When the Washington Bullets lost their first three games this season by a total of 45 points, the local press didn't howl for the coach's scalp; the trainer wasn't traded to Cleveland for the Cavaliers' entire starting lineup; and the Bullet players were rarely criticized by name, if only because nobody knew who most of them were.
In a city that has been taken over by the politics of diminished expectations, the Bullets appeared to be a team the nation's capital could get behind. With the off-season retirement of Wes Unseld, a 13-year fixture at center, and the trade of forwards Mitch Kupchak and Elvin Hayes, Washington seemed ready to fall through its own safety net and into the cellar of the league's Atlantic Division.
Considering that two of the team's top six players had recently been granted asylum in the NBA from European basketball and another was the NBA equivalent of a boat person, the Bullets seemed less likely to win 15 games this season than they were to be deported.
Not only have the Bullets not been sent packing, but by last weekend they were 18-19 and had displaced the New York Knicks in third place in the division. Instead of being the truly awful collection of castoffs and oddballs that it was thought they would be, the Bullets have been refreshingly mediocre. Of course Washington is 0-10 against the three teams, Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, that won 60 or more games last season. But in three of their last four encounters with the Eastern Conference's elite trio, the Bullets lost by a total of eight points. If the season ended last Sunday, Washington would make the playoffs, which it failed to do last season for the first time in 13 years.
The Bullets have done it with a scratch-and-sniff defense that has held opponents to fewer than 100 points in 16 of their first 26 games. Nine times this season they have limited the opposition to 90 points or fewer. "When this group first came together," says Coach Gene Shue, who coached the Bullets from 1966-67 to 1972-73 before moving to Philadelphia and San Diego and then returning to Washington last season, "we couldn't predict what we'd do. Defense was the only way we could keep ourselves close and build a foundation. We don't have the personnel to blow people out, so we needed something to make us consistent while the players learned to execute our offense. Defense carried us." Defense and one of the strangest rosters the NBA has ever beheld. Last season the Bullets were the oldest team in the league; now Washington has four rookies and three second-year players, plus a nucleus of five veterans that includes the only two players left from the Bullets' 1977-78 NBA championship team—Forward Greg Ballard and Guard Kevin Grevey. Another old hand is Point Guard John Lucas, the former Golden State worrier, who last season missed so many games and practices because of unexplained personal problems that the Warriors finally cast him adrift. Still unsigned, Lucas was given safe harbor by Washington in October when Kevin Porter, the league leader in assists in 1980-81, was lost for the season in training camp with a torn Achilles tendon. Another born-again bad citizen is 32-year-old Spencer Haywood, who played in Italy last winter after being suspended by the Los Angeles Lakers shortly before they won the 1980 NBA championship. He admits to falling asleep on the floor while the Lakers were doing stretching exercises, but thinks that just made him an easy target. "Winning a championship is like riding the crest of a big wave," says Haywood, explaining his difficulties in L.A. "Sometimes when you get up that high, you start stepping on the ants and roaches below you." What ants? Roaches?
These Bullets were not so much assembled as they were reprieved, but Shue realized that they were his only chance of making something of the season. "Looking at our nucleus, there really weren't a lot of proven players," he says, "but I've always figured the idea is to win, and to do that you're going to have to put up with some problems. Sometimes a player who has been a troublemaker will reach a point where he's ready to change, but it's up to the player to make it work. As long as the player is helping the team win, I'll stay with him. If he isn't, the relationship ends. Your assets are your players, and you have to protect your assets."
Shue has given his prodigals a good deal of freedom. Until they cross him. Recently, when Lucas missed a team bus and didn't show up for a game that night in Philadelphia—once again citing those unexplained personal problems as his excuse—it cost him about $4,000 and his starting spot, which Shue gave to rookie Frank Johnson. Before that, Lucas' behavior and play—he was seventh in the league in assists—had been exemplary. Haywood has also done creditably on the court and has been what Shue calls "a good influence" on the younger players. "Spencer knows this is his last go-around," Ballard says. "He wants to prove he can still play in the NBA."
