As professional basketball's championship series wanders across days, nights and time zones, there is no cause for alarm if the Washington Bullets appear cold, arrogant, unhappy and disinterested. You know, the current gas-station-attendant look. That is their style. Also, it will hardly be unexpected if the Bullets struggle to a distant seventh game after either 1) pounding out a huge lead over their old friends from last year's championship series, the Seattle Super-Sonics, or 2) falling behind by an equally wide early margin.
That is what Washington did while squandering a 3-1 lead before disposing of Atlanta in the seventh game of the Eastern semifinals. And that is what the champions did in their next escapade when they rallied from two games behind in the Eastern finals to sweep three straight from San Antonio.
"This is history. I love history," Elvin Hayes bubbled after the Bullets' dramatic, come-from-behind 107-105 victory in Landover, Md.
The 6'9" Hayes could have been referring to a couple of you-could-look-it-up items. The Bullets had just become only the third team in league history to win a series after trailing 3-1 (the '68 Celtics and 70 Lakers were the others). And they had just become only the second defending champion in a decade to win their way back into the finals (the '73 Lakers were that other one). More appropriately, Hayes could have been talking about himself. Long known as the quintessential "choker" who disappeared in the big moments, the turn-around-shooting, glass-crashing Big E must have realized that this seventh game, combined with his seventh game in the pulsating series against Atlanta, had buried that notion for good.
Three weeks before, when the Bullets had their backs to the wall, Hayes scored 39 points in Game 7 against the Hawks, while his teammate, the marvelous money player, Bob Dandridge, added 29. Then last Friday night Dandridge poured in 37 points and Hayes 25 in the final game against the Spurs. That is 130 combined, for those with scorecards, and that is not to mention what the two did to the stunned Texans in the last eight seconds, namely Dandridge firing the game-winning jumper from 16 feet out, followed by Hayes contributing the game-winning blocked shot (his seventh of the evening, this one on James Silas) from, say, 116 feet up.
Suffice it to say that after San Antonio's amazing George (Iceman) Gervin had put in 42 points; after Washington Coach Dick Motta had called time-out with 25 seconds left (his team having made up a two-game deficit in seven days and a 10-point deficit in 10 minutes); after Motta said to Dandridge in the huddle, "Bobby, it's your ball. Go out and win the damn game"; and after Dandridge did just that, and Hayes had saved the game; after all of this, the most harrowing week in Bullets' history was finally over.
"I about passed out," said Motta. "Now I know what Vince Lombardi meant. To get there is tough. To stay there is tougher." And nothing could have been tougher than the first game of the finals against Seattle last Sunday. The Bullets lost an 18-point lead in the last quarter only to prevail on Larry Wright's two free throws after time had expired, winning 99-97.
For a major portion of the semifinal series, the implacable Iceman and his loosey-goosey Spurs had kept the slumping Bullets on edge. After the teams had split the opening games in Landover, Gervin went back home to San Antonio for some exquisite ice dancing. In Game 3 he scored 29 points as the Spurs won 116-114 and as, unbeknownst to her husband, Mrs. Ice gave birth to a premature daughter named Tia.
Even before anyone could ask if the baby's middle name could possibly be Maria, Ice Daddy had exploded in Game 4 with a 42-point number—including an astounding 18 in a row—as the Spurs ran the Bullets out of the HemisFair Arena by 118-102.
When the affable Gervin was not hurling forth incomprehensible baskets or passing out obligatory cigars—these were said to be his first passes of the week—he somehow found time to delineate his impressions of the round so far. Gervin on his philosophy: "Ice's game is to put it in the hole." On the psychological aspects of the battle: "The Bullets know they can't stop Ice. Ice knows he's got them on the run." On a bygone quarrel with a journalist with whom he once refused to speak about such matters: "It's all still cool. Jesus Christ forgave. Why not Ice?"
While Coach Doug Moe, the eminently laid-back leader of the equally laid-back Spurs, was busying himself with golf games, gin rummy hands and press conferences—"Study films? Sure, I watch Tarzan," he said—Motta was gaunt and testy, haggard and humorless.
There were sufficient reasons. The Washington bench had been depleted, with Mitch Kupchak out with a back injury and Larry Wright rendered ineffectual following a sprained ankle. In Game 2 Hayes had jammed the middle finger of his shooting hand and was in the midst of painful, hot-wax dipping treatments. In Game 4 Dandridge, sometimes triple-teamed, made just three baskets. Even Wes Unseld—whom Moe delighted in referring to as "the 300-pound moving stump"—was being jostled into a non-factor by the skinny Spurs.
Then there were the Bullet guards. Ah, yes, the guards. Or rather, oh, no, not the guards again. Carrying over their terrible shooting from the Atlanta series, Kevin Grevey and Tom Henderson had missed 68 of 115 shots in the first four games against San Antonio, while yesteryear's hero, Choo Choo Charlie Johnson, had failed on 21 of 32.
Armed with little else, Motta went directly to his guile bag and aimed for the Spurs' psyches. "If we could only play to 70% of our ability...we're 15 points better," he said. "The pressure is all on them now. The Spurs can't hold leads. I see it in their eyes." Motta also worked on the Bullets. "This team is not in character yet," he said. "This is not my team."
One day someone wondered whether Motta had asked Forward Dandridge to work in backcourt and to guard Gervin, which he did in last year's playoffs. And whether Dandridge, who still harbors a grudge over the fact that he's paid $200,000 a year less than Hayes for ostensibly more varied work, had refused, which he was rumored to have done this year. "I didn't hear that question," Motta snapped, walking away.
