Phil Chenier recalled showing up for his first practice during his rookie year in 1971, being surrounded by talents such as Wes Unseld and Earl Monroe. He remembered having just watched them in the NBA finals the previous summer.
It was the start of a 10-year career — nine with the Washington Bullets — filled with three All-Star appearances and a 1978 championship.
And on Friday, Chenier watched his jersey go up in the rafters.
The Wizards retired Chenier’s No. 45 jersey Friday during halftime of Washington’s 108-100 loss to the Denver Nuggets. The gesture was considered long overdue, but happened on the heels of the franchise’s 40th anniversary for their last championship.
Chenier became the organization’s fifth player to earn the honor.
“When you play this game, you play for, like anything, you play for acceptance,” Chenier said. “You want to be the best and want to be accepted. Having some of the players who showed up, having some of my childhood friends and of course your family here, you’re surrounded by so many people who meant a lot to you — both before and now.
“It’s a really humbling feeling.”
Chenier’s banner also featured a patch of a microphone with “33” stitched onto it — representing his years of being the Wizards’ television color analyst. Chenier, though, admitted he didn’t notice the patch — instead staring at the number from his playing days. He always, after all, has considered himself a player first.
Chenier gave nearly a five-minute speech at halftime, thanking his former teammates, the organization and his family members. He got choked up by mentioning his mother, who could not be in attendance.
But teammates like Mitch Kupchak made it to the ceremony. He, Chenier and other members of the 1978 squad will get together on Saturday to celebrate their championship. They will be honored during Sunday’s game against the New York Knicks.
Chenier said the 1978 finals were bittersweet because a back injury prevented him from playing. He added, however, he was glad to be getting the chance to catch up with some people he hadn’t seen in years.
Wizards owner Ted Leonsis said the 40th anniversary for the squad made it the perfect time to retire Chenier’s number.
“Because he’s gotten a little bit older, his injuries are taking a toll and I just wanted to make sure Phil stayed a very important, integral part of the organization,” Leonsis said. “And he’s just represented everything about the city, everything about the team in the most elegant, classy, respectful way. And I thought the best way to pay that back was to retire his number and have a night like this for him.”
The Wizards aired video messages for Chenier throughout the game, with NBA legends like Walt Frazier and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar and commissioner Adam Silver sending their congratulations.
Before the game, Wizards coach Scott Brooks called a “not only a great player but an ambassador” to the franchise.
“He’s just a great guy,” Brooks said. “I’ve been here for two years and you never ever can get anyone to say anything about him. … It’s a thrill to get a text message after some games to congratulate us, how he played from him. It’s pretty cool.”
Chenier initially found out about the jersey retirement during the summer, when Bradley Beal broke the news to him during an interview. Beal’s words caught Chenier off guard and the 67-year-old wondered if he was serious.
Beal wasn’t joking. Chenier joined Monroe, Unseld, Gus Johnson and Elvin Hayes to have his number retired by the franchise.
“It really was exciting for me to see that 45 up there and to see my name,” Chenier said.