Hello and Goodbye to The Baltimore Bullets
Weekend pictures of Baltimore and stories from its past with pro basketball…
1st Mariner Arena, Baltimore, MD (formerly the Baltimore Civic Center and the Baltimore Arena).
Box of Natty Boh – Soliders and Sailors Monument, W. 29th St. & N. Charles Ave., Baltimore.
Baltimore City Hall.
The Baltimore Bird – E. Pratt St. & S. Central Ave.
This past weekend the girlfriend and I traveled to Baltimore, if nothing but to rediscover the city and show it some tourism love (plus we had a free place to stay). Upon moving to Washington, D.C. in 1990, my father and I would make the drive up the BW Parkway to see the Baltimore Orioles at least 20 times a year, first to Memorial Stadium and then to Camden Yards.
My dad and I were there for everything from Ben McDonald to September 6, 1995 when Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games-played streak (16 years ago today… wow). We were there for the only two seasons of O’s playoff action since 1984 (1996 and 1997). But eventually, team owner Peter Angelos, me going away to college almost 1,000 miles away, and the arrival of the Nationals to Washington faded the Orioles into apathy. No more trips to Baltimore either.
The Washington pro basketball franchise, currently the Wizards, played in Baltimore under the name “Bullets” from the 1963-64 season through the 1972-73 season. During that time, they played in the Baltimore Civic Center in downtown Baltimore, now known as the 1st Mariner Arena (and seen in the first picture above).
The passage below from The City Game by Pete Axthelm takes us back to the 1970 NBA playoffs, Wes Unseld’s second year in the NBA coming off his MVP/Rookie of the Year season in 1968-69. The Bullets finished the 1969-70 season with a 50-32 record, third in a seven-team Eastern Division (and third in the NBA), and in the first round of the playoff faced the 60-win New York Knicks, tops in the 14-team NBA.
The first two games of the series were highly competitive, but the Knicks prevailed in both, winning 120-117 in the series opener in New York and 106-99 the next day in Baltimore. Game three swung back to New York and the Bullets trounced the Knicks, 127-113. Wes Unseld had 34 rebounds and the Knicks as a team had 30. Baltimore then won game four 102-92 on their home court, tying the series at two games apiece:
The fans of that dreary city were equally manic. Baltimore’s Civic Center is an informal arena, an all-purpose theaterlike auditorium that offers cotton candy and pizza at small concessions counters and Dixieland music between periods–as if to compensate the patrons for their abysmally poor view of the game. A low-slung sprawling structure far longer than the court itself, the Civic Center has many seats at angles distance from the action. Because of those angles, the noise seldom batters the court as it does in most arenas. Instead it seems to filter down in disjointed cries and cheers; and in that fourth game, the cries reflected all the pent-up frustration of a year and a half of snide jokes by New Yorkers about Baltimore teams. “Who the hell are the Knicks?” they shouted. “Earl the Peal is king of the world.”
[The City Game: Basketball from the Garden to the Playgrounds, by Pete Axthelm – Ch. 15: “The Baltimore Scare,” pp. 170-71]
The series went to a full seven games, with the home team winning all remaining games and New York finally advancing by means of a 127-114 victory. Baltimore was swept by the Knicks in the initial round of the 1968-69 playoffs, so pushing New York to a game seven in 1970 was considered progress, especially as the Knicks won their first NBA championship over the Los Angeles Lakers later that year.
Next season, 1970-71, with the NBA going to 17 teams and a divisional format within two conferences, Baltimore finished 42-40, first in the Central Division and second in the Eastern Conference. The Bullets beat the Philadelphia 76ers 4-3 in a first round playoff series, and then avenged the previous season’s loss to the champion Knicks, taking them down over seven games in the the Eastern Conference Finals. However, Baltimore was swept by Lew Alcindor and the Milwaukee Bucks in the ’71 NBA Finals.
In November of ’71 the Bullets traded Earl “The Pearl” Monroe to the Knicks in exchange for Mike Riordan, Dave Stallworth and cash; it was about a dozen games into the season in which Monroe only played three. He didn’t want to be in Baltimore anymore and had requested a trade, even flirted with jumping leagues to the ABA as a threat. It seems Monroe never cared much for Charm City. From a 1969 edition of Newsweek (Vol. 73):
Even star guard Earl (The Pearl) Monroe showed no special desire to keep rattling around the usually empty Civic Center. “The less I have to stay in Baltimore,” Monroe said, “the better.”
