They're first, at long last

After 16 seasons and 233 days, the Bullets won their first NBA title by shutting down Seattle's hot guards and getting plenty of backspin from a surprising hero
June 18, 1978

What could have been more appropriate than the fact that the very last American to be kept waiting for this incredibly long pro basketball season to end was Jimmy Carter?

The President waited and waited in the White House last Friday for the Washington Bullets, the newly crowned NBA champions, to show up for a reception, while his helicopter idled on the South Lawn, ready to whisk Carter off to Camp David for the weekend.

"Where on earth are they?" the President might have asked Larry O'Brien, the NBA commissioner, who once kept a toothbrush in the White House. "They were due at five o'clock."

"Relax, Mr. President," O'Brien might have replied. "Be thankful they aren't playing overtimes into July."

At that moment the Bullets were on Pennsylvania Avenue, their motorcade slowed by thousands of fans showering love on the capital's first championship team since 1942, when the Redskins beat the Bears for the NFL title. The fans not only showered love; Wes Unseld, the MVP of the playoffs, got sprayed with a bottle of beer. "Jimmy Carter's gonna love this," said Unseld.

The scene was reminiscent of the one in the Bullets' dressing room at the Seattle Coliseum two nights earlier, after Washington's 105-99 victory over the SuperSonics had made them only the third NBA team to win a seven-game championship series on the road. During their celebration, the Bullets soaked each other not with champagne but with Heineken. "Well, I've always said that we're the work-ethic team," said Coach Dick Motta, "so I guess beer is appropriate."

As the beer was spritzed around, the Bullets manifested their joy in different ways. Forward Bob Dandridge bounced between the low ceiling and the floor like a dribbling basketball, whooping "Hey! Whooo! Wheee! Yeah!" Guard Charles Johnson, who had helped clinch the championship with 19 points worth of unconscious shooting in Game 7, made like the cool, dispassionate pro. "I'm a pressure player," he said, sucking on a toothpick. "If my shot's got backspin. it's got a chance."

Unseld, the center who had labored for nine years without a championship and was voted MVP mainly on sentiment—Dandridge having been more valuable during Washington's 21 playoff games—drew the most reporters. "What I feel is relief," said Unseld. "Aren't you happy?" he was asked. "Sure I'm happy," he said. "Look at me. I'm ecstatic." An ecstatic statue, apparently.

Then there was Elvin Hayes, a non-champion, too, for nine years. Was this vindication for all those occasions he was accused of disappearing at crunch time, or was there some truth to the sign in the coliseum that read: THE BEST HAYES IS HELEN HAYES? That was a touchy question, because in Game 7 Hayes had taken only 10 shots and scored just 12 points, at least partly because of good defense by rookie Jack Sikma and veteran Paul Silas. And as the Bullets won their first championship in the franchise's 16 seasons, Hayes was the Silent E sitting on the bench with six fouls. "They can say whatever they want," said Hayes. "But they gotta say one thing: E's a world champion. He wears a ring."

The Sonics' 22-game home winning streak notwithstanding, Game 7 belonged to Washington from the beginning. The Bullets got little help from Hayes, but they could cope; the Sonics got no help from two-thirds of their trio of hot-shooting guards, and they could not. Washington got balanced scoring from starters Dandridge (19), Unseld and Guard Tom Henderson (15 each) and 32 points from subs Johnson and Mitch Kupchak. Inside, Seattle got a series-high 27 points from Center Marvin Webster and 21 from Sikma, but, baby, it was cold outside. If Gus Williams' 4-for-12 shooting was woeful, what word could describe the 0-for-14 performance of Dennis Johnson?

"Unprintable," said D.J., who had been the leading Sonic candidate for the MVP award.

Instead it was one of the other Johnsons—Charles—who was the hero, not only for hanging the collar on D.J. (with help from Kevin Grevey and Dandridge) but also for throwing in bombs from here and beyond. And down the stretch, if C.J. missed from the vicinity of Mount Rainier, Kupchak, who was in for Hayes, would pick off the offensive rebound and jam it in.

The play that defused the Sonic Boom came with 1:30 left in the game. After an 11-point Bullet lead had dwindled to four, 98-94, thanks to the scoring of Brown, who pumped in 21 points, and Webster, C.J. took his lone bad shot of the game, a 25-footer with 10 seconds left on the shot clock. The rebound sat on the floor under Webster, Silas and Sikma, until Henderson dived in and slapped it through Sikma's legs. The ball rolled right to Kupchak, who grabbed it, layed it in and picked up a foul for a three-point play.

That gave the Bullets enough of a cushion to stave off the Sonics' desperate run in the final minute. Brown hit a 10-footer, Unseld missed two free throws, Silas tipped in a Brown miss, and it was 101-99. While Motta frantically signaled for a time-out so he could yank Unseld—and thereby keep him and his .550 playoff free-throw percentage off the foul line—Silas wrapped a bear hug around Wes with 12 seconds left. Amid a din that sounded like a thousand 747s taking off, Unseld missed the first of three free throws and made the second. Motta called his time-out.

"You blew his rhythm," Dandridge screamed at Motta, while the Exiled E ran along the sideline yelling at Referee Jack Madden, "Watch the clock. Jack! Make sure the clock is set right!" After the huddle. Unseld made the third shot, and the Bullets had their elusive title.

"I remember my first game coaching the Bullets in Capital Centre last year," said Motta afterward, clad in a T shirt bearing his slogan: THE OPERA ISN'T OVER 'TIL THE FAT LADY SINGS. "I got a standing ovation. All boos."

There were no boos when a crowd of 8,000, including a singing fat lady, met the Bullet charter at Dulles airport on Thursday. The next day came the motorcade and the visit to the White House.

The East Room was packed with fans—"I wonder if they'll get this big a crowd for Morarji Desai next week?" said a press corps regular. At one point Carter referred to the NBA as the "National Basketball, uh...Association," and said, "I am very proud of the Bullets, although I really wish they could have won without beating Atlanta."

Then Bullet owner Abe Pollin presented Carter with a Fat Lady T shirt, and Motta gave the President a basketball. Thus armed, Carter faked a chest pass to Assistant Coach Bernie Bickerstaff, took four good-looking dribbles to the middle of the East Room floor, wheeled, threw a clumsy lob pass to Charles Johnson and flew off for Camp David.

The champions had been given the Presidential seal of approval, and the basketball season was officially over, after 233 days of playing.

PHOTOAs late arrivals Motta (left) and Pollin cheer, the President prepares to dribble off to Camp David.