The irony of the Washington Bullets is that in a city founded on images, the team never has had one. Or, rather, that it has had too many. The Bullets were Elvin Hayes shooting the turnaround jumper and disappearing in the fourth quarter; they were Wes Unseld, wide as Capitol Hill itself, body-checking the opposition into the nearest monument; they were even Tiny, the bespectacled dachshund mascot, dragging his infernal toy cannon and chasing his infernal toy ball during the TV time-outs. Alas, the Bullets also were the ultimate losers on the grand occasions.
Those were the Washington images up to the time last spring when the team cast off the vestments of group choke, upset San Antonio, Philadelphia and Seattle in succession, and won its first NBA championship after making the playoffs 10 years in a row. Even then, seeking some sort of identity, the Bullets took on a slogan—"The opera isn't over 'til the fat lady sings," a resolve similar to "Don't count your chickens before they hatch," or something—which led to still another image. Nowadays, a woman of considerable girth, wearing flowing white robes and a horned helmet, rushes through the stands at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. Presumably the woman is supposed to represent Brunhilde.
The funny—or sad—part of all this is that despite having the best record in pro basketball over the past six years (299-193), the Bullets have never drawn well. Not in the year they won 60 games, when they averaged less than 10,000 in an arena that seats more than 19,000. Not last year, when they failed to sell out a single regular-season game. And not this year, when they have the best record in the league and are waging a stirring battle with the Philadelphia 76ers for first place in the Atlantic Division.
"The Bullets are the best," said Guard Paul Westphal of the Phoenix Suns last week. "They are so deep and talented that they can keep sending people at you, and one or two are bound to be hot. For them to lose a game, they all have to play terrible at the same time."
That didn't happen Friday night against Phoenix when the huge Washington front liners turned the fragile Suns every which way (Mitch Kupchak rammed in 25 points, Hayes swept away 26 rebounds) while the Bullet defense held Westphal and Walter Davis to 19 points below their combined average, and Washington won 104-94. Nor did it occur three nights earlier against Chicago when the Bullets' church-mouse back-court reserves, Charlie Johnson and Larry Wright, came off the bench to score a total of 25 points in a 109-86 rout. Nor did it take place on the road at Atlanta on Saturday, despite the Bullets' playing miserably to fall 16 points behind the Hawks with 9:21 left in the game. Then Hayes and Kupchak split 20 points down the stretch, Greg Ballard contributed valuable relief work and the champions pulled out another one, 106-102.
Aside from manifesting the team's versatility of attack, the Bullets' three victories boosted their record to 27-12 and gave them a 2½-game margin over the 76ers. Average attendance at the two home games in Landover, however, was still short of the magic 12,000 mark—which the team claims turns it on to play its best; the Bullets were 21-1 at home last season in front of 12,000-plus crowds. Nonetheless they are aware of D.C. priorities. As Guard Kevin Grevey says, "The big news in this town isn't a Bullets win, it's an ambassador's party at the Tibetan embassy."
Later this month, after the Washington cocktail circuit figures out how tall Teng Hsiao-p'ing is and why the Redskins folded, the District's attention finally may turn to the Bullets. What everybody will discover is that Hayes is still setting up on his "X" alongside the lane; Unseld is still packing his 400 pounds down in the key, from where Victor the wrestling bear couldn't budge him; and Grevey is still whistling in his left-handed rainbows from the Beltway. One hopes they will also notice another man: the quiet, inconspicuous, small forward of the Bullets, Bobby Dandridge. All Dandridge did last year was show the Bullets how to win the NBA championship. All Dandridge is—a fact known to his peers for a couple of years now—is the best all-round player at his position in professional basketball.
Such an observation is shared by too many reviewers to stay hidden much longer. Dandridge helped win an NBA championship at Milwaukee in 1971, but it was only his second year in the league and he was playing in the shadows of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. Bobby D, as he is known, was to benefit by playing alongside Abdul-Jabbar for four more years before the big man left the Midwest, whereupon everyone concluded that would be the end of Bobby D. But Dandridge, who signed on with the Bullets last season, now has a second championship ring.
Up until the 1978 playoffs, in which Dandridge scored, passed, played defense, switched from forward to guard when needed, blanketed San Antonio's George Gervin to win one game, outplayed Philadelphia's Julius Erving to win an entire series, then outscored his Seattle counterpart, John Johnson, by 143-54 in the championship finals, the 6'6" Virginian had proceeded through his nine-year pro career—not to mention his high school and college years—virtually unnoticed.
The only thing famous about Dandridge, in fact, was his high school—Maggie Walker in Richmond, from which Arthur Ashe had emerged a few years before Dandridge graduated in 1965. (As far as Bobby D knows, the only other basketball players from Virginia to ever amount to anything are Moses Malone and Allan Bristow, and, he says, "They followed me.") Even at Norfolk State, an obscure enough institution except for its celebrity in the vast reaches of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Dandridge could hardly be found amidst all his spectacular teammates. Surely you recall "Pee Wee" Kirkland, "Hooker" Grant and "Mad Dog" Culpepper from a team that averaged approximately 350 points a game and ran up and down the floor so fast you needed five Houston McTears to catch them.
"Back then the players from the black schools all had the stigma of not being well-rounded," Dandridge says, "but in the summers I'd travel to some of the Northern cities, play against better competition and work on my defense. The only reason I made it at Milwaukee that first year was because I could overplay people."