Haywood isn't the only immigrant on the squad. If the Dallas Cowboys are America's Team, then the Washington Bullets, who are fairly teeming with your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, are Ellis Island's Team. One of the Bullets' larger masses is Jeff Ruland, the 6'11", 240-pound bear apparent to Unseld. Ruland played in Spain last season, partly to give what he calls his "bad press" a chance to die down after it was discovered he had signed with an agent the summer before his junior year at Iona, thereby rendering himself ineligible for his senior season. In the 1980 draft, Ruland wasn't taken until the second round by Golden State, and then the Warriors unloaded him on the Bullets, who still had Unseld, Kupchak and Hayes. So Ruland, who says, "I'm a bit of an outlaw," went to Spain, but it wasn't a pleasant experience. For starters, his teammates were jealous about the amount of money he was making—about 7.2 million pesetas, or $100,000—and then there was a fight during a preseason game in Italy, after which Ruland had to be taken from the floor by machine-gun-toting carabinieri. "The whole time I was over there I was thinking about the NBA," Ruland says, "thinking about the people who had written me off. I knew I'd have my day."
And he has. As the Bullets' sixth man, Ruland has averaged only 24½ minutes a game, but still was second on the team in both scoring (14.0 points a game) and rebounding (8.7). If Ruland were ever to play the 34 minutes a game that Center Rick Mahorn gets, those figures would prorate to 19.4 points and 12.1 rebounds. His .583 shooting percentage is fourth-best in the league. Even more impressive, 40% of Ruland's rebounds come off the offensive board, putting him second in the NBA to Moses Malone (47%). "Ruland looks like he's been in the league for years," 76er Coach Billy Cunningham says. Two weeks ago Ruland got Cleveland Center James Edwards so flustered that Edwards shoved him. "He just wades into the lane and gets second shots," Cav Coach Chuck Daly says. "Guys have made great careers out of what he does—Paul Silas, Wes Unseld—and he's the next one."
"Jeff is burning to prove to people in the NBA that he wasn't some guy who was shipped to Europe because he couldn't play," says Ballard.
Ballard isn't trying to prove anything, except perhaps that the 19th-best scorer in the league (19.7 points per game) can remain invisible. Ballard is a gentle soul who embroiders every chance he gets and whose big ambition for 1982 is to get one of his neighbor ladies to teach him how to do the counted cross-stitch. "A lot of people don't know about me," he says, "and that's the way I want it. It's fun being known, but it's also fun to be mysterious." Naturally that means Ballard is enjoying the Bullets' role as this season's upstart team. "It's been like stepping into an ice-cold shower," he says. "People expected us to be like an expansion team."
Another reason the Bullets have performed more like a playoff qualifier than an expansion team is the surprising play of Mahorn, a 6'8" second-round draft pick from Hampton Institute, an NAIA school. Mahorn played four years of football in high school and got more scholarship offers as a defensive end than as a pivotman. Until the 10th grade he was 5'11" and weighed about 210 pounds and went out for football because he loved the contact. "You know, that's all fat people are good for—playing football," Mahorn says.
Though he jokes about it now, Mahorn says being overweight "was more humiliation than anything else. I used to sit home quite a bit." It wasn't until the summer before his junior year in high school that Mahorn grew from 5'11" to 6'6". "Being fat just made me strive harder," he says, and he was determined to master basketball. He was still awkward for a year after he had sprouted, but by the time he reached Hampton his coordination had improved. He became a three-time NAIA All-America, but he never overcame his fondness for contact. That was evident earlier this month when Mahorn extracted one of 76er Guard Lionel Hollins' front teeth and fractured four others with an elbow and then knocked Forward Bobby Jones silly with a forearm.
"They don't mind putting their elbows to you," says New York Knick Assistant Coach Butch Beard. "And Mahorn's an animal." Sixer Forward Caldwell Jones concurs: "Every Washington team I've ever played against has been physical. With Mahorn and Ruland, these guys are no different [from Kupchak and Unseld]. I don't know if they breed them down there or what."
If they do, they make them just slightly off center. "They're a weird team when you look at them," Beard says. "I think they kind of like being renegades. Maybe they are a bunch of misfits, but they're misfits who can play."