The irony of the Washington Bullets is that in a city founded on images, the team never has had one. Or, rather, that it has had too many. The Bullets were Elvin Hayes shooting the turnaround jumper and disappearing in the fourth quarter; they were Wes Unseld, wide as Capitol Hill itself, body-checking the opposition into the nearest monument; they were even Tiny, the bespectacled dachshund mascot, dragging his infernal toy cannon and chasing his infernal toy ball during the TV time-outs. Alas, the Bullets also were the ultimate losers on the grand occasions.
Those were the Washington images up to the time last spring when the team cast off the vestments of group choke, upset San Antonio, Philadelphia and Seattle in succession, and won its first NBA championship after making the playoffs 10 years in a row. Even then, seeking some sort of identity, the Bullets took on a slogan—"The opera isn't over 'til the fat lady sings," a resolve similar to "Don't count your chickens before they hatch," or something—which led to still another image. Nowadays, a woman of considerable girth, wearing flowing white robes and a horned helmet, rushes through the stands at the Capital Centre in Landover, Md. Presumably the woman is supposed to represent Brunhilde.
The funny—or sad—part of all this is that despite having the best record in pro basketball over the past six years (299-193), the Bullets have never drawn well. Not in the year they won 60 games, when they averaged less than 10,000 in an arena that seats more than 19,000. Not last year, when they failed to sell out a single regular-season game. And not this year, when they have the best record in the league and are waging a stirring battle with the Philadelphia 76ers for first place in the Atlantic Division.
"The Bullets are the best," said Guard Paul Westphal of the Phoenix Suns last week. "They are so deep and talented that they can keep sending people at you, and one or two are bound to be hot. For them to lose a game, they all have to play terrible at the same time."
That didn't happen Friday night against Phoenix when the huge Washington front liners turned the fragile Suns every which way ( Mitch Kupchak rammed in 25 points, Hayes swept away 26 rebounds) while the Bullet defense held Westphal and Walter Davis to 19 points below their combined average, and Washington won 104-94. Nor did it occur three nights earlier against Chicago when the Bullets' church-mouse back-court reserves, Charlie Johnson and Larry Wright, came off the bench to score a total of 25 points in a 109-86 rout. Nor did it take place on the road at Atlanta on Saturday, despite the Bullets' playing miserably to fall 16 points behind the Hawks with 9:21 left in the game. Then Hayes and Kupchak split 20 points down the stretch, Greg Ballard contributed valuable relief work and the champions pulled out another one, 106-102.
Aside from manifesting the team's versatility of attack, the Bullets' three victories boosted their record to 27-12 and gave them a 2�-game margin over the 76ers. Average attendance at the two home games in Landover, however, was still short of the magic 12,000 mark—which the team claims turns it on to play its best; the Bullets were 21-1 at home last season in front of 12,000-plus crowds. Nonetheless they are aware of D.C. priorities. As Guard Kevin Grevey says, "The big news in this town isn't a Bullets win, it's an ambassador's party at the Tibetan embassy."
Later this month, after the Washington cocktail circuit figures out how tall Teng Hsiao-p'ing is and why the Redskins folded, the District's attention finally may turn to the Bullets. What everybody will discover is that Hayes is still setting up on his "X" alongside the lane; Unseld is still packing his 400 pounds down in the key, from where Victor the wrestling bear couldn't budge him; and Grevey is still whistling in his left-handed rainbows from the Beltway. One hopes they will also notice another man: the quiet, inconspicuous, small forward of the Bullets, Bobby Dandridge. All Dandridge did last year was show the Bullets how to win the NBA championship. All Dandridge is—a fact known to his peers for a couple of years now—is the best all-round player at his position in professional basketball.
Such an observation is shared by too many reviewers to stay hidden much longer. Dandridge helped win an NBA championship at Milwaukee in 1971, but it was only his second year in the league and he was playing in the shadows of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. Bobby D, as he is known, was to benefit by playing alongside Abdul-Jabbar for four more years before the big man left the Midwest, whereupon everyone concluded that would be the end of Bobby D. But Dandridge, who signed on with the Bullets last season, now has a second championship ring.
Up until the 1978 playoffs, in which Dandridge scored, passed, played defense, switched from forward to guard when needed, blanketed San Antonio's George Gervin to win one game, outplayed Philadelphia's Julius Erving to win an entire series, then outscored his Seattle counterpart, John Johnson, by 143-54 in the championship finals, the 6'6" Virginian had proceeded through his nine-year pro career—not to mention his high school and college years—virtually unnoticed.
The only thing famous about Dandridge, in fact, was his high school—Maggie Walker in Richmond, from which Arthur Ashe had emerged a few years before Dandridge graduated in 1965. (As far as Bobby D knows, the only other basketball players from Virginia to ever amount to anything are Moses Malone and Allan Bristow, and, he says, "They followed me.") Even at Norfolk State, an obscure enough institution except for its celebrity in the vast reaches of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association. Dandridge could hardly be found amidst all his spectacular teammates. Surely you recall "Pee Wee" Kirkland, "Hooker" Grant and "Mad Dog" Culpepper from a team that averaged approximately 350 points a game and ran up and down the floor so fast you needed five Houston McTears to catch them.