Dandridge was able to prove himself, however, only after Abdul-Jabbar left Milwaukee. "I've always done the little things well," he says. "Kareem's leaving just gave me the opportunity to stretch my game." What that meant was that rather than set up in the corners and loft his delicate one-handers over the defense, Dandridge started demonstrating his effortless one-on-one talent: short drives, head fakes, stutter steps and, especially, some marvelous back-down, turn and in-your-face stuffs. There is no wasted motion with Dandridge, no glamour-puss jukes and jams. Always he is under control, playing within himself, gliding, sliding, stroking his clipped goatee without a hint of expression on his tiny-tot face.
"What Bobby can do probably better than anybody in this league," says Grevey, "is say to a guy, 'O.K., I am going to gel the ball here, dribble it to there,'—and he can point to the spot—'shoot it in the basket and there isn't a thing you can do about it.' And then he'll do it. He's like one of those Slinky toys, the way he uncoils. The man can't jump. He hardly ever runs. He doesn't have to practice. He doesn't even sweat. But he's the best, period."
The 31-year-old Dandridge looks neither strong nor fast, but he has those exceptionally long arms and quick feet, enabling him to cover—and equally important, to recover when the situation calls for it—just about any cornerman you can name.
Though his offensive statistics (an 18.9 career scoring average) have been remarkably consistent since the 1970-71 season, it was Dandridge's defensive abilities that made him so attractive to the Bullets.
"We knew we had to beat Philadelphia to get anywhere," says Washington General Manager Bob Ferry. "We needed Dandridge to neutralize Julius Erving."
Ferry had been after Dandridge ever since the erosion of Mike Riordan's skills created a hole in the lineup that the Bullets referred to as the Bermuda Triangle, since everybody who was tried there disappeared. When Dandridge wearied of working double time at both forward spots for the Bucks, he played out his option. Ferry was waiting more than anxiously on the doorstep.
In 1977, even though the Bullets had not yet signed Dandridge, they based their entire college draft around getting him, choosing muscleman Ballard rather than Small Forward Walter Davis, who became a sensation at Phoenix and was rookie of the year last season.
In their matchup last week, Davis held Dandridge to 1-for-9 shooting in the first half before Bobby D exploded for 15 third-quarter points to turn the game around. Davis became so infuriated by foul calls and so frustrated that he took himself out of the flow of the game. Kupchak, a teammate of Davis' for three years at North Carolina, said, "Walter is a great, great player, but he isn't Bobby Dandridge yet."
Other members of the Bullet family are effusive in their praise of Dandridge and his varied skills. Unseld says his teammate has added "a new dimension," undoubtedly referring to the exquisite passes Dandridge delivers inside, one of which Unseld converted in the final seconds to beat New Orleans, and several others which Wes used as he scored 26 points against Indiana, his highest total since the 1971-72 season. Even Hayes, not exactly magnanimous when discussing the talents of others, says, "Bobby is amazing. He never practiced during the San Antonio and Philly series and went out and played great. I've never known anyone who could do that. It's a rare gift."
Bullets Coach Dick Motta and Dandridge got along from the beginning, which was an upset right away, inasmuch as the fiery coach is a stickler for rules while Dandridge always has had an aversion to attending practice. Further, Dandridge has never hesitated to question the reason behind almost anything and everything. "Bobby's the type of guy who wants to know the temperature of the river he's crossing," says Motta.
Certainly Dandridge didn't want to cross the Potomac too many times. Because he is the only Bullet who lives in Virginia—all the rest live in Maryland; no Washington Bullet lives in Washington for godsake—he asked for and received permission to fly to road games out of Washington's National Airport rather than with the team out of Baltimore. "That's a country airport," Dandridge says, laughing.
Motta also lets Dandridge determine his own pace when recovering from so-called injuries. "I can talk to Dick," Dandridge says. "I told him I know my body better than anyone. I'll never cop out on this team."
"I was leery at first about Bobby," says Motta. "He had this bad rap about swaying players away from their duties, but that's all wrong. You look at his history: a fourth-round draft choice who played with Oscar and Jabbar and maintained his efficiency level after they left. Three times on the All-Star team. He has pride and desire. He's unselfish and he's a great player besides. I had to take for granted he didn't get this way by being a complete jerk."
Mutual respect stood both parties in good stead last spring when Dandridge came down with a mysterious "stiff neck" and kept himself out of the Bullets' second playoff game against Atlanta and their first playoff game against San Antonio. "I knew we could beat the Hawks," says Dandridge. "Even though we lost the game to the Spurs, I came back stronger. But you can imagine some of my conversations with Ferry."
There was little conversation with Bullet management this fall when Dandridge boycotted training camp while asking for changes in his contract. He finally reported to the team without negotiating his differences, but he still claims the Bullets "cater to their old hands," pointing out that Hayes, Unseld and the injured Phil Chenier are paid more than his $250,000 annual salary. "The club knows I'm worth more than they're giving me," Dandridge says. "The issue has not been settled."
His teammates would never begrudge Dandridge a penny. To a man, they agree he was the catalyst last season. It is also unanimous how surprised they were at that. "No fan can appreciate Bobby enough," says Kupchak. "I don't even remember him at Milwaukee, his game was so camouflaged. I came to training camp last year and didn't even recognize him. I said, 'Which one is Dandridge?' Can you imagine that? You actually have to play ball with this guy night after night to understand how good he is and what he can do."
The more the Washington Bullets do that, the better they all seem to get.