Pro Basketball History 1976-79 (part 2)


Bored Historian
Aug 26, 2011
1977-78 The Fat Lady Finally Sings

By regular season record, the worst NBA champion in history was the 1977-78 Washington Bullets, who went 44-38, (.537). The record, bad as it was, was not atypical of the period: The 1974-75 Warriors were 48-34 (.585). The 1976-77 Blazers were 49-33 (.598). We’re used to NBA champions having dominant regular season, winning 60-70 games. The late 70’s were an era of relatively mediocre teams winning titles.

But that’s not entirely fair to the Bullets, who had been waiting a decade for this title, the only one they have ever won. They’d first gotten good in the 1968-69 season when their 57-25 record was the best in the NBA. It was the first of 12 consecutive playoff appearances. They made it to the finals in 1971 and 9175, when they tied for the NBA’s best record at 60-22. Expecting to win, they got swept instead by the red hot Warriors. After winning the 1978 title, they returned to the finals in 1979 with still another “best in show” record of 54-28 but lost. During this period, some great and near-great players playing for them: Wes Unseld, Gus Johnson, Jack Marin, Earl Monroe, Elvin Hayes, Phil Chenier and Bobby Dandridge. They even had Dave Bing for a while, although not in their championship year. it was a case of winning a title by building a team and franchise that would be good every until finally things fell into place for them. 1977-78 was that year. The article on that year in “The Sports Encyclopedia: Pro Basketball” is entitled “The Fat Lady Finally Sings”, after a favorite phrase of Coach Dick Motta. I decided to use the same title.

The season is probably more noted for two ugly on-court incidents. On opening night, October 18, rookie Kent Benson, playing in his first NBA game, elbowed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who doubled over in pain, then punched Benson, breaking his hand, causing him to miss 20 games. The Lakers fell from first in the West to fourth and lost in the first round of the playoffs to Seattle.

A far worse tragedy almost occurred on December 9th when Houston’s Rudy Tomjanovich, running down court to be a peacemaker in a fight, was punched by the Laker’s Kermit Washington with a blow that “smashed Tomjanovich’s face and nearly killed him…the near-tragedy left a cloud over the rest of the season.”
Kermit Washington vs Rudy Tomjanovich (26 Games Suspended)

The Lakers may not have been the best team in the league that year but they sure could punch.

It seemed like the team with the most punch was the defending champion Trailblazers, who had a 50-10 record at one point. Then Bill Walton injured his foot and injuries to Maurice Lucas, Bob Gross, Lloyd Neal, Larry Steele and Dave Twardzik. The result was an 8-14 finish and a first round loss in the playoffs. The Philadelphia 76ers got off to a bad start and fired Coach Gene Shue, replacing him with Billy Cunningham. They then rallied to finish 55-27, the second best record in the league. Two former ABA teams won the Central and Midwestern divisions: the San Antonio Spurs, (52-30) and the Denver Nuggets (48-34).

The most exciting aspect of the regular season, besides the fights, was the battle for the scoring title between the Spur’s George Gervin and the Nugget’s David Thompson. It came down to the final day of the regular season. Gervin was ahead and the Nuggets fed Thompson to try and catch him. David wound up with 73 points, to finish with 2,172 points in 80 games, a 27.15 average. That was in the afternoon. The Spurs played that night. Gervin came in with 2,169 points in 81 games, an average of 26.78. When Dave Bing won the scoring title in 1967-68, he won it based on total points, (Oscar Robertson actually had the highest scoring average). But the rules were changed to base it on scoring average after that so 4 points would not have given Gervin the title. He had to get to 2,227 points for 82 games, a 27.16 average. That would mean that Gervin needed 58 points. His teammates fed him, as Thompson’s had fed him and Gervin scored 63 points to wind up with a 27.22 average.

