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All through the early weeks of the season, it seemed that it would be only a matter of a day or two—or a couple of games, at most—before the slump ended and the Washington Bullets found themselves headed for their accustomed spot atop the NBA's Atlantic Division. After all, this was the team that had specialized in dramatic comebacks, the team that won the NBA championship two years ago, the team that was runner-up for the title last season.
Well, the days passed and the games passed and perhaps an era did, too. It is past mid-season, and as of last Sunday the Bullets were five games under .500 and struggling. The calendar, in more ways than one, had become Washington's biggest concern.
By last week the question was not when the Bullets would make their run, but if they would even be able to squeak into their 12th straight playoffs.
Just what's wrong with this once-steadiest-of-all teams? You do not play in a town where Eric Sevareid was once half-canonized, for quoting Spinoza a lot and for knowing how to spell "Machiavellian," without being subjected to your share of punditry. The most popular—and most plausible—theory is this: the Bullets are too old. Although Washington has enough young players to keep its average age at a fairly reasonable 29.7, second oldest in the NBA, the most important starters are so long in the tooth that their ages are determined by carbon dating. Forward Elvin Hayes is 34, Center Wes Unseld will reach that age in March, and Forward Bob Dandridge is 32. A while back Bullet Coach Dick Motta gave some credibility to what had up to that point been only loose talk by speculating that the reason Hayes seemed to be dropping more balls than ever was that he was too old. In the Big E's case, Motta appeared to be arguing that the hands are the first to go.
Hayes has scored his usual 20 points a game this season, and according to last week's NBA stats he's the league's eighth-best rebounder and shot-blocker. Though less biased observers have never considered Hayes' hands to be one of his greatest attributes, the Big E is so crazy about his mitts that if he weren't busy wearing them, it would be all anybody could do to keep him from donating them to the Hall of Fame or the Smithsonian or maybe even to some team on which they would not go unappreciated. "What do hands have to do with it?" Hayes says. "I've had these hands my whole career. I know a lot of players who wish they had these bad hands. There's no big forward in the league having the year I'm having. My ability speaks for itself. The age thing is a cop-out. If it wasn't for the veteran players we have on the team, I don't know where we'd be now."
Motta has had nothing more to say on the subject of aging or Hayes' hands since November, when he was told by Bullets owner Abe Pollin that if he couldn't keep his opinions to himself he could start looking for work elsewhere. But that hasn't stopped others from taking note of a difference in the way Washington is playing. "We used to beat people physically," says Kevin Grevey, once the Bullets' reliable shooting guard, who's now hitting a pitiful 38% of his shots. "Teams used to dread playing us because we used to intimidate people and then wear them down. We aren't intimidating anybody now. I think they look forward to us."
Unseld, the sequoia-like team captain, ranked third in the league in rebounding last week, and he still sets the most imposing pick and throws the most effective outlet pass in the NBA. But injuries to other players have forced Unseld to play 35 minutes a game, more than in any of the past three seasons, and he knows that the pace eventually will catch up with his painfully arthritic knees. And despite his good numbers, Unseld admits that things are not as they once were.
"Some people don't want to admit it," he says, "but some of us have gotten old. What some of us have lost, we're never going to get back. I daresay we haven't any more talent than anybody else in the league, and now we're older. The Bullets used to be like a well-oiled machine, but the machine has changed. Age is definitely a factor in that change. There was a time when we would walk out on the floor and just physically beat people. We used to knock heads for 48 minutes, never giving any ground, and then see who won. We're not doing that anymore.
"I'm not saying we're over the hill. We just have to use a different approach to the game; we have to get mentally tough. And I don't know if the personnel we have here is capable of being mentally tough. I tend to doubt it. Some people just aren't going to change. If you don't bring it with you, you aren't going to find it there."
The Bullets have had no more than their share of injuries, but as Motta puts it, "Injuries have really hurt us because we have that old front line." Most troublesome have been the repeated absences of Dandridge, who missed 11 of Washington's first 40 games, often with nothing more than stiffness in his joints.