When The Fat Lady Sang: The Washington Bullets 1978 Championship Season


When The Fat Lady Sang: The Washington Bullets 1978 Championship Season

The Washington Wizards have had one of the worst months in recent memory and it has left a bad taste in my mouth. This team has me frustrated and there is only so many ways I can wriet about how pathetic they have been lately.

I figured today would be a good time to reflect on better days, when the Washington Wizards were a proud franchise with a winning culture.

During the 1978 season, the Wizards (called the Washington Bullets) rode a wave of momentum straight to a Larry O’Brien Trophy. The championship was the first for the city in 36 years, since the Washington Redskins won the National Football League Championship in 1942.

Dick Motta led a young roster, with only three players who were older than 30-years-old. He had come from the Chicago Bulls, where he was a former Coach of the Year (1971), two years earlier. Motta began using the phrase, “The opera ain’t over until the fat lady sings,” as a rallying cry for the Bullets, after reading it in a San Antonio newspaper.

The Bullets were also led by two Hall of Fame big men, Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld.

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Coming into the season, Hayes was a 10-time NBA All-Star (1969-78) and one of the greatest forwards in the history of the league.

He was acquired in a trade from the Houston Rockets in 1972, and he quickly became a cornerstone for Washington. At the time, he was one of the best scorers in the NBA and a double-double machine.

Wes Unseld started alongside Hayes in the Washington frontcourt. He was a five-time All-Star in his own right, as well as a former Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year in the same season (1969). The center from Louisville was a homegrown talent, drafted second overall in 1968. He wasn’t the scorer that Hayes was, but he knew how to rebound and throw an outlet pass better than anyone else in the NBA.

The rest of the starting lineup was rounded out by Bob Dandridge, Tom Henderson and Phil Chenier.

Dandridge was one of the most underrated forwards of the 1970’s. He was a high-scoring, mid-range shooter who also played great defense. He was a three-time All-Star (1973, 1975-76) with the Milwaukee Bucks, where he won a Championship in 1971. Dandridge was known for raising his level of play during the postseason. He decided to sign with the Bullets prior to the 1978 season.

After playing with the Atlanta Hawks for three seasons, Henderson joined the Bullets for the Championship season. The 6’3” combo guard was a double-figure scorer ever since his rookie season in 1975. He became the starter at point guard for the Bullets.

Chenier was the second starter in the backcourt for the Washington Bullets. He was another homegrown talent, drafted with the fourth overall pick in the 1971 Hardship Draft. The versatile guard was a great shooter and a fan favorite. He had made his third All-Star team the year before. If the Bullets were going to win a Championship, Phil Chenier was going to be a major reason why.

Or would he?

The Washington Bullets began the season strongly, winning 20 of their first 38 games through New Year’s Day. The team appeared to be a contender until Chenier went down with a back injury in mid-January. The injury required surgery and he would have to sit out for the remainder of the season. Washington had to find someone to fill his void in the starting lineup.

Washington’s bench was full of young, unproven players. The best player on the reserve unit was Mitch Kupchak, a 6’9” center who was in his second season. He had averaged 10.4 points per-game the year before but he was a big man.

Joe Pace and Larry Wright were both coming off of their rookie seasons. Pace was a 6’10” center, and Wright was 6’1” point guard. Wright was a first-round pick and he had a larger role on the team, as a scorer, but neither player was ready for a promotion to the starting lineup.

Greg Ballard and Phil Walker were both rookies during the 1978 season. Ballard was the fourth overall pick in 1977, out of Oregon. He was a 6’7” power forward. Walker was drafted 39th overall, from Millersville. He would see action in only 40 games, at guard.

Kevin Grevey was in his third season with the Bullets in 1978. He was drafted in 1975 and had been used as a backup for his first two seasons. Dick Motta must have seen a potential star because he elevated Grevey to the starting lineup after the Chenier injury. It turned out to be the right decision, considering he finished the season averaging 15.5 points per-game.

