Friday, October 17, 2008

When The Fat Lady Sang

It was another season full of hope for the Bullets. There had been a few seasons of unfulfilled expectations. Two seasons were most remembered for quick exits after a long journey. Age had crept into its own jersey and was as much a part of the team as any other.

The city had high hopes regardless of the past. There was good reason. The finest player ever to suit up in the hometown uniform was still captain of the roster. His knees were worn, but his shoulders were still wide and strong. He was the epitome of determination. He did have help, thank goodness. One was a guy who is amongst the finest to ever play his position. Both of these players names are written all over the Bullets, and leagues, history books. There were also other local legends participating. One still is part of the organization as a broadcaster. Another is the General Manager of one of the most celebrated franchises in the leagues history. There was a member of that 1972 U.S. Olympic team that won silver after an incorrect call by the officials had cost the U.S.A. gold late in the final game.

It had been a difficult season. They had a new coach. One of their star players had threatened to retire rather than play in his new system. Injuries had plagued the team for most of the season. They rallied midway through the season, getting many career high performances from the roster. One important piece was the acquisition of an All Star player who had helped his team sweep them in the 1971 Finals. They lost an important piece of their puzzle and had to replace him with a guy who had helped embarrass them just 3 years earlier in yet another Finals sweeping. In fact, his signing is viewed as a major catalyst in the teams resurgence. The team had only 1 All Star, who ended up playing the fewest minutes in that years All Star game for his conference. They only averaged .5 points better than their opponents that season, and finished 8 games out of first place. Still, they ended up the 3rd seed in their conferences playoff bracket. After a fairly easy first round, they eked out victories in the next two rounds by defeating the #2 and #1 seeds in 6 games each. During this time, a journalist from the #2 seeds town tried to urge his fellow fans on by saying, " The opera isn't over until the fat lady sings." He had invented this phrase a year earlier in his sports column. The coach had heard this phrase, but changed it to, "It Ain't Over Until The Fat Lady Sings" to encourage his underdog team. It would set the stage for one of the more exciting Finals in recent history.

Their opponents had gotten off to bad start that season as well. They had lost 17 of their first 22 games They then fired their coach and replaced him with a Hall of Fame player who would go on and win the most games via a coaching career in the leagues history. He would be later also inducted into the Hall of Fame as a coach. The team was balanced with six players having averaged over double figures per game for the season. They had the best back court trio in the league, which featured a future Hall of Famer, a player whose number was later retired by the franchise, and a multiple All Star. That year, however, the team had no one represent the franchise in the All Star game. The bench was deep, and was led by a great player whose playing career was winding down after many successes in his great career. He would go on to coach several teams. They also had a future Hall of Famer starting in the post. They were deep, young, and talented. They knocked off the leagues defending champion on their way to the finals. They also would go back to the finals in the following season as well.

The Finals got off to a wild start and ended up setting the tone to what would be an unpredictable series. The opponents were down 19 points going into the final period. Led by one of their great guards scoring 16 points in less than nine minutes, they stormed back and pulled out a convincing win on their home court. Due to an eccentric scheduling format by league officials to accomodate the opposing city's construction issues, the next 2 games shifted to the Bullets court. After the series was tied, the opponents took a road win, while led by a great defensive performance by their rookie guard who was beginning to be known nation wide simply as "D.J." D.J. almost got his team another win the next game. He ended up blocking a game winning shot attempt to force the game into overtime. In O.T., the visiting Bullets got off two quick field goals and eventually won in front of a then-record playoff crowd of 39,457 fans, due to the game being moved to the city football stadium after a scheduling gaffe by city officials. The opponents, back on their regular home floor, then scraped out a win thanks to 11 missed free throws in the final period. Things looked bleak. The opponents were up 3 - 2. The Bullets trudged back home. Many thoughts were running through each persons mind with the team, and their city. Ranging from confidence to the inevitably pessimistic question of, "Would they fall short again?". This would be when the head coach would stand up in front of all with a new variance of the now famous and often used phrase.

"Wait For The Fat Lady!"

Back home, they were energized by the fans. Momentum was against them, but determination had not waned. The team got off to a bad start. Then, to make these finals even more memorable, the lights in the arena went out. After a delay, the coach decided to gamble. Tired of seeing his back court dominated by the opponents, he shuffled the line up. Leaving one experienced back court player on the floor with 4 front court players, the Bullets exploded for 70 points in the second half for a then record 35 point victory that was just broken this year. They had to go back to the opponents arena, but the Bullets went in there relaxed and ready to play. That game might be remembered by some as when the opponents back court mostly failed them. Two players combined shot 4 - 26. D.J. missed all 14 of his shots. Down by 11 with 90 seconds left, the opponents then pared the difference down to 2 as the seconds ticked off the clock. The Bullets captain was then fouled. Shooting 55% from the line in the series, and a 63% career average, he calmly sank both shots to seal the victory. They had become only the third team ever to win the title in a seventh game on the road.

Finally! That was all that could be said by the players and fans. The best quote came from their best player. "All my life I had dreamed about all of the things I would do if I ever got to be a champion. After I finally won it, I was so exhausted that all I did was go back to my hotel room and slept."

These teams met again the next year in the championship, but it didn't have the same aura. Both teams precense wasn't nearly as unexpected. The opponents won this time by defeating a tired Bullets that had just gotten to the dance by coming back from a 3-1 deficit in their conference's finals.

Regardless, it was a magical time. The Bullets had won the first professional sports championship for D.C. in 32 years. In fact, it is the only championship in franchise history. You can still see the banner even if you don't share the memories. It simply reads :



David Funk said...

Excellent stuff 3rd. I've read alot about the 70s in the NBA, and it was a very different time then just like the whole culture.

Great recap of that season. Always good to look back at a time when a team you follow was successful.

CK0712™ said...

that write up was an awesome shot of history for me & the title of the blog, killer!! thanks 3rd!!

Lester's Legends said...

Nice job. It's still weird calling them the Wizards.