Over the past 25 years, the Washington Wizards/Bullets have participated in what will now be their 7th playoff series. The Chicago Bulls have been the opponent now in three (3) of those appearances. In anticipation of Sunday Night’s NBA Playoffs Game 1 of Wizards vs. Bulls, I thought it would be fun to take a look back at when the Washington Bullets faced off against the Chicago Bulls in 1997.
The Bullets were an up and coming team with franchise cornerstones Chris Webber and Juwan Howard. Chicago was led by none other than Michael Jordan, and oh by the way, he was complimented by Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc, and Dennis Rodman. It was the big stage. It didn’t get any bigger than playing Michael Jordan and the Bulls. If you look back at it in a vacuum you would say, “Oh, the Bullets got swept”, but the series was so much more than that. The first two games were in Chicago and as expected the Bullets lost both. What wasn’t expected was that the Bulls won by 12 points in Game 1 and needed 55 points from Michael Jordan to win game two by a mere 5 points. Outside of Rod Strickland, the core of the Washington Bullets were young and what had been proven in the first two games of the series that the stage wasn’t too big for them.
This leads us to Game 3.
It was Washington’s first home playoff game in nine (9) years. I was a sophomore in college attending my first playoff game and prior to that had no idea what “playoff atmosphere” actually was. Fans in this area for some time have come out to root for stars and I expected nothing different that night. However, when I got there the tone was different. I have never been to a Bullets/Wizards game with an atmosphere that one-sided for the good guys. All of the Bullets, from Chris Webber to Rod Strickland to Tracy Murray responded by going toe to toe with one of the greatest teams of all time. The game started off with a 14-2 Bullets run to open the game and the crowd was in a frenzy. But these were the Chicago Bulls – one of the greatest teams of all time, if not the greatest team, and they inevitably made a run. Every time the Bullets punched, the Bulls counter punched and vice versa. The difference to me though was it was the playoffs, and seeing your team respond to uppercuts from some of the best players of all time was special. Seeing Tracy Murray go on a one-man second half run to erase a double-digit deficit – that’s what the playoffs is all about. The game ended with Chicago erasing a late Washington Bullets lead and going ahead for good on a Scottie Pippen ‘and 1’ dunk with seven (7) seconds left on a clock. The Bullets had one (1) last shot but Rod Strickland, who nobody on Chicago (including Air Jordan himself) could guard that series, passed it off and Calbert Chaney missed a jumpshot as time expired.
Fast forwarding to the present, and it’s easy to see that these aren’t Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls the Washington Wizards are playing but they are on a similar stage now, playing as underdogs against a team that is more experienced than them at critical positions.
It’s time to see what the Wizards are made of. Will John Wall and Bradley Beal be able to punch back when they’re on the big stage under the bright lights? That 1997 Bullets team rose to the occasion and didn’t beat themselves; they were beaten by one of the greatest teams of all time. The opponent this time around isn’t as fierce, but how will Washington’s core respond; who from Washington’s bench will surprise? The beauty of the playoffs is seeing who rises to the occasion and who beats themselves. I want to see how the Wizards respond in that regard. As fans, we’ll have plenty of time to debate Ernie Grunfeld, Randy Wittman, and which free agents to retain this offseason, but now it’s time to be a fan.
The book on this team’s future isn’t written. We don’t know if the Washington Wizards are promised a championship level future but by the same token we don’t know if they’re destined for mediocrity. What we will know is how Washington’s players compete and fight this series, which could give us a hint at where the Wizards are going, and there’s no reason not to enjoy these next few weeks of the NBA Playoffs while we watch it all play out.
In case you wanted to watch a snippet of the series between the Bullets and Bulls in ’97, here’s a link to a YouTube video featuring Game 3.