The Wizards/Bullets Franchise Isn’t Celebrating Its 50th Anniversary Because…
In stepped Arnold Heft, Earl Foreman and Abe Pollin. The trio purchased the team for a record $1.1 million1, moved it to Baltimore, and renamed them the Bullets. They didn’t even have approval from the NBA Board of Governors to make the move, and were initially fined for not living up to a three-year agreement to stay in Chicago. Eventually, the fine was reduced from $25,000 to $5,0002 and everyone moved on with their business.
So, technically, the franchise’s 50th year of existence came in the 2010-11, another disastrous 23-win effort on the heels of the Gilbert Arenas (and Javaris Crittenton) “Gun-gate” season prior. At the time, a member of the Wizards Media & PR staff told me that they were not counting the first two seasons in Chicago, and that the clock on 50 years started in 1963-64 when the team arrived in Baltimore.
Thus, according to those specifications, this season is the franchise’s 50th in existence. There are only eight teams in the NBA older than the Baltimore/Washington franchise—the Celtics, Warriors, Knicks, Pistons, Lakers, Kings, Hawks, and 76ers. The Miami Heat franchise turned 25 years old this season and is celebrating it with much fanfare.
Yet, from the Washington Wizards, no peep of a 50th anniversary celebration—no souvenir cups, no special patches on players’ jerseys; hell, this 2012-13 season doesn’t even have an official slogan.
Instead, as relayed by Wizards Media & PR earlier this season, they are celebrating the 35th anniversary of the 1977-78 NBA Champion Washington Bullets.
When Leonsis took ownership of the team in the summer of 2010, no one had a clue where the 1978 championship trophy was. Turns out, it was collecting dust and dings in the dark, almost forgotten. “This is what we spend a billion dollars over our lifetime to try to win, and it’s been sitting in someone’s closet,” team owner Ted Leonsis recently told the Washington Post.
So in many ways, it makes complete sense to focus on celebrating the title run. According to that excellent Post article by Dave Sheinin, the franchise didn’t even recognize or celebrate its one championship team until the 25th anniversary in 2003—then, it was merely part of the halftime entertainment.
Now, the trophy has been recovered and has been given its proper respect with a display case in the Verizon Center. Fans attending this Saturday’s game against the Indiana Pacers will receive a replica ’78 championship ring. All members of the team who are able, save for the late Charles Johnson, are in the nation’s capital for a weekend of celebration.
It’s all long overdue and much-needed. But still, the franchise is missing out on calling more attention to an illustrious history—the bitter playoff rivalry with the New York Knicks starting in the late-’60s and well into the ’70s—and perhaps a not-so-illustrious history—pretty much the last 25 years (29 total playoffs games, just six victories).
OK, so maybe it’s best to focus on a single championship team. After all, that’s the next goal on which billions are currently being spent.
Dan Shanoff, special to Bullets Forever:
The franchise hasn’t made it easy since the glory days of the late-1970s—I would argue no NBA fan base has had a rougher run over the past 30 years than we Bullets/Wizards fans.
I cannot begin to recount all of the competitive absurdities, but I will dig deep into the catalog and remind you that in 1989, in the 2nd round of the draft, we took a 6’11 center named Doug Roth who was blind in one eye, and it was unclear the team knew that beforehand.
The honest-to-god, feel-them-in-your-gut highlights are agonizingly few and far between, but I feel more optimistic about the future of the franchise today than I have in the 30+ years I can remember caring.
Saturday night, for just a few hours, we can remember that our franchise was once an NBA “world champion,” a title that no volume of hapless years since can ever be taken away from us. I am going to collect my replica championship ring at the arena entrance and cherish it.
Speaking for Bullets/Wizards fans who weren’t alive during the championship run—I didn’t start my close connection with the franchise until I moved to Washington, D.C. at the age of 10 in 1990—the entire history should be more embraced, warts and all. Because without the bad times, the hope for future sweetness is just a little less dim.
Or, as well-known Washington Nationals fan and “occasional blogger” Chris Needham put it in a recent Washington Post piece about Nats fans:
You gotta have the low lows to also have the high highs. I was at Game 4 last year when Jayson Werth hit the walk-off home run. I was screaming so incredibly loud; I literally—using the actual definition of literal—didn’t have a voice for the next three days. I don’t think I would have been screaming as loud if we hadn’t had a half-decade of failure before that.
A half-decade of failure almost seems cute to Wizards fans, while knowing the city went 33 years without pro baseball.
So celebrate the memory of the 1978 championship, really do. But understand that it’s not about one single moment, one mere season or one shiny trophy, it’s about all that came before and after—the entire 50 years.
Happy 50th Anniversary, Bullets/Wizards franchise.
It’s kind of odd to celebrate the 35th anniversary of a title, but it gives me a reason to tweet pics like this. twitter.com/Unsilent/statu…
— Jack Kogod (@Unsilent) April 5, 2013
1, 2 “The Bullets, the Wizards, and Washington, DC, Basketball,” by Brett L. Abrams and Raphael Mazzone (2012).
Other historical data gathered from Basketball-Reference.com.