The Bullets finished the 1971-72 season with a record of 38-44 and were ironically bounced by Monroe and the Knicks 4-2 in the first round of the 1972 playoffs. Not all, however, was looking down for Baltimore. A January 1973 Sports Illustrated article by Peter Carry read:
These are considerably toned-down Bullets compared to the ones who lost the championship round of the 1971 playoffs to Milwaukee in four straight games. Earl Monroe now struts his stuff for the Knicks. Gone too is weary-kneed Gus Johnson, who is best remembered in Baltimore floating on high, his gold-starred incisor twinkling amid a shower of purportedly shatterproof glass as he razed yet another see-through backboard. Only Center Wes Unseld and Forward John Tresvant remain from that squad. Today the Bullets go with the likes of smooth Guard Phil Chenier, spunky Forward Mike Riordan, solid Unseld, silken Elvin Hayes, speedy rookie Kevin Porter and the shifty Clark.
Events beyond [Gene, Baltimore’s coach] Shue’s control forced the transformation of his team and he pulled it off because he was willing to gamble. At the start of last season Johnson showed up with two inflexible knees while Monroe barely bothered to appear, preferring to hold out until the Bullets traded him to a city more commensurate with his life-style. The Pearl went to the Big Apple and Baltimore got the 6’4″ Riordan, a former guard who is now the NBA’s shortest starting forward and most improved jump-shooter, as part of the deal.
[“The Bullets Are High Caliber,” by Peter Carry – Sports Illustrated, Jan. 29, 1973.]
Despite a 52-30 1972-73 campaign for the Bullets, the Knicks again defeated them 4-1 in the 1973 playoffs en route to winning their second NBA title, again over the Lakers.
Mere flirtations with success didn’t mean much in terms of support. Baltimore and pro basketball (and pro sports for that matter), had a rocky relationship. From Glory for Sale by Jon Morgan:
The Orioles had just come off a season that landed them in the World Series for the second year in the row. The Colts had won Super Bowl V in January 1971 and had come within a game of playing in the championship the next year. The Baltimore Bullets won the National Basketball Association Easter Division title in 1971, only to lose the championship to Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and the Milwaukee Bucks. The sports pages nationwide were full of stories about Unitas; the Orioles’ Robinsons, Frank and Brooks, and pitcher Jim Palmer, and the Bullet starts Wes Unseld and Earl Monroe.
For the compulsive booster like Schaefer [William Schaefer, Baltimore Mayor from 1971-1986], it was hard not to see the benefits of playing in the big leagues, no matter what the costs. He got his first hint of the costs, however, in 1972 when Bullets owner Abe Pollin, complaining about the difficulty of drawing fans to the downtown Baltimore Civic Center, announced he was moving his franchise to a new facility to be built in Landover, Md., outside Washington. Pollin even changed the team name to the Washington Bullets. Thus, Baltimore’s first major-league team in the modern ear became the first to flee.
Worries ran rampant that the other two teams would soon follow the Bullets’ lead. The Colts’ and Orioles’ owners contributed to the jitters with frank assessments of Memorial Stadium.
[Glory for Sale: fans, dollars, and the new NFL, by Jon Morgan – pp. 109-110, 1997, Bancroft Press]
In an inner city heading toward severe neglect due to changing industry, the white flight and a budding drug trade, Pollin escaped as fast as he could. Below, according to Basketball-Reference.com, the cumulative attendance in the Baltimore Civic Center (with NBA rank) and the Bullets’ win-loss record (with NBA rank) during the Baltimore years:
- 1972-73: 263,660 – 11 of 17 teams (record: 52-30, 5th in the NBA);
- 1971-72: 272,339 – 11 of 17 (record: 38-44, 9th);
- 1070-71: 251,130 – 11 of 17 (record: 42-40, 9th);
- 1969-70: 225,569 – 10 of 14 (record: 50-32, 3rd);
- 1968-69: 290,147 – 5 of 14 (record: 57-25, 1st);
- 1967-68: 171,146 – 10 of 12 (record: 36-46, 12th);
- 1966-67: 129,799 – 10 of 10 (record: 20-61, 10th);
- 1965-66: 174,880 – 6 of 9 (record: 38-42, 5th);
- 1964-65: 187,124 – 5 of 9 (record: 37-43, 6th);
- 1963-64: 195,783 – 6 of 9 (record: 31-49, 7th).
