by Chris Foss
On November 9, former NBA power forward Greg Ballard passed away too young—age 61—from prostate cancer. During the mid-1970s, Ballard anchored the frontline of the Oregon Ducks, and remains the team’s career rebounding leader. As Oregon’s “Kamikaze Kids” emerged into the national spotlight by repeatedly defeating UCLA at the top of their game and advancing deep into the National Invitational Tournament in 1977 (back when that still meant something), NBA scouts took notice. Ballard was drafted fourth that summer by the Washington Bullets, and ended up playing an integral role as a rookie on perhaps the NBA’s most forgotten championship team.
The story of the Washington Bullets franchise is surprisingly rich, given that the team no longer has that name (changed to the Wizards in 1997) and has not made an Eastern Conference Finals since 1979. The original Bullets were the Baltimore Bullets, born into the Basketball Association of America in 1946. Nicknamed after the “bullet” commuter train that connects Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, the Bullets won the 1948 BAA championship, and subsequently joined the newly-formed NBA in 1949 before folding in 1956.
Those original Bullets were one of several teams that did not survive the NBA’s early years of financial difficulty. Another failed franchise of the early 1950s was the Chicago Stags. Given that Chicago was a major market, however, the NBA tried again in 1961 with an expansion franchise called the Chicago Packers. The next season the team returned as the Zephyrs, but in 1963 moved to Baltimore and resurrected the Bullets brand there.
The Bullets were relatively listless until 1968, when they used the No. 2 overall draft pick on an undersized (6’7, 245-lb) center named Westley “Wes” Unseld. All Unseld did that year was join a select group of players to win NBA Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season, and the Bullets instantly became contenders. Despite his slight stature, Unseld was the team’s heart and soul through the 1970s, as the Bullets became the only NBA franchise to make four Finals appearances that decade.
Before going on to greater fame with the Knicks, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe was the Bullets’ perennial scoring leader, averaging between 21 and 26 points per game between 1967-71. After Monroe departed, another future Hall of Famer, Elvin “The Big E” Hayes, joined Unseld at center/power forward to give the Bullets a formidable frontline. Between 1972 and 1981, Hayes never averaged fewer than 17.8 ppg and never missed more than one game in any season. Forgotten solid NBA players such as Kevin Porter, Bobby Dandridge, Larry Wright, Phil Chenier, and Mitch Kupchak all spent stints with the Bullets in these years.
But while the Bullets became NBA Finals regulars in the post-Bill Russell era, they had a lot of trouble getting over the hump. The 1971 squad came up short against Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Oscar Robertson, and the Milwaukee Bucks, dropping the NBA Finals in a sweep. In 1973, the Bullets moved to Washington D.C., and spent a season as the “Capital” Bullets (they were housed in the D.C. suburb of Landover from 1973 until 1997) before becoming the Washington Bullets. Former Celtic legend K.C. Jones coached the Bullets back to the Finals in 1975, but they were again dispatched in a sweep, this time by Rick Barry’s Golden State Warriors. Jones was ousted a year later in favor of Dick Motta, who had successfully lifted Weber State to NCAA prominence in the mid-60s before a decade-long run with the new Chicago Bulls prior to his arrival in Landover.
Motta’s 1978 club, despite the addition of Greg Ballard via the draft, only went 44-38, squeaked into the playoffs, and were not expected to go far. The veteran Bullets showed grit in the playoffs against the heavily-favored San Antonio Spurs (then in the East). Looking to inspire his club, Motta stole a now-politically incorrect phrase from a Dallas sportswriter: “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings.” The saying resonated with the Bullets, seeking to become the team with the worst regular-season record in NBA history to win a championship. Washington ousted San Antonio in six games, then upset defending Eastern Conference champion Philadelphia, shocking the league establishment by getting to the Finals.
The West, meanwhile, saw a similar changing of the guard: the Lakers meekly lost early in the playoffs, and the defending champion Portland Trail Blazers fell to the Seattle Supersonics, led by legendary coach Lenny Wilkens and young Dennis Johnson and Jack Sikma. This led to an unusual pairing of sub-par regular season teams in an unusual Finals—the only one with a 1-2-2-1-1 format between cities (compared to today’s 2-2-1-1-1), apparently to accommodate CBS. This ultimately led to a lot of travel and a 17-day long series (May 21-June 7). To further complicate matters, Games 4 and 5 in Seattle were, at least according to Wikipedia, split between the Kingdome and the Seattle Center Coliseum due to a “mobile-home show” tying up the Coliseum.
The teams played a classic seven-game series despite the odd circumstances. Down 3-2 heading back to Seattle, the Bullets rallied to become just the third team in NBA history—the last until this year’s Cavs—to win a Finals Game 7 on the road, taking it 105-99. The Bullets survived despite Hayes fouling out with eight minutes to play. With Washington 98-94 with 1:30 to go, Kupchak won a decisive scramble for the ball against three other Sonics, completing an and-one. But the Sonics were not done yet. Paul Silas—veteran of two Celtics championship teams—brought Seattle back to within 101-99 with 18 seconds left. The Sonics fouled Unseld, who had just missed two free throws. But under the rules of the time, Washington was awarded a 3-for-2 free throw penalty because the Sonics were over the foul limit, meaning Unseld would get three chances to make two free throws. Unseld missed the first try, but hit the next two, and the Sonics’ threat was extinguished. The Bullets had won their first—and to date only—NBA championship.
The teams had a rematch the next year in the Finals, and Game 1 was another classic. At the buzzer, with the score tied, Dennis Johnson fouled Larry Wright, and again under the archaic 3-for-2 rule, Wright overcame a missed free throw to seal the victory for the Bullets. But the Sonics went on to sweep the remainder of the games, earning the 1979 NBA title in Game 5 on the Bullets’ home floor.
With that, the Bullets’ run was finished. Washington was never able to adequately replace its aging stars during the 1980s—despite bringing in notable players like 7’7 Manute Bol and former MVP Moses Malone—and could never match Philadelphia, Boston, or Detroit as an Eastern power. Greg Ballard developed into a solid role player and scorer who went on to a solid playing and coaching career, though he never won another NBA title.
The story of the forgotten Bullets reminds us that the NBA has turned its back on the 1970s by downplaying the champions of the era. Some say it’s just as well: this was an era in which the league was plagued by poor TV ratings and game attendance, ugly court battles over free agency and the merger with the American Basketball Association, and widespread allegations of player drug abuse. But the Bullets’ story is part of a broad, rich mosaic of NBA stories from that decade of the players, coaches, owners, and other personnel that laid the groundwork for the modern powerhouse the league is today. ESPN’s 30 for 30 tapped this mosaic a few years ago with a documentary on the ABA, and hopefully more articles, books, and films will follow.
 Hayes was famous enough in basketball circles at the time that Earvin “Magic” Johnson allegedly came up with his nickname in part because “The Big E” was already taken; and, of course, “Dr. J” was gone, too, to Julius Erving.
 Between 1957 and 1969, Boston won every NBA championship except in 1958 and 1967.
 Motta’s 1967 Bulls are still the only expansion team to ever make the NBA playoffs.