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The game was still in the first period, but the fans 20 rows up in Section 106 of the new, red-white-and-blue-span-gled Capital Centre were already furious. They were not angry at their Bullets, who were cruising to an early lead, and they were not complaining about the officiating, especially since the refs had just awarded the Bullets two points on a dubious call of goaltending. They were fuming about something that was not happening on the huge scoreboard suspended over center court.
"Hey, I want to see that one again," yelled one of the faithful, keeping his eyes on the board and ignoring the action on the floor. The fan to his left agreed. "It was a gift. Give us another look!"
"Would ya believe it? Those dumb mommas ain't gonna run it again?" concluded the first fan disgustedly and went back to watching the play.
All the while, the Centre's great showpiece—a revolutionary innovation, really—remained as blank as an unpainted canvas. The rest of the big new scoreboard was working just fine, flashing out point totals, the time and the team fouls in multicolored, computerstyle digits. But the 20-foot television screen mounted above the statistical readouts was not doing its thing, and that is what disturbed the fans in Section 106. They wanted, and had expected to be shown, a living-color, close-up, slow-motion, stop-action, instant replay of the alleged goaltending. They didn't get it.
The Bullets' new 19,069-seat home in Landover, Md., 15 miles from downtown Washington, is the only place in the world where fans can demand a TV replay at a basketball game—or any other kind of game. It doesn't matter that Telscreen, as the $1.25 million system is called, tends to ignore the visiting team and politely refrains from second-guessing the referee. The customers seem to love the idea of having their cake and eating it, too—of seeing a live live game and homestyle replays as well.
Since the Bullets changed their first name to Capital and moved into the Centre, they have been averaging nearly 12,000 fans a game, which may prove something about a change of scenery or our fundamental addiction to the big tube. The Bullets are almost exactly the same team that played in Baltimore, where they had a first-rate won-lost record yet were among the NBA's worst draws. This year the multitudes that have come to see them have had some superior viewing. The Bullets have pulled off some dandy replays on the way to a nine-game lead in the Central Division.
Their main problem is that although the same Bullet starters may still be on the payroll, some of them often have been off the playroll. The chief absentees have been Guard Archie (Shake 'n Bake) Clark and Center Wes Unseld, who have missed 51 games between them.
Clark, who began the season with a separated shoulder and lately has been troubled by a swollen right elbow, has been ably replaced by Kevin Porter, the 6', second-year man from St. Francis (Pa.) who has developed into a quick and courageous small guard of the Tiny Archibald-Norm Van Lier-Calvin Murphy school. Porter fearlessly penetrates to the basket, mingling with the biggest men on the floor en route. They often remove this elusive, airborne annoyance from their midst by batting him into the third row of seats, but usually only after Porter has launched one of his double-dip floaters toward the hoop or passed off to a teammate for an open shot. While Clark was missing almost all of February, Porter averaged 18 points and eight assists a game. Unfortunately, he is equally undaunted on defense, where his aggressiveness has resulted in a league-leading 14 disqualifications.
Unseld has been in absentia even more than Clark and is much tougher to replace. The very heart of past Bullet teams, he is limping through this season on a tender left knee. It is likely surgery will be tried after the playoffs—with no guarantee of success. For now, Coach K.C. Jones must continue to juggle Unseld in and out of the lineup. Some games he has started and gone nearly all the way; in others he has appeared in the second half if it was close; in a few he has stepped in during the closing seconds to help execute a specific play; and in many he has not played at all. Though he has never been a prolific scorer, the Bullets sorely miss Unseld on offense. His rebounding and quick, hard outlet passes have long been the keystone of the team's fast break, and his picks are the most massively effective in the league; they are the equivalent of being screened out by a Clydesdale.
It may well be that the Bullets will have to become permanently accustomed to doing all of these things without Unseld. In a mood of confusion and discouragement a few weeks back, he discussed with the Washington Star-News the possibility that his career may be cut short. "There are some things—basic things like jumping and moving to my left—that I can't do properly and may not be able to do again," he said. "My wife is the only one who really understands all this. She's trying to prepare me in her own subtle way. She says to me, 'Gee, Wes, what a great career you've had.' Sounds bad, doesn't it?"