics' Johnson, who nevertheless said the Kingdome game might have been his best ever—"But it don't mean more than nothin' when you lose."
In the next few off-days, as everybody tried to get their Johnsons straight, and while the city of Seattle was being hit by an amazing natural phenomenon known as "sun," one simple fact seemed to emerge from this wildly undulating series: when the Sonics' Webster played well (37 points in Games 1 and 3) the Sonics won, and when Wes Unseld stopped him (six baskets total in Games 2 and 4), the Sonics lost.
Naturally, this brilliant concept was blown apart within hours, or about the time it took the wily Unseld to apply his heft and erase the Eraser from Game 5, holding him to just 3 for 10. Back in the homey Coliseum on Friday night, Seattle won 98-94 without Webster simply because D.J. was steady again and had 24 points; because Brown was back downtown and added a game-high 26, saying, "I know every crack and cranny here, every niche on the hoop"; and because Hayes once more disappeared in the moments of crisis.
In addition, the Sonics were able to make their late foul shots (10 of 13 in the final 4:07) while the Bullets missed theirs (9 of 20 in the second half). Seattle's main man in this regard was the lanky rookie Jack Sikma.
In between his hiding and complaining to everybody about the officials, Hayes had been manhandling Sikma all series long. But in the final minutes of the fifth game Sikma retaliated with a vengeance by ripping down rebounds, drawing fouls, converting three significant free throws and effectively blanketing Hayes on defense (the way Papa Bear Silas had shown him to do). All of that came after the Bullets had cut another supposedly safe Seattle 11-point lead to two points (92-90) with 1:59 left.
This time Hayes played nearly 20 minutes of the second half without scoring a basket. "Our patterns have different options; they're not just for me," he announced. "I need the ball to score."
When Seattle's Brown was asked about this, he just snickered. Silas said, "I can't get into Elvin's brain. I don't know what's wrong with him."
But as Hayes strolled to the Bullet team bus, laughing and autographing copies of his book, They Call Me the Big E, his teammate Kupchak corroborated what both teams knew but weren't saying. "It's all up to Elvin," said Kupchak. "We can't force the ball to him every time; he's been around long enough to know that. But when Elvin wants the ball, we get it to him."
The Bullets didn't need Hayes on Sunday, but even in a fourth quarter that meant nothing, he couldn't buy a basket. For the first six games of the series Hayes had scored 133 points but only 19 of them in all the final quarters. To prevail in a battle between such evenly matched clubs, it seemed imperative for the Bullets that their only real "name" player and 10-year All-Star justify his status by not dissolving at the end of the seventh game.
"The fourth quarter tells the story," Fred Brown had said of this exhausting drama, while somewhere between the coasts. "That's where everything is decided. Either you come with it or you don't."
And in Game 7 everything would finally be decided.