Pollin’s Capital Bullets totaled 414,202 in attendance (5th among 17 teams) in 1973-74, and in 1974-75 as the Washington Bullets, 383,775 in attendance (9th among 18 NBA teams). Attendance totals for the Washington Bullets during the rest of the 70s goes as follows: 440,837 (9 of 18); 467,745 (11 of 22); 446,539 (13 of 21); 524,356 (4 of 22); and 466,823 (10 of 22) in 1979-90. They weren’t packing houses in Landover, MD, but it clearly provided more opportunity than Baltimore, MD.
Struggles with the adequacy of Memorial Stadium continued throughout the 70s decade and into the next. The Colts stuck around until March 1984 when they made a dash to Indianapolis. The Orioles made due with Memorial Stadium until moving to Camden Yards in 1992.
Known as the Capital Bullets in their first season away from Baltimore (some games were played at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House until the Capital Centre was ready in Landover), the team finished the 1973-74 season with a 47-35 record. But the Bullets couldn’t escape Monroe and the Knicks, again losing to them in seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
Pollin’steam continued to make the post-season and would finally strike pay dirt by winning the NBA Championship over the Seattle Supersonics in 1978, but never got a chance for revenge against the Knicks. The rivalry between Baltimore and New York died soon after 1974 with the teams not facing each other in the postseason since. In six straight playoff meetings from 1968 to 1974 the Knicks held a 23 win to 13 loss advantage.
Overall the franchise went 401-412 (.493) as the Baltimore Bullets. According to the Win-Shares advanced statistic, the players — those who appeared in at least 100 games with the franchise — most responsible for wins in Baltimore rank as follows:
- Wes Unseld (1969-73) – 50.9 WS
- Jack Marin (1967-72) – 41.3
- Gus Johnson (1964-1972) – 36
- Earl Monroe (1968-1972) – 33.5
- Walt Bellamy (1964-1966) – 27.0
Starting in the 1988-89 season, according to the Basketball-Reference.com database, the Washington Bullets began playing several regular season games a year in Baltimore. Through the 1996-97 season they totaled 35 such contests, winning 19 and losing 16; the last was played on March 29, 1997 with the Bullets beating the Dallas Mavericks 94-87 behind 17 points and 18 rebounds from Chris Webber. The tradition however ended when the team changed their name to “Wizards” for the 1997-98 season and made preparations to move to a new arena in downtown Washington.
A 1997 Baltimore Sun article by Jerry Bembry on the day of that last game read:
Those locker rooms, located near the stage on the Lombard Street side of the building, are still small. And dark. There is nothing luxurious about the old building — one of the funniest scenes there this season was Harvey Grant trying to watch a tape of an opponent before a game on a television that had no knob to change channels and had a vertical hold that wouldn’t.
Most of today’s players will be happy if the Bullets never return to the building. But Chris Webber likes the atmosphere.
“The fans in Baltimore are great,” Webber said. “They really get behind the team.”
[“Bullets: Thanks for the memories Tonight’s game will be their last in Baltimore,” by Jerry Bembry – The Baltimore Sun, March 29, 1997.]
And the next day’s article:
There was no ceremony to mark the Bullets’ final game in Baltimore. No acknowledgment of the great players — Monroe, Unseld, Hayes, Johnson — who wore the Baltimore uniform.
Aside from the sign held by one fan (Bye Bye Bullets/Welcome Wizards/Abe, Don’t Shut Out Balto.) and the playing of the song “Never can say goodbye” as the team walked off the court, the moment passed quietly.
[“Bullets leave Baltimore with win Mavericks fall, 94-87,” by Jerry Bembry – The Baltimore Sun, March 30, 1997.]
An August 1998 article in The Sun indicated that the Wizards would return to Baltimore for a preseason game in October of that year, but the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season evidently prevented that from happening.
In October 1999 the franchise made good on a promise to return with a 112-99 preseason victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers. According to The Sun, only about 3,000 people showed up to watch. A member of the Wizards PR staff confirmed that that was the last time the franchise played a game of any type in Baltimore.
The Washington Capitals are scheduled to play a preseason hockey game at the 1st Mariner Arena against the Nashville Predators on September 20 of this year. Question is, will basketball ever return to Baltimore?
>MORE B-MORE PICTURES…
Westminster Hall, Edgar Allan Poe burial ground – Baltimore.
“Where Baltimore gets engaged.” – N. Charles St., Baltimore.
Baltimore Hustler, Baltimore Street.
The Washington Monument in Baltimore.
Dutch Pot Cafe – Clay St., Downtown Baltimore.
Ladder in Hampden, Baltimore.
Ring buzzer for cigarettes – N. Charles St., Baltimore.
[All photos copyright Kyle Weidie, 2011]