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They're first, at long last
John Papanek
June 19, 1978
After 16 seasons and 233 days, the Bullets won their first NBA title by shutting down Seattle's hot guards and getting plenty of backspin from a surprising hero
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June 19, 1978

They're First, At Long Last

After 16 seasons and 233 days, the Bullets won their first NBA title by shutting down Seattle's hot guards and getting plenty of backspin from a surprising hero

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What could have been more appropriate than the fact that the very last American to be kept waiting for this incredibly long pro basketball season to end was Jimmy Carter?

The President waited and waited in the White House last Friday for the Washington Bullets, the newly crowned NBA champions, to show up for a reception, while his helicopter idled on the South Lawn, ready to whisk Carter off to Camp David for the weekend.

"Where on earth are they?" the President might have asked Larry O'Brien, the NBA commissioner, who once kept a toothbrush in the White House. "They were due at five o'clock."

"Relax, Mr. President," O'Brien might have replied. "Be thankful they aren't playing overtimes into July."

At that moment the Bullets were on Pennsylvania Avenue, their motorcade slowed by thousands of fans showering love on the capital's first championship team since 1942, when the Redskins beat the Bears for the NFL title. The fans not only showered love; Wes Unseld, the MVP of the playoffs, got sprayed with a bottle of beer. " Jimmy Carter's gonna love this," said Unseld.

The scene was reminiscent of the one in the Bullets' dressing room at the Seattle Coliseum two nights earlier, after Washington's 105-99 victory over the SuperSonics had made them only the third NBA team to win a seven-game championship series on the road. During their celebration, the Bullets soaked each other not with champagne but with Heineken. "Well, I've always said that we're the work-ethic team," said Coach Dick Motta, "so I guess beer is appropriate."

As the beer was spritzed around, the Bullets manifested their joy in different ways. Forward Bob Dandridge bounced between the low ceiling and the floor like a dribbling basketball, whooping "Hey! Whooo! Wheee! Yeah!" Guard Charles Johnson, who had helped clinch the championship with 19 points worth of unconscious shooting in Game 7, made like the cool, dispassionate pro. "I'm a pressure player," he said, sucking on a toothpick. "If my shot's got backspin. it's got a chance."

Unseld, the center who had labored for nine years without a championship and was voted MVP mainly on sentiment—Dandridge having been more valuable during Washington's 21 playoff games—drew the most reporters. "What I feel is relief," said Unseld. "Aren't you happy?" he was asked. "Sure I'm happy," he said. "Look at me. I'm ecstatic." An ecstatic statue, apparently.

Then there was Elvin Hayes, a non-champion, too, for nine years. Was this vindication for all those occasions he was accused of disappearing at crunch time, or was there some truth to the sign in the coliseum that read: THE BEST HAYES IS HELEN HAYES? That was a touchy question, because in Game 7 Hayes had taken only 10 shots and scored just 12 points, at least partly because of good defense by rookie Jack Sikma and veteran Paul Silas. And as the Bullets won their first championship in the franchise's 16 seasons, Hayes was the Silent E sitting on the bench with six fouls. "They can say whatever they want," said Hayes. "But they gotta say one thing: E's a world champion. He wears a ring."

The Sonics' 22-game home winning streak notwithstanding, Game 7 belonged to Washington from the beginning. The Bullets got little help from Hayes, but they could cope; the Sonics got no help from two-thirds of their trio of hot-shooting guards, and they could not. Washington got balanced scoring from starters Dandridge (19), Unseld and Guard Tom Henderson (15 each) and 32 points from subs Johnson and Mitch Kupchak. Inside, Seattle got a series-high 27 points from Center Marvin Webster and 21 from Sikma, but, baby, it was cold outside. If Gus Williams' 4-for-12 shooting was woeful, what word could describe the 0-for-14 performance of Dennis Johnson?

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