Hayes summed up the Bullets on the brink of extinction. "It's all so different from last season when we were relaxed. The pressure. The mental part. Everyone's after us. Defending this.... " He paused. "This is the hardest thing I've ever done."
Their insouciance and arrogance useless now, their weaknesses exposed, their reputations in the balance, the Bullets finally started to perform with emotion.
In Game 5 at home, Hayes collected 24 points and 22 rebounds, Grevey and Henderson (the latter rediscovering how to make a layup) converted 17 of 35 shots, and Greg Ballard, the Bullets' most consistent reserve, added another fine performance off the bench as Washington won 107-103.
For Game 6 back in the HemisFair, a bloodthirsty Spurs crowd greeted the visitors with howls, boos, flying cups of Lone Star and one sign: MOTTA; LOOK INTO OUR EYES. But the Bullets moved to an early lead as Grevey played the fire out of Ice.
"If Gervin doesn't get the ball for a while, he goes into a lull," said Grevey. "He stops running and working for it. I was in his chest."
Among other places. The Iceman got only eight points by halftime (a quiet 20 for the game) and had virtually gone into seclusion even as the Spurs roared back to even the score in the third quarter. But from 82-all (the game's 16th tie) early in the fourth quarter, Hayes single-handedly turned the game around. He converted a three-point play, blocked a Mike Green jumper, turned away a Gervin grenade and dunked an easy one himself. By that time the Bullets led 89-82, Gervin had missed five shots in a row and, as if that wasn't enough, here came Dandridge replacing Grevey to harass the Iceman some more.
What this personnel switch forced Moe to decide was where to hide Gervin's lazy, idling defense. On the tricky scorer, Dandridge, or on the power re-bounder, Ballard? Accepting his poison straight up, Moe kept Larry Kenon on Dandridge and ordered Gervin over to Ballard, for all it mattered. In the final 7:42 the two Bullets shared 17 of their team's last 19 points as Dandridge lured Special K to the outside, where he shot at will, while Ballard grabbed everything Dandridge missed and then jammed it back in over Gervin. Washington won going away, 108-100.
Ballard, who had 19 points and 12 rebounds in 29 minutes, said he wasn't that surprised by his performance. "I play with confidence when I know I'm not getting yanked in and out," he said. The second-year man acknowledged a novel team attitude. "The veterans here are usually blasè and that attitude spreads," he said. "But tonight I saw our glares all around."
A radio man with "KBUC" spelled out on his funny cap breathlessly asked Hayes, "Your guards, they really played tonight, right E?"
"We came out of a deep hole. Now we're back on level ground," said a puzzled E.
A mass belief that the Spurs might just as well phone in their score on Friday, saving themselves the long and futile journey to Capital Centre, was toned down by the knowledge of how difficult it is for any NBA crew to whip any other three times running. For all its faults and fiascos, pro basketball may be the most competitive sport on the planet—and the most unpredictable.
Sure enough, in Game 7 San Antonio took a 21-18 first-quarter lead with Gervin—get this—scoring zero. Then the Spurs took an 82-76 third-quarter lead with Gervin—whoa—having scored 34 on his way to his 42-point performance. Up to this time the Bullets again seemed listless (excepting the 6'1" Wright, whose fight with 6'9" Mark Olberding emptied both benches) and were being thoroughly outplayed.
But after the Spurs scored the first two baskets of the final period to lead 86-76, they became tentative and careless. Kenon had consecutive layups blocked by Hayes. Then the team suffered a no-shot, 24-second violation—an epochal event in Spur annals. Dandridge—now guarding Gervin till death do them part—kepi denying Ice the ball, then scoring himself on those wondrous shots he calls "riders." And the Bullets rallied to within 101-95 with 3:05 left.
Worst of all for the Spurs, they now had placed themselves in the vulnerable position—Game 7, on the road, battling against the champions and a raucous crowd—of having to score a clear knockout to win. They didn't get it, in part because of what the Spurs and some observers thought were ill-advised calls by Referee John Vanak.
On successive Bullet trips down the floor during the closing minutes, Olberding and Green were whistled out of the game with disqualifying sixth fouls—the former for elbowing around a screen (a play out of which Unseld has made a career), the latter for blocking off Ballard, who was hurling a back-to-the-basket, two-hand, no-look scoop prayer while jumping backward into the Spur center.
Then on successive Spur offensive forays, Billy Paultz was called for pushing on a rebound, and next—the most arguable call of the bunch—Paultz again was whistled as he made a simple hand-off to a teammate. The Bullets' Henderson bounced off him, fell to the floor and came up clapping.
"I've been in the league long enough to know not to set an illegal pick in the clutch," Paultz was to say bitterly. "Henderson did a flop, that's all."
When the dust had settled, the Bullets had tied the game at 103. Still another favorable Bullet foul call (against Gervin on a double-team after which the ubiquitous Ballard swished two free throws, for 105-103 at 36 seconds) and Silas' 14-foot jumper in the lane tied the contest. That furnished a suitable prologue for one more Motta time-out, one more Dandridge rider—three Spurs ran at Bobby D on the baseline but all fell back instead of jumping with him—and one more blocked shot by Hayes.
"Maybe—like Bill Russell said of himself—this whole team is afraid to lose," said Hayes afterward. "Let the Spurs talk about fouls. They went to protect the lead, but we was right back on 'em. We keep pulling these little magical things. Atlanta. Now San Antonio. But three strikes and we're out, you know."
We know. E knows. But do the Seattle SuperSonics know?