The Bullets suffered injuries to star guard Phil Chenier and top reserve Mitch Kupchak. They also had to overcome a conflict between star forward Elvin Hayes and Coach Dick Motta, who had come over from the Chicago Bulls. From “The NBA Finals”: “There was Dick Motta, a little guy with a lot of intensity, perhaps too much, some said. Then there was Elvin Hayes, the 6-9 power forward who did what he wanted, when he wanted. When Motta was named the Bullet’s coach before the 1976-77 season, Hayes announced he’d rather give up the game than play for such a man. But when training camp opened up, Hayes was there and he immediately encountered the raging Motta, true to reputation. Do it my way or get out, the new coach told his players. The ‘Big E’ was known for his special spot to the left of the key. He wanted the ball there and that was where he’d wait until he got it. Usually, when he got it, if the defense wasn’t too strong, he could find a way to score. But, whatever happened, Elvin Hayes wanted to call the shots. “

“Motta had been a fine college coach at Weber State in Idaho. His ideas about the game were chiseled in marble. His teams played spirit-breaking defense and at the other end of the floor, they took their time moving through Motta’s patterns until a score was the logical conclusion. For a while, it looked as if neither side would budge in this test of wills. But eventually both men gave in a bit and did something neither had done very often in their careers. They compromised. The results were back-to-back trips to the NBA Finals in 1978 and 1979 and sweet memories for years to come. Hayes smiled broadly in 1990 when asked to reminisce about Motta. “Dick demanded a lot of his players. He demanded a lot of himself. He gave us a direction and we followed it.’

Kevin Grevey came from the bench to replace Chenier and did a good job with 15.5ppg. Hayes and Dandridge were superb in the playoffs, Hayes averaging 21.8p/13.3r and Dandridge scored 21.2. Dandridge had been on the 1971 Bucks team that swept the Bullets in the finals. Washington also picked up guard Charles Johnson, who had been a key player for the Warriors team that swept them in the 1975 finals. Johnson averaged 10 points off the bench and Kupchak came back to do the same. The Bullets were six games over .500 in the regular season, (44-38), and seven over in the playoffs, (14-7). They swept a best of 3 series over Atlanta, then beat the Spurs and Sixers and six games each.

The Spurs won the opener, 114-103, behind 35 points from Gervin. The Bullets won the first quarter, 29-25 but lost the remaining three. But then they won the next three games to take command of the series. They won the first three quarters of game two to take a 100-83 lead and held off a late rally to win 121-117. Grevey scored 31 and Hayes 28 to overcome a 46 point explosion by Gervin. Game three was a carbon copy with the Bullets winning the first three quarters for a 93-74 lead and winning 118-105. Larry Kenon scored 37 for the Spurs and Gervin had 33 but nobody else was in double figures, as four Bullets were, including Dandridge (28), Hayes (27) and Johnson (22). For a change, the Spurs won the first quarter of game 4 – and then the Bullets won the last three, grabbing a narrow 98-95 win. Both teams had four guys in double figures. Gervin had 35 but Dandridge had 24 and Hayes 23.

The Spurs stayed alive with a 116-105 win in game 5 in San Antonio. Gervin was held to 27 but both teams had five double figure scorers and nobody scored more than Johnson’s 21 for the Bullets. Hayes had only 17 on 7 for 16 shooting, although he did have 13 rebounds. A 26-19 third quarter was decisive. The Bullets then closed it out in Washington with a 103-100 squeaker. A 33-23 second period game the home team a six point lead that was cut in half in the third quarter but held up in the end. Gervin was held to 23 points. Mark Olberding, who had averaged 8.2ppg on the season, kept it close with 24 points. But Hayes had 25p/15R and Wes Unseld, while scoring only 5 points, added 16 rebs. Johnson had 20 and Dandridge 18 and the Bullets moved on.

Waiting for them was the 76ers, once again the most talented team in the sport and thus the heavy favorite. But the Bullets beat them in overtime in Philadelphia 122-117, falling behind 19-26 after the first quarter, tying it up by halftime, taking a four point lead after three and then losing it before winning the OT13-8. Hayes had 28 points with 18 rebounds. Grevey scored 26 and Dandridge 22. Dr. J had 25 points and 12 boards. Lloyd, now World B. Free had 21 points. George McGinnis was held to 13 points on 5 for 16 field goals but had 15 rebounds.

