Twelve seconds remained on the Seattle Coliseum clock when the Washington Bullets broke their sideline huddle and prepared to take the floor with a tenuous four-point lead. Wes Unseld, their not-so-big center, had been merely a 54 percent free throw shooter during the regular season, but now coach Dick Motta was gripping Unseld’s arm and delivering a smile and wink that clearly said, “Everything’s all right.”
And so it was. Unseld drilled both free throws as the crowd groaned, and a few seconds later the Bullets were NBA champions with a 105-99 Game 7 victory over the Seattle SuperSonics.
The date was June 7, 1978, and this hadn’t happened in the franchise’s previous 17 seasons. And it hasn’t happened in 29 since. But for once the Bullets (now Wizards, of course) were masters of all they surveyed, and the jaded nation’s capital went a bit batty.
No wonder. Washington hadn’t had a professional sports champion since the Redskins defeated the Chicago Bears for the 1942 NFL title. Its baseball team had been gone for seven years. Its hockey team was among the NHL’s dregs. But the gritty, blue-collar Bullets made up for that — and then some.
Veteran sports columnist Morris Siegel put it this way the next day in the Washington Star: “Downtrodden, beaten-up, disunited, frustrated, maligned Washington, the sports capital with a no-win policy, finally has something to cheer about other than the inaugural parade. … World champions from Washington? Run that by me again, please.”
And Mo, later a columnist for The Washington Times, didn’t even like basketball.
Not that semi-success was a stranger to the Bullets. They had made the NBA Finals twice before only to be swept by the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971 and the Golden State Warriors in 1975. The conventional wisdom was that no team could win it all with a 6-foot-7 center, even one who had sterling cohorts like Elvin Hayes, Bobby Dandridge, Kevin Grevey, Phil Chenier, Charlie Johnson and Mitch Kupchak. So team captain Unseld, a bruising hunk in the paint but an inconsistent scorer, had the most to prove — and to enjoy.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” he said in the crowded locker room. “But when it does, don’t get in the way.”
Sharing Unseld’s joy was owner Abe Pollin, who had built Capital Centre in Landover for his team and later would finance construction of Verizon Center in downtown D.C. Said Pollin of the final series with Seattle: “It’s been a very unusual, hectic two weeks. I would call it the agony and the ecstasy.”
A mediocre 44-38 during the regular season, the Bullets got hot when it mattered. In the Eastern Conference playoffs, they dispatched the Atlanta Hawks, San Antonio Spurs and Philadelphia 76ers, going 10-4 overall. But they lost the first game of the finals to the Sonics 106-102 and had to come from behind three times in the series to reach Game 7.
Only two teams in NBA history had won a seventh game on the road, and the Sonics came in with a 22-game winning streak at home, but that didn’t bother Motta, whose confidence infused his whole team. Earlier in the postseason, following a loss to the Spurs, he had insisted, “The opera ain’t over until the Fat Lady sings.” That became a mantra for his overachieving outfit, and when the Bullets held their victory parade in the District two days after the final triumph, thousands of Fat Lady T-shirts were spotted among adoring fans.
Motta himself never had any doubts, or so he claimed.
“I knew we were going to win, so I wore my oldest suit,” he said in the locker room as the Bullets celebrated the title by dousing one another with beer instead of champagne.
The coach kept his calm as commissioner Larry O’Brien and TV announcer Brent Musburger prepared to present him with the championship trophy that resembles, the Star reported, “a bowling ball perched on top of a trash can.”
“Wait, wait, no presentation until Abe gets here,” Motta said.