The Best Day in Washington Pro Basketball History: June 7th, 1978—Game 7 Road Conquest
When the San Antonio Spurs came up just short against the Miami Heat, they became the sixth straight road team to lose a Game 7 in NBA Finals. Which squad last pulled off the monumental feat of winning a Game 7 on the road? Your 1978 Washington Bullets, which took out the SuperSonics in Seattle.
Michael Lee, the Washington Post’s excellent Wizards beat reporter and NBA writer, recently wrote about the final moments of the 105-99 championship-clinching victory:
In 1978’s final game, the SuperSonics had cut an 11-point lead down to four with less than two minutes remaining when Kupchak converted a huge three-point play to give the Bullets a 101-94 lead.
“The thing I remember most about that play was that Tommy Henderson dove on the floor and tipped the ball to me. But that to me was the big play. Tommy wasn’t known for diving on the floor,” Kupchak said with a laugh Wednesday during a telephone interview, “and he and I kidded about it in the past. It just shows you how much that game meant to everybody.”
Seattle again got within two points when Paul Silas intentionally fouled Unseld, a woeful free throw shooter, and sent him the foul line. Unseld made both free throws, then grabbed a rebound and tossed the ball ahead to Dandridge for the finishing touches.
“Seeing Bobby make that last dunk shot and all of a sudden, waiting for that clock to run out. It seemed like it would never run out and then all of a sudden it’s over,” Elvin Hayes, who fouled out with just 12 points, said when the champion Bullets held a reunion at Verizon Center in April. “Out of all those years everything was compressed in you and compressed down, all of a sudden could be let loose and go. There was nothing like it.”
The historic game was televised on tape delay; fans back in Washington could only follow the game live via radio. Bullets radio announcer, WTOP’s Frank Herzog, made the memorable call that still resonates today, which Herzog recounted for Comcast SportsNet in 2010 (via the D.C. Sports Bog). The call:
“So we are coming down to this, a cliffhanger. They give it to Denis Johnson, he will spin the left side, to the corner, long jumper, off the back of the rim. Unseld the long rebound, shovels to Dandridge … Warm up the Fat Lady, Warm up the Fat Lady, the Bullets are gonna win! Three seconds… two… one second… There it is, for the first time in 36 years, Washington D.C. has a major sports world champion!”
Looking over the box score of the Game 7 triumph, the player who stands out is Charles “Charlie” Johnson. The six-foot scoring guard was a mid-season pick up from Golden State who scored 210 points over 21 games in the Bullets’ improbable playoff run, filling in for Bullets great Phil Chenier due to injury. In Game 7, Charlie Johnson scored 19 points, tying a team-high, and helped decide the contest with smothering defense on Sonics star Dennis Johnson, who went 0-for-14 from the field.
In a random twist, Charlie was a college teammate of Chenier at Cal-Berkeley and had been a key contributor on Golden State’s 1975 Championship team that had swept Chenier’s Bullets—Johnson had locked up Bullets point guard Kevin Porter defensively during the series.
Sadly, Johnson passed away from cancer in 2007 at the age of 58. Chenier reflected on Johnson’s life in a 2007 article for the San Francisco Chronicle:
Chenier first met Johnson in a pickup game on the Cal campus while both were still in high school.
“I had heard all about him,” Chenier said, “but I was surprised he was so small (6 feet). We were teammates in this game at the rec center, and I was guarding Jackie Ridgle, and after about the second or third game when Jackie was scoring a lot, C.J. didn’t say anything but sort of pushed me off of Jackie and he and Jackie (who was 6-4) went at it. I could see how strong he was then.”
Chenier said C.J. was nicknamed “Mysterious” because he would just disappear for periods of time. That identity continued after he was taken in the sixth round by the Warriors in the 1971 NBA draft.
“We were having two-a-day workouts for rookies,” said Al Attles, then the Warriors coach. “He showed up for the practice in the morning, but never showed up for the one that night. The next time I knew anything about him was the next fall when he showed up, tried out and made the team.”
Elvin Hayes, who had a strong overall performance in the playoffs, pointed to Johnson’s acquisition as the turning point of 1977-78 season.
“We were playing on a Sunday afternoon when Charles Johnson came to the Bullets,” Hayes said. “He flew in that afternoon in a helicopter, and we won the game. That was the beginning of the coming together of the Washington Bullets. I knew then that we had a championship-caliber team. We had been struggling along, and all of a sudden, boom. It all came together.”
A helicopter? Dang, I don’t think Jason Collins showed up to Washington from Boston in that type of transportation.
June 7, 2013, was the 35th anniversary of the Game 7 classic between the Bullets and Sonics. Current team ownership honored the title team at an April game versus the Indiana Pacers by giving away replica championship ring key-chains to fans. John Wall showed out in a Wizards victory.
Dan Steinberg of D.C. Sports Bog highlighted archived newspaper clippings from the morning of June 8, 1978 in a recent post.
Back in their victorious locker room, the Bullets players were disappointed to find no champagne, only beer and soda, waiting for them. So they made do with the beer and soda until it was time to head back to the hotel, whereupon a group of players demanded the bus stop at a liquor store. Out of the bus and into the store went Grevey and a half-dozen teammates, armed with Abe Pollin’s credit card.
“The guy at the liquor store is looking at us like we’re crazy,” Grevey recalled. “He says, ‘Are you guys that basketball team?’ I said, ‘Yes, we are – and we want all your champagne.’”
The team was welcomed back to Dulles International Airport by 10,000 fans. The iconic picture of a jovial Abe Pollin holding up the championship trophy with a man dressed as Fat Lady was photographed there.
Nothing unites a community like a major sports championship. In a city full of transplants and transients, the next team in D.C. to win it all might receive a boon of goodwill and produce a generation of loyal followers. A city-wide party is the pinnacle of sports fandom (and what keeps my personal commitment through these current bad times). I want a Wizards title parade, bad.
On June 9, 1978, the Bullets victory parade went from the Capital Centre to the District Building. There was a pit-stop at RFK and the team got an honorary key to the city. I loved these classic photos of the District of Columbia full of “Bullets Fever” found online. Enjoy.