The Sixers won the second game 110-104 thanks to a 32-22 third quarter. Doug Collins led the way with 28 points. Erving and Steve Mix had 22 points each. Hayes had another big game with 26/15 and Dandridge had 18. But someone named Larry Wright kept the Bullets in the game with 22 points and 8 assists. He’d averaged 9.2/3.7 on the season.

But now the Bullets took control of the series with two decisive wins in Washington by almost the same score: 123-108 and 121-105. A 34-19 second period triggered the first win. The Sixers had 7 guys in double figures but nobody scored more than McGinnis’ 16. The Bullets also had seven but Dandridge scored 30 and Grevey 21. A 31-20 second period and a 40-31 fourth produced the second victory. This time Erving had 24p/9r and McGinnis 22/10 but the Sixers had only 4 double figure scorers. Hayes had a monster game with 35/19 and Dandridge scored 27. Grevey had 18 and Kupchak 19 off the bench.

Like the Spurs, the Sixers rallied to extend the series at home with a 107-94 win that wasn’t that close, ben 82-62 after three. This time the Bulls didn’t have anyone with a big game, Larry Wright leading with 18 points. Erving and Collins both had 24 for Philly. But once again the Bullets closed it out back home and moved on with a classic 101-99 win. They were down 3 after one, up 1 at halftime, built an 8 point third quarter lead and held on to win. Dandridge had 28, Hayes 21/14 and Unseld had 15 rebounds. Wright was the only other double figure scorer with 17 but four other guys scored between 7-9 points. They out-rebounded the Sixers by 47-37. Collins scored 33 and Erving 22 but they didn’t get enough help.

Now the Bullets were in the Finals, where they’d been swept in twice in recent memory. Their opponents were the Seattle Supersonics, who had disposed of the Waltonless Trail Blazers and the Denver Nuggets in six games each. The Bullets had been 44-38 during the regular season, the Sonics 47-35. It was not a battle of all-time great teams but one of them would be an NBA champion. The Sonics lost 17 of their first 22 games under coach Bob Hopkins. Then Lenny Wilkins took over and they went 42-18 and 10-5 in the playoffs going in the finals. Dennis Johnson and Gus Williams were a solid backcourt with “Downtown” Freddie Brown, (greatest nickname ever) coming off the bench to toss in 30 footers. 7-1 Marvin “The Human Eraser” was at center. Paul Silas was a late acquisition at one forward and “a fresh-faced blonde giant” named Jack Sikma was the other forward. “It was a series that seemed to offer little to fans across the country but in the respective cities, the enthusiasm was tremendous. Seattle embraced the Sonics as their first winning big-league team. And even stately Washington came alive from Georgetown and the neighborhoods of the northwest to Capitol Hill and the suburbs in Virginia. The city hadn’t had a championship team since the Redskins won the NFL title way back in 1942. As the politicians took turns pointing out, the place needed something positive.” (“The NBA Finals”) It was Washington D.C against the state of Washington. Would one of them have to change their name if they lost?

The series opened in Seattle since they had the superior record and the Sonics took a 1-0 lead with a 106-102 win. They fell behind by 19 at one point. Then Wilkens sent in “Downtown” Brown who scored 16 points in the last 9 minutes of the game for a total of 30 as a 33-18 final quarter wiped out what was then an 11 point deficit. The series then returned to Washington due to scheduling conflicts for the Seattle Center Coliseum. The papers there wondered if the Bullets were headed for another sweep.

They weren’t. “Unseld did his best blue collar bit with 15 rebounds, 5 assists and extra body work on Marvin Webster. His bone-shattering picks in the lane on Silas freed Hayes and Dandridge for open shots on offense. They opened hot and moved the Bullets out to a 16 point lead.” The Sonics came back to cut it to 4 at the half and Hayes was in foul trouble. “But Unseld just kept setting those wall-sized picks…Dandridge got loose for 34 points and Hayes for 25. Henderson added 20, mostly on drives”. Dick Motta: “That’s our game. Hayes and Dandridge going off tackle.”