The Bullets needed to sign a player after it was announced that Chenier would miss the remainder of the season. They decided to pick up Charles Johnson, a point guard who was released by the Golden State Warriors earlier in the month. He would eventually end up playing a huge role in the Bullets success.

January and February were two rough months for Washington. They struggled as they made adjustments to their rotations, minus Chenier. By the end of February, the team’s record stood at 31-29.

They improved slightly over the next couple of months but they still finished with a 44-38 overall record. Surprisingly, that was good enough for third in the Conference.

Elvin Hayes had another remarkable season, as he led the team in points (21.8), rebounds (13.3) and blocks (2.0). Surprisingly, Tom Henderson averaged 5.4 assists, tops on the Bullets, and 13th in the league. Not surprisingly, Wes Unseld’s 11.9 rebounds per-game ranked 10th in the NBA. Bobby Dandridge played the third banana role perfectly. He was the team’s second-leading scorer, at 19.3 points.

Back in 1978, the NBA used a best-of-three format during the first-round of the Playoffs. The Bullets didn’t even need three games to take care of the Atlanta Hawks. Washington won the deciding game 107-103 in overtime, in Atlanta.

The next series is where the famous ‘fat lady’ line came from. The Bullets met up with the Central Division champs, the San Antonio Spurs. Most people didn’t give Washington a chance in hell coming into the series. That changed quickly.

The Bullets jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the series and that San Antonio columnist made the remark that “the opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings”. The Spurs were able to win one more game but the Bullets ended taking the final game at home. Motta managed to take their mantra as well.

Washington met up with the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Sixers were the defending Eastern Conference Champions but the Bullets turned out to be the better team. Washington shocked the world and advanced to the NBA Finals, after beating Philadelphia in six games.

The Championship series would be the third in franchise history for the Bullets. They had previously met up with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1971, where they were swept. They also played the Golden State Warriors in 1975, which also resulted in a sweep. This time they were matched up with the Seattle Supersonics. They say the third time’s the charm.

The Sonics were the heavy favorites going into the Championship round. They jumped out to a 3-2 series lead, with each team alternating victories. Reporters and fans across the country figured the Bullets were ready to have a fork stuck in them, that they were done. Motta kept on talking about the ‘fat lady’ and the Bullets shockingly blew the Sonics out in Game 6, 117-82.

Grevey ended up doing a great job replacing Chenier throughout the Playoffs. He averaged 15.5 point per-game during the postseason but he ended up spraining his wrist in Game 7, against Seattle. Dandridge was forced to slide over to guard for the majority of that game. He finished with 19 points in the biggest game of the season, including the game-sealing dunk at the end. Washington won 105-99.

The long-time Washington Bullet, Wes Unseld, won the Finals Most Valuable Player award. He averaged 9.0 points, 11.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists per-game over the seven games.

Charles Johnson, the midseason pickup, scored 80 points in the final four games of the series. Hayes ended up praising Johnson’s contributions during the Championship run.

The last image of Dick Motta during the 1978 season was one of him celebrating the Championship, wearing a beer-soaked shirt with his ‘fat lady’ saying on the front. Motta would go on to coach 15 more years in the NBA, including two more with Washington.

Unseld played his entire career with Washington, retiring in 1981. He eventually became the Head Coach for the Bullets, coaching them from 1987-1994. In 1996, he became their General Manager. He retired from that position in 2003.

Kupchak moved onto a playing career with the Los Angeles Lakers, which he parlayed into a management position. He has been the Lakers General Manager since 2004.

Chenier returned from his back surgery but he was never the same player. He played only one more season for the Bullets. He returned to DC in 1987, as a television analyst. You can catch him on Comcast Sports Net Washington.

The Washington Bullets returned to the Finals in 1979, where they met up with the Sonics once again. They lost the second go-around 4-1.

The late-1970’s will always be remembered as being the most successful time period for the franchise. Now it’s up to the current generation of Wizards players to try and duplicate the success that the team had in the past.

If nothing else, at least fans can look back on 1978 and reminisce about when they were Champions. For one year, they were the kings of the NBA.

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