Tonight, the Washington Wizards have a game 7 and a history making opportunity. It has been 38 years since a conference final appearance for the team who used to play their home games in Landover, Baltimore and Chicago. (The organization began in Chicago and was known as the Chicago Packers). The last time the Wizards (Bullets) had a game 7 it was 1979 and Jimmy Carter was the President and disco was still the rage. There was no such behemoth as rap music- the Sugar Hill Gang had yet to release the iconic Rappers Delight- and ESPN was four months before launch. Back then, the NBA used to be dissected behind closed doors and with a sneer, called the Nigger Basketball Association in whispers. The NBA had a cocaine problem which made them similar to other rich people in the world, basketball mirroring society. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were a few months away from saving the league.
While Johnson and Bird were seniors in high school the ABA (American Basketball Association) folded and dropped into the NBA’s lap stars like Julius Erving (The Doctor), George Gervin (Iceman) and David Thompson (Skywalker), high flying, running, gunning, dunking athletes with big Afros and nicknames whose game infected the NBA with excitement, flair and skill.
In the spring of 1978, the Spurs star George Gervin battled David Thompson (Nuggets) for the scoring title, dropping 63 points in the last game of the season to edge Thompson for the title of best scorer. The next year, the Iceman was in the Eastern Conference Finals playing the Washington Bullets, the defending champions.
In the spring of 1978, the Washington Bullets were an underwhelming 44-38 and a longshot to win anything, much less the title. No one believed in their capabilities, considering their stretches of mediocrity, but the Bullets motto it ain’t over till the fat lady sings carried them to the NBA Finals with their refuse to lose optimism. They proved everyone wrong as they won the title by beating the Seattle Supersonics in 7 games. It was the first title in D.C. in 36 years. Wes Unseld and Elvin Hayes were city heroes.
The next year, defending their title, in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bullets played the San Antonio Spurs. The Bullets won 54 games that year and as the defending champs were considered locks to win the series. But George Gervin was not to be denied in game one, dropping 34 points and beating the Bullets in the home opener in Landover, Maryland. Five days later, in the Finals opener in San Antonio, Gervin went to the line 9 times and effortlessly scored 29 points and the Spurs took a 2-1 lead over the champs. But it was Game 4 that Gervin was especially brilliant, scoring 42 points and pushing the Spurs to a commanding 3-1 series lead and seemingly having the Bullets on the ropes.
Elvin Hayes had something to say about an early vacation for the Washington tribe. His 24 points and Kevin Grevey’s 23 points kept the Bullets barely holding on as the Spurs had a furious 4th quarter comeback that fell short and the Bullets won by 4 in game 5. The Bullets won the next game to tie the series 3-3 to bring it to a game 7.
Game 7’s are passion plays just as they are chess matches. They are about heart and desire and stress. The brilliant Gervin had 42 points, 24 in the second half and went to the line 13 times. Bobby Dandridge, the Bullets scoring forward, had 37 points and Elvin Hayes poured in 25 and 11 rebounds. Dandridge and Hayes went to the line 18 times.
At halftime the Bullets had a one point lead. The Spurs came out with a fury in the third quarter. And then…the arena suddenly went dark; the lights went out. There was a 15 minute power failure halting the game just as the Spurs were taking control and it made the casual San Antonio fan suspicious, thinking the power outtage was an inside job to help the Bullets by slowing down the Spurs momentum. Danny Ferry who was 12 years old at the time and the son of Bullets General Manager Bob Ferry joked he did it. He didn’t.
The power was re-activated and the Spurs took a 6 point lead going into the 4th. Everything was going their way. Then all hell broke loose. The refs were accused of stealing the game from San Antonio. The Spurs couldn’t make a shot. And the Bullets fought through the pressure fugue, creating pandemonium for their fans with a last second shot.
Let’s start here first, grace under pressure: the Bullets went on a 10-2 run in the last ninety seconds. It ended when Bobby Dandridge’s jumper propelled the Bullets into a return trip to the NBA Finals.
Doug Moe, the Spurs coach, didn’t mince words. He said, “The refs stole it. John Vanak and Paul Mihalik wouldn’t make a call for us at the end. It was a great refereed game and then they stole it at the end.” Moe, a wild card personality, wasn’t finished. “It makes you wonder if it was on purpose. They should be set before the firing squad.”
Firing squad, even as a metaphor, was extreme for the loquacious and reactionary Moe who wore his emotions on his sleeve. “They (Bullets) stole their way into the Finals.” Moe was fined $5,000 for his verbal impulsivity.
Why was Moe so outrageously pissed? The Spurs had a 94-87 lead with five minutes left. The Bullets made a furious comeback and the Spurs had a last chance but Elvin Hayes blocked James Silas shot.
Moe wasn’t the only Spur a little bit salty. “We couldn’t handle Washington and the referees. The game was stolen from us.” said James Silas.
The real hero of the game was Bullets coach Dick Motta who played forward Bobby Dandridge at guard in the fourth and the Spurs couldn’t adjust. The 22-9 run by the Bullets was a direct beneficiary of Motta’s thinking outside the box. In the 22-9 run, Dandrige had 9 points and forward Greg Ballard had 7 points.
Despite the histrionics by Moe and Silas, this is the truth: the Spurs only scored one field goal in the last three minutes.
The controversy that made Moe and Silas and Spurs fans fume (besides the power outage) began when Bullets great Wes Unseld was fouled in the paint. Billy Paultz was the culprit, fouling Unseld who was grabbing a rebound. The Bullets were down by 2 in the last minute of the game after Unseld’s free throws went in. Then Billy Paultz was called for an illegal screen. Paultz was a big human man, 6-11; his nickname was the Whooper. He came over from the ABA. As he set a pick on Tom Henderson, Henderson went down. Or he flopped, that was what the Spurs and Doug Moe accused. Henderson said, “He got me pretty good but I went down to make it look better.” With the ball back in the Bullets hands after the turnover, Bobby Dandridge scored to tie the game. And then he drained the game winner.
Afterwards Gervin said, “It’s summertime for me. It’s all over now.”
The epilogue wrote itself. Game 7’s can be ugly until the last minute. For most of the game, the Bullets struggled, shooting 41% but when it counted they dug in. They never gave up, they kept chipping at the lead and they put the ball in their scorer’s hand, trusting Dandridge to fight through the pressure. Though they would lose in the NBA Finals to Seattle, the Conference Finals against the Spurs, a classic series, was their last game 7 in Bullets/Wizards history. Until tonight.
38 NBA years have come and gone and here we are. Here we are. The question to be answered tonight is one of desire: Do the 2016-17 Wizards have the same heart as the 1979 Bullets? Can they stave off elimination by any means necessary? Will the basketball gods bestow luck? Will D.C. and Maryland celebrate like it was 1979 all over again? Or, will this be one more page in the very thick chapter of D.C. sorrowful sports moments with John Wall repeating George Gervin’s elegy: “it’s summertime now. It’s all over for me.”
photo via llananba