The Sonics responded in game 3 with increased intensity. “Dennis Johnson and Silas led the Seattle charge. Silas closed down the holes in the Bullets offensive line. Dandridge and Hayes still had decent games, but they weren’t able to break loose down the stretch with the game on the line. Meanwhile the 23 year old Johnson was a force on the perimeter. He blocked 7 shots and had Grevey talking to himself with a 1 for 14 shooting day.“ Still the Sonics almost blew it, throwing away and inbounds pass and then stepping on the line after the Bulls scored a lay-up off the steal. The Seattle defense forced Dandridge to try to win it with a long shot at the buzzer which missed, clinching a 93-92 victory and a 2-1 lead.

Game 4 was held in the Kingdome because the Seattle Coliseum was still not available. It was the beginning of a new era for the NBA: 39,457 fans were there to cheer their Sonics on. This time it was their team that opened up a 15 point lead in the third quarter only to have the Bullets come back. “The Soncis’ problems began when Dennis Johnson took an elbow to the ribs that sent him to the bench for nearly six minutes”. The Bullets took a 103-101 lead with 3 ½ minutes left. Then Johnson “went crazy…scoring first to tie the game, then picking up some loose balls, blocking a Dandridge shot, getting an offensive rebound and pushing the Sonics to a 104-103 lead with a final shot. Dandridge answered this outburst with a 3 point play that returned the lead to Washington, 106-104. Seattle got it back and tied it with one of Brown’s custom-made downtowners, (there was no three point line in the NBA until the 1979-80 season). With two seconds left, Dandridge got a good shot in the lane, only to have Dennis Johnson block it, thus treating the record crowd to an extra period. But the Bullets won in OT 120-116, thanks to Charles Johnson’s three quick shots to give the visitors a lead they didn’t lose. Johnson wo0udn up with 33 points 7 rebounds, 3 assists and the same number of blocks.

Game 5 was played in the Seattle Coliseum and the Sonics won it 98-94. Brown and Johnson combined for 50 points and the Bullets missed 11 of 20 free throws. Continuing the series’ trend, Seattle had an 11 point lead melt to 2 but held on to win due to Sikma’s three free throws in the last two minutes. Seattle had a 3-2 lead and needed only one more win to bring their city its first ever championship. But they never got it.

Back in Washington, the Bullets blew the Sonics out of the building, 111-82. Grevey was injured and Motta switched Dandridge to guard, putting Greg Ballard at forward. The Bullets built a 12 point halftime lead and then scored 70 in the second half. The Sonics “couldn’t keep up that pace…it was something to see these old men of basketball doing repeated weave drills down the floor.” Johnson: “I saw a lot of smiling and laughing over there. But we’ve got the seventh game at home.”

Unfortunately they didn’t take their shots with them. Dennis Johnson went 0 for 14 and Gus Williams 4 for 12. But the big men came up big, Webster scoring 27 points and Sikma 21 and Downtown came off the bench to score 21. With 90 seconds left, Seattle had cut an 11 point lead to 4. Kupchak scored a three point play. Brown hit a short jumper and Silas got a tip-in and it was 101-99, Bullets. “Silas then fouled Unseld, a 55% free-throw shooter during the playoffs. He hit two and moments later, Washington sealed it, winning 105-99. Nobody on the winning team reached 20 points but six Bullets scored between 13-19 points, led by Dandridge and Johnson with 19. Elvin Hayes fouled out with only 12 points but said “They can say whatever they want but they gotta say one thing- E’s a world champion. He wears the ring.” Wes Unseld was voted MVP, “a vote for the work ethic if there ever was one.” He averaged 9.0 points and 11.7 rebounds a game, compared to Hayes’ 20.7/11.9.

Elvin Hayes later described his feelings flying to Seattle: “I remember...thinking about all the things that had gone through all the years I had played in the NBA. All of that was coming down to one game, a championship game and after that game, I remember a feeling of joy over the next 48 hours, just a spring of joy, a feeling of great accomplishment. Out of my 16 years of playing, I waited for that moment and that moment came and it was just tremendous.”
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